Commentary: The Writers Among Us
What do Jewish novels do for the Jewish community? Not long ago, a journalist-turned-Orthodox Jew attacked Jewish novelists for “picking on” the Orthodox in fiction. She complained the pickers were not even “inside” Orthodoxy, but “outside.” To which one of the attacked novelists, Tova Mirvis, responded that she is and always has been an Orthodox insider.
Another of the novelists attacked is Jonathan Rosen (in the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal that he is my son), through whose novel, Joy Comes in the Morning (Picador), I hope to address the wider issue.
In that work, a minor character, an Orthodox man, is depicted as less than angelic. He woos and sleeps with a Jewish woman and then says he can never marry her because, no matter how observant, she is not Orthodox. Then he caddishly suggests they sleep together again.
Is this a slander of Orthodoxy, of all Orthodox men? Or is it simply a single portrait that the novelist sets against another male character who is struggling with his own Jewishness, falling in love with a woman who is a rabbi, trying to find belief and his own center, all at the same time?
To take another case: henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, one of our greatest Jewish novels, is about a Jewish immigrant family struggling for a foothold in America. The embittered father is brutal to his son. Is this a picture of Jewish fathers, or rather of one individual father about whom the novelist is telling us a truth?
Even though we know it is the latter, should we worry anyway about the reputation of Jewish fathers, about the world overhearing our problems? Maybe—if this were our only novel. But we also have Chaim Potok’s tenderhearted fathers and, more recently, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (Vintage), which contains one of the most admirable Jewish fathers in literature. This is the same Philip Roth, mind you, whose Jewish father in Portnoy’s Complaint is an anal-compulsive cartoon.
Lashon hara, speaking evil, is condemned in Leviticus 19:16, a grand ideal. What if the sages could know that novelistic satire, hurling jeremiads at our obtuseness, has helped to raise up the culture of our time?
The sweet humor of the Hasidic rabbi who said that the two opposing opinions in an argument were both right, and when questioned about such a contradiction conceded, “You know, you’re right, too,” may be a little cloying for us today. But it is a reminder that, as the Talmud long ago taught us, multiple commentaries are sometimes a better path to human wisdom than either/or.
As for the other kind of wisdom, neither God nor Moses nor the prophets spared the Jewish people’s feelings when it came to spelling out corrective truths. In the end, the whole world overheard them.
Good fiction is what a good fiction writer feels compelled to write. A varied and robust writing tradition will in the end cover most bases. Meanwhile, the Jewish community needs to learn how to read literature and have faith in the integrity of its writers, who write not to create a public face for Jews but to show the way a particular facet of Jewish life strikes a particular writer who, after all, the Jewish community in one way or another has produced.
If we believe in an idea to which we give much lip service—Jews are all one people—terms like “insider” and “outsider” do nothing for our sense of community.
Novelists may annoy us. But if we try to suppress their right to portray what they know from experience, observation and intuition, we shut off our source of self-knowledge and kill our claim to be an art-producing people.