Josh Lambert is the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, and Director of the Jewish Studies Program, at Wellesley College. The books he has written and edited include American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, and How Yiddish Changed America and How American Changed Yiddish. He is a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Each year, Josh tries to read every published work that may be considered Jewish fiction. He recently wrote a fascinating column in Jewish Currents in honor of the Jewish literary awards season. https://jewishcurrents.org/who-speaks-in-the-jewish-novel/. As a new year begins, we wanted to find out more, so we asked him to share his thoughts on the past, present and future of Jewish fiction.
SRP: Your essay in Jewish Currents focuses on whose stories Jewish authors are currently telling. Whose stories do you wish more Jewish authors chose to focus on?
JL: As a critic, I'm happy not to have to predict (or request) what novelists will write about. I wouldn't trust me to come up with an idea for a novel! Good fiction can't be written to order, either. That said, I will be very happy to see more fiction by and about BIPOC and trans Jews; there are a handful of worthwhile examples I can think of, but there's certainly a pressing need for many more such stories.
SRP: You mention that in the past Jewish authors tended to tell historical stories of times and places in which being Jewish and how one handled it was a matter of life and death. Why do you think this trend is becoming less common?
JL: I'm not sure that this is becoming less common, in general; I focused on the books I did, in the Jewish Currents piece, because I was glad to see a few strong works that bucked the dominant inclination toward historical fiction. I think that the reason historical novels have been prominent among the winners and finalists of Jewish literary prizes lately is that it's easier for judges to agree that Jewishness is central to a story about, say, the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust, and often harder for them to do so when a novel is about, say, a contemporary family and its dysfunctions. In other words, for many judges of Jewish literary prizes (for better or worse), it doesn't really matter whether or not the characters are Jewish--what matters is whether the central conflict of the novel is Jewish.
SRP: Is it possible for a Jewish author to write a story from a Jewish perspective that focuses on a whole other community?
JL: It depends on what you mean by "from a Jewish perspective," I guess, but it seems to me that the answer to this question must be an emphatic Yes. Jennifer Acker's The Limits of the World, which I mentioned in the Jewish Currents piece, is a good example: it's mostly about Gujarati people, in Kenya and America, but I think it's reasonable (if not inevitable) to claim Acker writes "from a Jewish perspective." I could name countless other contemporary and 20th-century novels by writers who identify as Jewish that are about non-Jewish people and communities, but the question of "Jewish perspective" would, in each case, be a matter up for debate.
Meanwhile, though, would anyone deny that a story written in Yiddish or Hebrew about any people almost certainly has some kind of "Jewish perspective"? I'm thinking of a recent article by Arun Viswanath, whose translation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone into Yiddish has been very popular, about the ways he translated that story--which I think most people would agree is not "Jewish literature" in English--into a Jewish language, and how he drew on Jewish culture to do so (the different accents of Litvaks and Galitzianers, and so on). But I'm also thinking of stories that no one would deny are Jewish--the famous stories of Nachman of Bratslav--in some of which, none of the characters are Jewish.
SRP: It seems the times we are in could make the choice to write about contemporary Jewish life in the US and elsewhere less parochial than before. What do you imagine those novels could look like?
JL: I agree with you, but, again, it's difficult for me to envision the novels of the future (even though, as part of the writing residency I lead, I sometimes get to see bits and pieces of projects that come to fruition a few years later). But, yes, it seems to me that the fierce polarization of life in America right now is very deeply affecting American Jews, creating divisions in families and communities, and that should give novelists a lot to work with. Then, too, there are the horrors of contemporary anti-Semitism, and the complicity of many American Jews in the strengthening of white nationalism, and the deeply disturbing stories of individual Jewish criminals which have, in the past few years, become international stories (in some cases, with extraordinarily broad consequences, like the #metoo movement). It's very bewildering, and my hope is that fiction writers will find ways we can't even imagine to help us understand the times we live in.