Last week was marked by big news in the book world. Famed-American Jewish author (Jewish meaning author’s ethnicity only, in this case–see previous posts on the subject) Philip Roth has declared that he’s retiring from writing. On the other hand, equally aged and famous American-Jewish author Herman Wouk has just put out another novel. Interestingly, these events didn’t just make headlines in Jewish publishing, but publishing as a whole.
The stereotypical Jew is considered “bookish,” pale due to the amount of time he spends indoors. We are called “the People of the Book.” How is it that Jews became inextricably interwoven with books?
According to Jewish tradition, God used the letters of the alef-bet to build the world. They are older than us. From an early age, Jewish children are taught to revere these letters. Three-year-old boys are offered honey to lick from the characters of the alef-bet so that the letters will be eternally sweet in their mouths. The Torah itself is full of stories, which can be variously instructional, inspirational, or entertaining (who hasn’t laughed at the image of Bilaam struggling with his donkey?). We hear these stories from our earliest childhood, and we integrate them into our own personal narratives. Our attachment to Jewish holy books is part of the reason the Jewish nation has endured for millennia, and it promoted our literacy, even in times when most people across the globe were illiterate.
If God is the Author of the universe, and we want to emulate Him, isn’t it natural that we should want to be authors, too? This would explain the phenomenon if all Jewish authors were devout. But even secular Jews seem to cling to bibliophilia. Jews–in America and elsewhere–are disproportionately writers and teachers, readers and editors. Meanwhile, Jewish identity creeps into books by religious and non-religious Jews alike.
Philip Roth’s vision of life as a Jew and Herman Wouk’s could hardly be more different, despite the fact that they are contemporaries. Roth seems to struggle with his Jewish identity like a butterfly struggling with the remnants of its cocoon. He wants to free his wings and fly away. Wouk is just the opposite–he relies on his identity to build the wings with which he will fly. Roth’s writing reflects a degree of self-hatred and disgust that many Jewish readers find unpalatable (although others identify greatly with it), while Wouk’s books uphold Jewish tradition beyond the degree to which the average American Jew does.
In the first part of my discussion of “Jewish writing,” we considered whether Jewish writing must contain Jewish subject matter. In the second, whether “Jewish Orthodox writing” has characteristics that distinguish it from Jewish writing as a whole. My third question is the following:
Who decides what content is Jewish?
And here’s another, related, question:
If Jewish culture is referenced, but disparagingly, and Jewish characters are mocked, debased, or stereotyped, is that Jewish?