Writing From The Edge


Several years ago, when Philip Roth’s novel "Portnoy’s Complaint" turned 25, I spent a few days in the New York Public Library researching the Jewish community’s reaction to the book. I discovered that the response to it (as well as to the stories in "Goodbye, Columbus," which appeared a few years earlier) was a combination of rage and puzzlement. The level of shock and hurt expressed by community leaders was less surprising to me, though, than the unanimity of response. It was clear, when confronted with a literary Lenny Bruce taking aim at the heart of American Jewish life, that there was basically a single Jewish community circling the wagons.

I thought of the connection between writers and community again recently as I was reading Paul Zakrzewski’s anthology "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge," about to be published by Perennial/HarperCollins. This important collection of short stories and novel excerpts from young writers like Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Safran Foer and Gary Shtyengart takes as its premise that Jewish writers today are "post-Roth": that is, writing in the grooves that Roth laid out a generation ago.

In "Portnoy’s Complaint," Zakrzewski writes in the introduction, Roth "captured the contradictions of Jewish identity with a ferocity and abandon heretofore unseen." His literary children collected in this volume (like Ellen Miller with her dark satire on persecution imagery in "In Memory of Chanveasna Chan, Who Is Still Alive," or Nelly Reifler with her sexual coming-of-age story "Julian") continue with a fearless investigation of Jewish community, identity and history.

I believe these writers are not just "post-Roth," however, but "post-community." Their inability to create the same shock waves that Roth did is a reflection not of their literary skill, but of the fractured nature of the Jewish community today. Even if a new Roth were among us, he or she would be unable to convulse the community in the same way the old Roth did, for the simple reason that there is no longer a unified community to be convulsed.

One way of showing how much the center has disappeared in Jewish life is to explore the difference in communal responses to two of Philip Roth’s books, separated by 33 years. In 1960, after his story collection "Goodbye, Columbus" won the National Book Award, Roth was invited to Yeshiva University to discuss his views on Judaism. This appearance, alas, did not go well, and the audience’s critique of his work (especially the story "Defender of the Faith," with its manipulative Jewish soldier) echoed the denunciations thundering from pulpits across the land.

Compare this with the tepid reaction to his 1993 novel "Operation Shylock," a book whose protagonist, named "Philip Roth," suggests that Jews take up "Diasporism" instead of Zionism and move back to Europe. Many Jews were upset by this, but there were few hysterical editorials in Jewish newspapers, and no public invitations for Roth to explain himself to the Jewish community at large.

Roth’s early work emerged at the post-war moment when anti-Semitism (while still real and pressing) was quickly giving way to unprecedented prosperity, and political and cultural achievement. Because of this success, the community felt comfortable enough to splinter along religious, political and social lines.

One sees in "Lost Tribe" some of the Jewish communities, or varieties of Jewish experience, that are now mostly discrete: the ultra-Orthodox of Brooklyn in Nathan Englander’s "The Last One Way"; the long-assimilated suburbanites in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s "Who Knows Kaddish"; the immigrant hipster in Gary Shteyngart’s "Several Anecdotes about My Wife."

Because of the difficulty in defining a coherent contemporary Jewish community, I’m not sure that any writer could focus issues the way Roth did. Jews today have such vast differences in religious observance, historical knowledge and social and political perspectives that I think it would be virtually impossible to develop a consensus for what constitutes a "Jewish book," much less identify a book that would engage each segment of the Jewish population.

The subtitle of "Lost Tribe" ("Jewish Fiction from the Edge") suggests both a sharpness of vision for our young writers, and a substantial distance from a Jewish center. But if the center itself is a fiction (if there is no Jewish community, only Jewish communities) then all of us, not just the writers, are living on the Jewish edge.