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EDUCATION

Good Time to Sample an Eclectic List of Jewish-American Literature

December 05, 1991|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches high school English and journalism. Her column appears occasionally

The multicultural approach to literature, through which students read works about the experiences of America's ethnic groups, is gaining popularity.

Textbooks that relied primarily on the works of Anglo-Saxon Protestant males are being replaced by books that include a healthy number of pieces by African-American, Latino and Asian writers.

But one rich and longstanding segment of American literature is still underrepresented: Jewish-American writers.

With the recent celebration of Hanukkah, it's a good time to take a look at an eclectic list of outstanding Jewish-American literature.

The works of Romanian-born Elie Wiesel are a good place to start. Wiesel's "Soul on Fire" explores the life of the Baal Shem Tov, the reputed founder of Hasidism, and his followers.

These 12 short narrations describe the visions and careers of the 18th-Century Eastern European rabbis who traveled widely, helping people solve problems and introducing a lighter, more emotional approach to Judaism.

In paperback for $9.95, "Souls on Fire" is easy and intriguing reading.

"Night," also by Wiesel, is a short but gripping account of the night when many of the Jews in Wiesel's native town were rounded up by the Nazis, put on trains and sent to concentration camps.

"Night" would be an excellent alternative or supplement to "The Diary of Anne Frank," which is often the only work of Holocaust-related literature that students read in school. It costs $3.95 in paperback.

For some realistic and memorable glimpses of the Jewish immigrant experience, try the short stories of Anzia Yezierska.

"Hungry Hearts and Other Stories" was her first published collection. She describes the lives of the immigrant Jews on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the century. The title story was later made into a film by Sam Goldwyn. The collection costs $9.95 in paperback.

"America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers" gives a broad range of the Jewish-American experience. Contributors of the 23 short stories include Edna Ferber, Susan Fromber Schaeffer and Grace Paley.

Published last year, "America and I" contains much of the best of Jewish women's short fiction from the 1920s through 1980s. It costs $12.95 in hardcover.

Herman Wouk's "This Is My God" may be one of the best primers on Judaism.

The book is fairly easy reading, with sections on such subjects as "Who are We?", "What Symbols Means to Jews" and "How Israel Happened." Other chapters deal with bar mitzvahs, the high holidays and Jewish law. Updated in 1987, "This Is My God" costs $16 in hardcover.

For a comprehensive lesson in Jewish history, try Max Dimont's "Jews, God and History."

Claiming to cover "everything they never taught you in Hebrew school," this book begins with Abraham about 2000 BC and ends with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948.

Especially interesting are Dimont's psychological analyses of the motives and actions of some of Jewish history's main characters. "Jews, God and History" costs $5 in paperback.

For those who wonder what Hanukkah (or Chanukah, as the Hebrew term is sometimes spelled) is all about, there are some entertaining answers--and many stories and songs--in "Eight Tales for Eight Nights: Stories about Chanukah," by Penninah Schram and Steven Rosman.

Finally, my list would be incomplete without mention of the contributions of Jews to America's collective sense of humor.

The definitive work on this subject is undoubtedly "The Big Book of Jewish Humor," by Moshe Waldoks.

This paperback is about the size of a big-city phone book and contains a rich variety of jokes and stories typical of American and Eastern European Jewish Humor.

"The Big Book" sells for $19.95.

All of these titles may be ordered through most area booksellers.

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