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Arts & Culture Angst over Identity Has Young Writers

Aaron Davidman, artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, recently wrote a short performance piece called “Letter to Uncle Morris.” In this reflection on contemporary Jewish identity, the character named Uncle Morris pokes fun at the title of Davidman’s company.

“What kind of a name for a theater is that?” Uncle Morris asks. “We’re not traveling anymore. We’re not wandering. We have a homeland now.”

For young American Jewish writers today, it doesn’t seem quite that simple. For Davidman, a history of Jewish wandering forces us to see homelessness as something more metaphysical.

“It’s quite a Jewish irony that although we have a homeland, we are still consumed with questions of identity,” he explained.

Indeed, a look at some of the more accomplished and popular fiction by young Jewish writers today reveals an anxious churning of identity, much of it focused on recapturing something intangible that was lost in the fires of the Holocaust.

Many of these writers, including Dara Horn, whose novel “The World to Come” has just won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction, grew up in New York, a virtual Jewish homeland. Yet “The World to Come,” along with Horn’s first novel, “In the Image,” and recent books by Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Aaron Hamburger and others, send their protagonists back to Europe in search of some wisdom or sense of purpose that a secure, often Jewishly grounded upbringing in the United States has failed to provide.

Horn and the other winners of the 2006 National Jewish Book Awards will be honored March 6 at a gala ceremony at the Center for Jewish History in New York.

In “The World to Come,” the main character, Benjamin Ziskind, a quiz-show writer who lives in present-day New York, is obsessed with a painting by Marc Chagall that connects him to the lost world of his European family. In a stunning example of the conflation of present and past, of Europe and America, and of history and personal identity, Ziskind quizzes himself in the manner of his TV show:

Two of his questions: “What acclaimed Russian writer, author of ‘Odessa Tales’ and `Red Cavalry,’ was executed in 1940 under false charges of treason? During which of the following incidents in the past year did Nina lie when she claimed that she loved me?”

A lost European Jewish writer; a failed romance: The two things are profoundly, if mysteriously, connected.

And in Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” the author creates a protagonist named Jonathan Safran Foer who is desperately searching Ukraine for information about a key event in the life of his grandfather. The dislocations of the title character, and the brilliant language of its supporting cast, connect this young American Jew’s malaise with the fate of his ancestor.

The fact that the main character shares a name with the author doesn’t necessarily make “Everything is Illuminated” autobiographical. Yet the conflation of names comes to symbolize the deep personal investment our best writers in their 20s and 30s have made in trying to understand what exactly was left “over there.” And what exactly has been lost.

These writers are not the first to reverse the normal flow of modern Jewish history from Europe to Israel or the New World, nor to demonstrate serious anxiety about the meaning of Jewish life unmoored from the European context that provided its modern texture.

Philip Roth explored this issue in his 1985 story “The Prague Orgy,” in which a Roth-like character travels to Prague in search of a lost Jewish manuscript, and his 1993 novel “Operation Shylock,” in which a character named Philip Roth advises Israelis to engage in “Diasporism,” and return “home” to Poland.

Cynthia Ozick also tackled the issue in her 1987 novella “The Messiah of Stockholm,” in which she displaces the anxiety about the future of American Jewish culture, lacking as it does European gravitas, to the neutral ground of Scandinavia.

For Roth and Ozick, arguably the most respected American Jewish writers still at work, this “anxiety of authenticity” is a minor theme. But for a new generation of writers it seems to be a major one in which a calm, prosperous America, brimming with freedom and religious opportunities, lacks the texture and interest of prewar Europe.

Put another way, some essential element of Jewish life has vanished altogether in the smokestacks of Poland, in the process creating an army of 6 million ghosts haunting the imagination of writers who may be two generations removed from the event.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner opens the curtain with an Eastern European rabbi eulogizing a congregant who had immigrated to the Bronx. Speaking to the audience both within the play and in the theater, the rabbi explains: “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist.”

Perhaps they still do, even if the voyage is back to Europe, even if it’s only on the page.

(For more information on the National Jewish Book Award winners, visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Daniel Schifrin is the former director of literary programs for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.)

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