Explaining Themselves: Ambivalent Representations of Jewishness in Post-War British-and American-Jewish Fiction

  • David Brauner


It seems sensible to begin a book about self-explanation with an explanation of itself, so this introduction will be divided into seven sections, each of which will discuss one of the key terms of the book.


Jewish Community Jewish Population Jewish Identity Jewish Life American Literature 
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  1. 3.
    He goes so far as to attribute Pound’s and Eliot’s anti-Semitism to, respectively, a ‘horror of becoming semitically indistinct’, and a ‘repressed identification with “the Jew”’ (Cheyette 1993: 272, 271).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Jacqueline Rose’s book, Judaism and Modernity (1993), published in the same year as Constructions of the Jew in English Literature and Society, makes the case for this association in philosophical terms.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    One of Doctorow’s short stories appears in The Schocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction (1996), but he is rarely mentioned in articles or books on American-Jewish fiction, even though two of his novels — The Book of Daniel (1971) and World’s Fair (1985) — feature Jewish protagonists. Apart from Stephen Wade’s recent book Jewish American Literature Since 1945 (1999), which has a brief section on Auster, no other work on Jewish literature that I know of so much as mentions him. Yet, although none of his fiction deals explicitly with Jewish themes, he has (unlike Mailer, say) explored his own and others’ Jewishness elsewhere: in his memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982); in conversation with the French-Jewish writer Edmond Jabés, and in essays on Kafka and Charles Reznikoff (collected in The Art of Hunger [1988]).Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    For detailed accounts of the anti-Semitism of British government officials, and of the reluctance of British-Jewish organizations to lobby openly for a more liberal immigration policy, or for military intervention on behalf of European Jewry, see Bernard Wasserstein’s Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939–1945 (1998) and Kushner 1990. For similar arguments about the culpability of the American government and American-Jewish community, see David S. Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust (1986) and Haskel Lookstein’s Were We Our Brother’s Keepers: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust 1938–1944 (1988).Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    George Ziad, in Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock (1983), gives an extreme, but ingenious, interpretation of this guilt: “The destruction of European Jewry registered as a cataclysmic shock on American Jews not only because of its sheer horror but also because this horror, viewed irrationally through the prism of their grief, seemed to them in some indefinable way ignited by them — yes, instigated by the wish to put an end to Jewish life in Europe that their massive emigration had embodied, as though between the bestial destructiveness of Hitlerian anti-Semitism and their own passionate desire to be delivered from the humiliations of their European imprisonment there had existed some horrible, unthinkable inter-relationship, bordering on complicity. (Roth 1993: 130–1) Ziad’s diagnosis echoes sentiments (and the imagery of conflagration) articulated some years earlier by Alfred Kazin, who writes of his guilty conviction that ‘The Jews burned every day in Europe were being consumed in a fire that I had helped to light’ (Kazin 1978: 96).Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    All three won the National Book Award (Roth for Goodbye, Columbus, Bellow for The Adventures of Augie March [1953] and Herzog [1964], and Malamud for The Magic Barrel [1958] and The Fixer [1966], this last also winning the Pulitzer Prize), as well as producing bestsellers (Roth with Portnoy’s Complaint [1969], Bellow with Herzog, and Malamud with The Fixer). Bellow also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Although a number of British-Jewish literary critics (notably A. Alvarez, David Daiches, John Gross, Gabriel Josipovici, Dan Jacobson and George Steiner) began to build reputations for themselves in the 1960s, and although Josipovici, Jacobson and Steiner all wrote fiction as well as literary criticism, they had little or no connection with each other and little interest in the state of British-Jewish fiction (though Daiches did publish an essay on the subject in the Jewish Quarterly, reprinted in Jewish Perspectives: 25 Years of Modem Jewish Writing [1980]).Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    For an overview of these writers’ work see Sicher 1985: 3–14 and Cheyette 1998: xiv—xxvi. For more detailed discussion of some of these writers, see Linda Zatlin’s The Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Jewish Novel (1981), Michael Galchinsky’s The Origin of the Modem Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England (1996), and Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 27 (1), 1999 (a special edition devoted to Anglo-Jewish writers in Victorian England).Google Scholar
  9. 30.
    Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were an American-Jewish couple who were convicted of passing details of America’s atomic weapons programme to the Russians. They were sentenced to death in 1951 and finally executed by electric chair in 1953. Their story is told in fictionalized form in both E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977). Jonathan Pollard was an American Jewish intelligence analyst who was convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel and is currently serving a life sentence.Google Scholar
  10. 31.
    The contrast with Alex Haley’s Roots (1977), which the title of Jacobson’s work parodies, is pointed: whereas Haley’s protagonist famously finds his way back to a black homeland (that is to say his journey has a final destination), Jacobson can only journey amongst Jews. Israel does not function in the same way for Jewish writers as Africa has for many black writers (except ironically, as in Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Portnoy’s flight to Israel only exacerbates his identity crisis).Google Scholar
  11. 36.
    In addition to the books I discuss in Chapter 4, examples of the genre include: Meyer Levin’s In Search (1950), Alfred Kazin’s trilogy Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978); Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (1976) and A Margin of Hope (1982), Norman Podhoretz’s Making It (1968), Herbert Gold’s My Last Two Thousand Years (1973), Gershom Scholem’s From Berlin to Jerusalem (1980), Kim Chernin’s In My Mother’s House (1983), Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments (1987), Alan Dershowitz’s Chutzpah (1991), George Steiner’s Errata (1997), Dan Jacobson’s Heschel’s Kingdom (1998), Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish (1999) and Rachel Lichtenstein’s half of Rodintsky’s Room (1999).Google Scholar
  12. 37.
    Those who deny it, like the protagonist of Malamud’s ‘The Lady of the Lake’ (1958), who loses the glamorous Isabella del Dongo because he fails to realize that her anxiety over his origins betrays her own — as a survivor of a concentration camp — are punished or portrayed as soulless opportunists, whose arid existence is its own punishment (cf Hortense Calisher’s ‘Old Stock’ [1950], Philip Roth’s ‘Eli, the Fanatic’ [1959], and Leslie Fiedler’s ‘The Last Jew in America’ [1966]).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Brauner 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Brauner
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ReadingUK

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