If the average American reader in 1970 (and surely there were many more then) were asked which authors’ books they look forward to reading, the names would certainly include Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Singer, Ozick, Heller, Potok, Mailer, Paley, Salinger, Asimov, Uris, Wouk, Levin, Grade, Gladshteyn … I’m sure you know where this is going.
Jewish prosperity is, as always, a harbinger of a world in transition. The rising nations welcome us as the yeast that leavens their prosperity; the declining nations decry us as parasites that accelerate their decline. I’m sure lots of our doom-mongers thought Jewish success in American books was another death knell for the Jewish people. I doubt too many people suspected that it was a death knell for books.
Perhaps books will rise again some time in the future and replace TV and movies as the way we observe how we live our lives. But for the moment, how many people reading this column spend more time with books than they do watching TV shows?
Jewish fiction seems to be the last gasp of the existential importance of books in America. It was an explosion of 2,000 years of literary energy from a tradition that usually only told tales to illustrate a didactic point. We are the people of the book, but the urge to write fiction didn’t really occur to us until the 20th century. There were just as many great Jewish names among writers in the Soviet Union and Israel as over here, and in the early part of the century just as many great literary names in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
And of all those many, many great names, only two names remain undimmed in our time, Kafka and Philip Roth. When Roth dies, will his name outlive him any better than Bellow’s or Malamud’s? Yes, there are a few big names today, but compared with the attention their forerunners received, they’re all minor leaguers.
If you want to be a proud Jew, you have to keep these writers alive. Of all the great collective achievements of Jews in the 20th century, this literary body of work is second only to Israel’s founding. These books were a declaration that we can remain Jews that look at the world through modern lenses while still remaining Jews. And it is perpetually in danger of dying out.
This is why I’m starting a group that meets at Beth Am Synagogue every Sunday night after the holidays to talk about the great Jewish fiction. Come or don’t come; their survival is certainly not contingent on anything I do. But in Hashem’s name, these are your books! Read them! If we let them be forgotten, we will be forgotten.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.