Years ago, I wrote a short story called "The Institute for Lenny Bruce Studies." The idea was that a wealthy Jewish donor created a think-tank on a sleepy New England campus, dedicated to jump-starting the "secular Jewish prophethood" that inspired him as a young radical. Institute Fellows would come from the fields of academics, politics, religion and stand-up comedy, and the two-year curriculum would include the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the songs of Bob Dylan and, of course, the routines of Lenny Bruce.
At almost the same moment last week that Uri Grossman, the 20-year-old son of Israeli novelist David Grossman, was reported killed in battle, I got news that an Israeli friend who had been called up to serve as a medic in the north of Israel had taken a David Grossman book with him.
When my friend came to California a few days ago for vacation, I asked him why he grabbed that particular book. He responded: “It was right there on my shelf. Anyway, I didn’t have time to get to the library.”
In the epigraph to his Pulitzer-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Michael Chabon quotes Will Eisner, the innovator of the serious graphic novel, regarding the history of the Jews: “We have this history of impossible solutions for insoluble problems.” In that novel, about young men escaping the poverty of Brooklyn and the ruins of the Holocaust, the “insoluble problem” was the powerlessness of the diaspora experience, and the “impossible solution” a retreat into art, the precarious redemption of unexpected love, and
During the 1990s, the German writer W.G. Sebald published an extraordinary series of novels that redefined the way in which the Jews of Europe were imagined by non-Jews. In books like “The Emigrants” and “Austerlitz,” Sebald, who died five years ago in a car accident in his adopted country of England, created a narrator who traveled around the world recording the lives of Jews who were in permanent exile from their prewar lives.
Two pronouncements about literature, made some 30 years ago, have had an enormous influence on my view of how American Jewish literature is evolving. The first is by Irving Howe, who famously said that without the dynamic of immigration and assimilation, of Jews struggling to tell the story of their transformation into Americans, Jewish literature in this country would quickly lose its energy, even its raison d’être.
I’ve been fascinated with the origin, influence and texture of Jewish humor for as long as I can remember, but have resisted writing my thoughts on the matter given that, 1) no one knows exactly how humor works, Jewish or otherwise, and 2) such a column would inevitably be unfunny.
“...with the advent of the Internet and genomic technology, genealogy has entered a new age. The past year has served up a series of high-profile revelations. The news that Barack Obama’s ancestors owned slaves was a bit more surprising than the news that Strom Thurmond’s did. ... And Henry Louis Gates Jr. ... was astounded to learn that half of his own ancestry was European, including Irish kinsmen on his father’s side and two Jewish women on his mother’s.” —Steven Pinker, The New Republic, Aug. 6
At the Koret Jewish Book Awards last week in San Francisco, Stanford Professor and Koret Awards chair Steven Zipperstein asked for a minute of silence to remember Saul Bellow, who had just died. Zipperstein rightly praised Bellow for his unique contribution to Jewish and American letters, and we must give Bellow his due for helping create a new American language mixing high and low, combining the immigrant’s energy with the scholar’s subtlety.