Must Jewish literature written by a Jew? How about a book that focuses on a Jewish concern, or characters with a recognizably Jewish neurosis? Is contemporary Hebrew-language literature necessarily Jewish?
Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, moderated a panel focused on these questions, “Making it New: Contemporary Novelists and the Jewish Literary Tradition,” with writers Tova Mirvis, whose new novel “Visible City” is published this week, and Jonathan Rosen, author of “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature,” at the Museum at Eldridge Street with a small but rapt audience on a blustery Sunday afternoon. The program was co-sponsored by the Yiddish Book Center.
As Israeli writer and philosopher Assaf Segive, writes, Jews were the first to introduce narrative prose as a literary form. Rosen and Mirvis agree that classical Jewish texts have lent themes and style to much subsequent writing. But where do we draw the line? Rosen recalls reading the Odyssey as a child: “When Odysseus sees, but cannot embrace, his departed mother in the Underworld, to me this was a Jewish story of my father meeting the mother whom he lost in the Holocaust.”
Jews tend to look at the world with a certain sensibility, even when not consciously confronting Jewish themes. Writing about bird watching, Rosen was observing creatures “who live in one place, then migrate to another,” a pattern associated with Jewish life. Mirvis speaks of creating characters with lifestyles that “were so obviously Jewish” that she did not need to identify them as such.
Rosen concludes by describing these as “extraordinary times.” Centuries ago, he points out, Jews were “inscribed as characters in other people’s sacred literature where we were depicted as figures of obstruction or evil.” A Jewish state, Rosen believes, is an assertion that our testament isn’t “old” and so is a thriving Diaspora where “we are writing ourselves back into our own stories.”
Contemporary Jewish writers have a keen sense of "being alive now,” an opportunity for literature that is seasoned, nuanced and bold.
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the memoir, “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return,” to be published this May.
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