Tablet Magazine asks this week, “What is Jewish fiction? What makes a Jewish writer?”
This isn’t a new question. A year or so ago, there was this outstanding post on Jeremy Rosen’s blog, considering the same questions, and there are other essays on the subject published elsewhere.
Recently, the online magazine, Tablet, began to publish short fiction. The second story it selected, by young author Justin Taylor, begged the question. The characters weren’t Jewish, but more importantly, there were no allusions to Jewish literature, issues, history or culture in the story. Rabbi Rosen’s argument would disqualify Taylor’s story as an example of Jewish writing by that token. On the other hand, the editors at Tablet certainly felt that since Taylor is Jewish, his story is Jewish.
So I ask: Is Jewish writing by a Jewish author, or must it contain Jewish content?
I’d LOVE input about this issue. Please state your ideas below. If you want to read Taylor’s story, I want to caution you, it contains coarse language.
10 thoughts on “What is Jewish writing? Defining Jewish Writing, Part 1”
This is such a fascinating topic. In fact, a few years ago, I read a piece by Sarah Shapiro in her introduction to one of her recent books (“All of Our Lives” I believe), where she asked that question. She had all sorts of hypothetical responses to what “Jewish writing” means. Well really, Jewish writing is different for each person. For one, it means the story has Jewish characters. For another it may mean the writing has Jewish themes. And for yet another it may mean the writing has Jewish ethics or morals. I’m sure there are many other criteria people ascribe to Jewish writing. For me, Jewish writing is any writing that elicits in a Jewish reader a feeling of identification with being Jewish. For the non-Jewish reader, Jewish writing (in my opinion) is writing that offers more information or insight about Judaism to the reader.
Your statement “For me, Jewish writing is any writing that elicits in a Jewish reader a feeling of identification with being Jewish. For the non-Jewish reader, Jewish writing (in my opinion) is writing that offers more information or insight about Judaism to the reader,” is really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way, the effect on the audience, that is.
The story in Tablet, BTW, would still flunk the test. At least for me.
Yup – this question was meant to be open-ended. My criteria may cause many writing samples to flunk. But then again, my writing may flunk the criteria of someone else!! That’s what makes the question so interesting. Btw, Sarah Shapiro, in her article, included a multiple choice set of “answers” to the question. And her “e” answer was something along the lines of “What’s the difference? Who cares? Why are we wasting our time with what gets the label of Jewish writing?” She has a point.
Interesting question, Rebecca. While it’s interesting to think about and discuss – as it can give insight into ourselves and our conceptions and values, I think I agree with what Omilaca says about Sarah Shapiro’s last answer. Does it matter? Is there a practical difference? It would only matter practically if you like reading a certain type of “Jewish fiction” and you want to know whether X story would fit that for you. But I guess just like any other type of literary definition, you get to know what the definitions are of the person/source recommending it to you, and then figure out whether it’s for you or not.
Thanks for your comments here, Aviva!
Here’s where I differ with the opinion offered regarding whether such a label matters (I’m actually going to IY”H look up the exact quote from Sarah Shapiro today): the concept of “Jewish literature/culture/history” is an ongoing conversation that refers to itself and to its various components in a dynamic way. For example, you can’t read In the Image by Dara Horn and completely understand what’s going on unless you have a handle on the book of Job/Iyov, at least in passing. If you haven’t read Sholom Aleichem, there are references all over the place in 20th century literature that make no sense. In this sense, you have to look at the whole, not just the parts—hence, establishing the borders of what Jewish literature is become more important.
I looked up the essay by Sarah Shapiro and blogged about it here: