Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, edited by Jules Chametzsky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Katharyn Heller (2001).
I confess I am not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions. Nonetheless, I do like to encourage myself to broaden my horizons at every opportunity. Therefore, for this first column of 2023, I invite you to join me in deepening your knowledge of Jewish American literature. And I have just the book to help you do so.
I first discovered Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology in the early 2000s at Nashville’s gone-but-not-forgotten Davis-Kidd Bookstore. I was perusing a shelf of literary anthologies, and there it was. I looked over its lengthy table of contents, happy to recognize some names and delighted at so many others I did not. The collection soon became my go-to guide for Jewish American reading. I found that as my knowledge and interests grew, the anthology was ready for me, supporting my development in such diverse themes as Jews in early America, sweatshop labor poetry, religious writing, the politics of assimilation, Jews on Broadway, Hebrew folklore, Holocaust literature, Jewish feminism, and the complexities of the contemporary Jewish American experience. Between the covers of the volume’s more than 1000 helpfully footnoted pages, featuring 145 authors, I have discovered some of my favorite writing and writers. I have only one critique of this otherwise compelling tome: it has never been updated.
To tempt you to give a home to this anthology, let me offer a brief overview. It is organized mostly chronologically, with some overlap based on thematic sections. After a thoughtful General Introduction, we begin with the “Literature of Arrival, 1654-1880,” incorporating addresses, letters, sermons, and poems, concluding with the work of Emma Lazarus, including “The New Colossus,” her Petrarchan sonnet written to support fundraising for the pedestal beneath the Statue of Liberty. Next comes “The Great Tide, 1881-1924,” with the great literary outpouring from among the 2.5 million Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Here we begin and end with newspaper editor extraordinaire Abraham Cahan. He leads us into the new century with his story “A Ghetto Wedding” and continues with a selection from The Forward’s “Bintl Briv” (“Bundle of Letters”), where Cahan gave practical advice in response to actual letters from Jewish immigrant readers. Along the way, we find poet Yehoash decrying a lynching and facing down the Woolworth Building, a god of gold and iron; Mary Antin championing the sensitive Jewish immigrant child and the gentile teacher who together illustrate the possibilities of the American Dream; excerpts from Edna Ferber’s Fanny Herself; and The Yankee Talmud.
Before the next historical shift, the editors work in a slender section called “Jewish Humor,” including writing by Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, along with “A Scattering of Contemporary and Perennial Jewish Jokes.” Then we go “From Margin to Mainstream in Difficult Times, 1924-1945,” where writers explore the promises and problems of assimilation alongside increasing awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust. Gertrude Stein and Clifford
Odets opine on the ”Making of Americans” and why we do not always Awake and Sing!, while Muriel Rukeyser and Arthur Miller offer their own insightful perspectives.
This section is followed by the descriptively titled “Achievement and Ambivalence, 1945-1973.” Here, I made the acquaintance of Kadya Molodowsky and Malka Heifetz Tussman as I renewed my familiarity with such greats as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tillie Olsen, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. Also in this section, I found Cynthia Ozick, Elie Wiesel, and Philip Roth, reminding me of the vitality of Holocaust literature by Jewish Americans – both born and adopted.
Historical chronology is once more interrupted by “The Golden Age of Broadway Song,” where we find an introduction to Jewish Americans and Broadway along with a selection of lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, and Sheldon Harnick (perhaps least famous of the group, but instantly known by his work on Fiddler on the Roof). Considering the Jewish relevance of such songs as “God Bless America,” “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls, and “America” from West Side Story is a pleasure, especially with the helpful brief biographies for all the composers/lyricists – and every one of the other writers included in the book.
The contemporary section of the anthology is titled “Wandering and Return: Literature Since 1973.” Chaim Potok and Adrienne Rich are its opening acts, while such luminaries as E. L. Doctorow, Marge Piercy, Art Spiegelman, and Allegra Goodman round it out. I was also personally thrilled to be introduced to second generation (survivor) writer Melvin Bukiet and Sephardic writer Miriam Israel Moses here. But this isn’t all! Before the Selected Bibliography and Index, a surprising international treasure appears in the editors’ inclusion of a group of “Jews Translating Jews,” which brings into the Jewish American fold (via translation) such writers as Heinrich Heine, Judah Halevi, Else Lasker-Schüler, Avraham Sutzkever, Primo Levi, and Paul Celan.
As this brief outline shows, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology is a rich, broad volume to read and share. Yet I must return to my one critique. I cannot help feeling frustrated by its stopping point, having been published more than 20 years ago. I honestly do not know the reason the volume has never been updated; I only wish it would be. I find myself pondering a new section, “Jews of the New Millennium,” where we can read the work of Michael Chabon, Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander – to take but four somewhat arbitrary examples. I also imagine joy at finding a sprinkling of newly discovered Sephardic and other writers for earlier sections, and ample updating of both Jewish humor and Broadway songs. In the end, even as I continue to hope to see a revision that achieves its post-millennial possibilities, I pen this review because I highly recommend this anthology and all it can offer us as “People of the Books.”
Elyce Rae Helford, PhD, is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. Reach her at email@example.com.