Michael P. Kramer is Professor Emeritus in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University and an adviser to the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature. His latest book is an annotated translation of S.Y. Agnon’s And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (Toby Press).
Michael P. Kramer
The English Writer &
the Jewish Literary Tradition
May 1949. In the throes of a controversy following the release of David Lean’s film adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the horror of the Holocaust hovering, an essay appears in Commentary by the young literary critic Leslie Fiedler called, “What Can We Do About Fagin?” The issue that concerns Fiedler is larger than the film alone—it’s mentioned only in the editor’s note—but the antisemitism he sees endemic to English literature, in the long line of villainous Jews from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens to T.S. Eliot. The “we” in Fiedler’s title is the cohort of Jewish American writers and intellectuals—Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and others—children of East European immigrants who, emerging from their urban ghettos, are just then beginning to make their mark on American letters. Educated in the cities’ public schools, they’d imagined themselves heirs of the Enlightenment dream of a secular public sphere where Christians and Jews could participate as equals. They read and write in English. They embraced the Western literary tradition as their own. It had formed their sensibilities more than the Jewish texts of their childhood. While they may have chosen to shrug at the Shylocks and Fagins, to blink at Eliot’s Jew squatting on the windowsill, Hitler has disabused them of their blithe unconcern. As Jews, they can no longer ignore English literary antisemitism, even as they will not renounce the tradition itself. They cannot, will not return to any ghetto, intellectual or political, not to the Judaism of their forebears, not to the fledgeling, embattled State of Israel. So claims Fiedler. Later that year, Commentary publishes a two-part symposium, with the responses of twenty members of the cohort to the concerns raised by Fiedler. It is called, “The Jewish Writer and the English Literary Tradition.”
I began to write this in Jerusalem, between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, 2021. Israel is still embattled, but hardly a ghetto. Jewish culture here is ebullient and frothy, heterogenous, cantankerous, alive to the present and to the past. Looking back at Fiedler’s essay from the vantage point of decades and continents, I can’t help but feel the tangle of ethnic embarrassment and ethnic defiance that animated the mid-century cohort, running headlong into the American public square, shedding the perceived parochialism of the world of their fathers and mothers as they remained nevertheless tethered to it. In their struggle with the English literary tradition they produced great writing, a new kind of Jewish literature, English laced with chutzpah, models to the generations that followed. Lost in the fray, however, shunted to the side of the road to American success, was an intimate connection to the Jewish literary tradition that informed Jewish life and inspired and challenged Jewish writers for millennia. It’s ironic, I suppose, yet somehow altogether fitting and proper, that here in Israel, in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, I teach a course that aims to spread before aspiring English language writers the many textures and hues of the Jewish textual tradition. We think about how a literary tradition is constructed, from the Bible, to the Talmud and Midrash, to the medieval poets and exegetes, to the avatars of modernity, to contemporary poets and lyricists who have found new meanings in ancient songs and stories. We consider how stories are retold and revitalized, are elaborated in ways that open paths for new ideas and new voices, including their own. The course is officially called, The William Solomon Jewish Arts Seminar, with gratitude to a generous donor. But I like to call it, with a wink and a nod to Fiedler and his mid-century cohort, “The English Writer and the Jewish Literary Tradition.”