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The Tongue Set Free

JEWISH AMERICAN LITERATURE A Norton Anthology; Edited by Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum and Kathryn Hellerstein; W.W. Norton: 1,222 pp., $39.95

February 18, 2001|NESSA RAPOPORT | Nessa Rapoport is the editor, with Ted Solotaroff, of "The Schocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction." She is the author of a novel, "Preparing for Sabbath," and is writing a memoir of family and place, "House on the River."

This is an interesting time in which to contemplate the place of Jewish culture in American life. Jews represent about 2% of the American population, and yet a secretary of state's discovery of her Jewish birth and a vice presidential candidate's Jewish observance have made the history and religious vocabulary of the Jews instant global news. Today, Jews are almost bewildered by the extent to which they have been accepted--indeed, embraced--by this country.

For Jewish writers, however, and for their critics, America has been not only promised land but exile. There are those who believe that the greatest American Jewish writing is in the past: When Jews are no longer marginalized outsiders--immigrants or children of immigrants--they become American writers with nothing distinctly Jewish to say.

Others are convinced that America's hospitality has paradoxically severed Jews from authentic engagement with their own literary sources. They speculate that only when writers are in fluid discourse with Jewish texts in their original languages--Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) or Judeo-Arabic--can they contribute imaginatively as Jews to American letters.

And then there are those who posit that America is an imaginative construct invented, at least in part, by Jews.

What is Jewish writing? The editors of "Jewish American Literature" decline to answer narrowly that perennially perplexing question. Instead, they choose to "expand the question of identity to encompass . . . fiction, poetry, drama, memoir and autobiography, commentary, letters, speeches, monologues, song lyrics, humor, translations and visual narratives created by authors who admit, address, embrace and contest their Jewish identity, whether religious, historical, ethnic, psychological, political, cultural, textual or linguistic."

Such capaciousness heralds an exuberance of voices. In the 350 years spanned by this volume, we hear from Emma Lazarus, an aristocrat born in 1849 whose Sephardic ancestors arrived in New Netherland before the American Revolution. Like an Edith Wharton heroine, she wintered in New York City and spent her summers in Newport, R.I. Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," was inscribed in 1903 on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming immigrants to 20th-century America.

Here is Horace Kallen, who invented the term "cultural pluralism," disputing as early as 1915 the ideal of the "melting pot" by arguing that democracy requires ethnicity. And here is Gabriel Preil, an exile by choice as a Hebrew poet in America ("I am not in New York").

The editors' generosity to their subject makes it possible to include gender, genres and languages (in translation) that have been ill-represented in collections with a more mandarin definition of Jewish writing. This is an anthology in which women's voices are not a novelty or condiment. Because the book is organized largely by chronology of the authors' birth years, the contribution of women seems refreshingly natural and entirely justified. Similarly, Jewish writers who wrote in Yiddish, such as A. Leyeles (Aaron Glanz), live in arresting comparison with those who wrote in English, such as Gertrude Stein.

Although each selection has its rewards, the editors' celebration of Jewish expression results in an equivocal answer to the question of art. Some of the work they have included is magisterial or electric with linguistic vitality. Other choices--such as excerpts from "A Bintl Briv," letters to the editor of the Yiddish daily Forverts by immigrants seeking help in a new world--are important historically, and yet they lack the imaginative resonance that would compel a reader to return, to read them again for the passion or punch of particular words uniquely arranged.

Of the writing that is memorable, Tess Slesinger's "Missis Flanders," her 1932 portrait of a couple after the woman's abortion, commands immediate authority.

" 'Home you go!' Miss Kane, nodding, in her white nurse's dress, stood for a moment--she would catch a breath of air--in the hospital door; 'and thank you again for the stockings, you needn't have bothered'--drew a sharp breath and turning, dismissed Missis Flinders from the hospital, smiling, dismissed her forever from her mind."

Then there is the startling originality of "White Chalah," named for the braided bread baked for the Sabbath. Lamed Shapiro's 1915 story in Yiddish, translated by Norbert Guterman, depicts a Russian pogrom from a mute Gentile perpetrator's point of view:

"A white figure stepped between. Rage made Vasil dizzy and scalded his throat. He tugged at the white figure with one hand. A long strip tore from the dress and hung at the hem. His eyes were dazzled, almost blinded. Half a breast, a beautiful shoulder, a full, rounded hip--everything dazzling white and soft, like white chalah. Damn it--these Jews are made of white chalah! A searing flame leaped through his body, his arm flew up like a spring and shot into the gaping dress. . . .

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