What Makes a Book Jewish?
The question of what constitutes Jewish fiction continues to fascinate readers, writers and scholars, and no matter how many times it is discussed, consensus is never reached. For most people, “What is Jewish fiction?” is a theoretical question, but for me it’s a practical one because in addition to being a fiction writer, I’m the editor of the online literary journal Jewish Fiction .net, so defining the parameters of Jewish fiction is essential for deciding which of the submissions we receive qualify for publication.
The challenges of defining Jewish fiction have been extensively written about and debated by academics and authors, and as I’ve followed these discussions over the past two decades, what’s been most striking is the impressively wide range of perspectives. Some view Jewish fiction broadly and include in this category anything that contains even a single Jewish character or that is written by a Jewish author. Others define Jewish fiction more narrowly, as Ruth Wisse, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, does in The Modern Jewish Canon. Wisse views Jewish literature as writing that is “centrally Jewish”—a phrase originally coined in 1970 by writer Cynthia Ozick—which to Wisse means reflective in some way of Jewish experience, Jewish consciousness or the Jewish condition.
In a work of Jewish fiction, writes Wisse, “the authors or characters know, and let the reader know, that they are Jews.” Wisse’s definition, like any, has its limitations, and obviously it is not simple to define Jewish experience or consciousness or the Jewish condition. Still, this is the most comprehensive and persuasive definition I’ve found, so this is the one we apply at Jewish Fiction .net. It is reflected, as well, in my new book, 18: Jewish Stories Translated From 18 Languages, whose stories were all originally published in our journal.
Curious to discover how authors nowadays think about Jewish fiction, and hoping to shed some new light on this ongoing discussion, I reached out to seven fiction writers, all American Jewish women, and asked: “In your opinion, what makes a work of fiction Jewish?” Their replies are fascinating.
To Faye Kellerman, a Jewish novel is anything that encompasses the Jewish experience, and because that experience is so vast, it is hard to define perimeters. For Allegra Goodman, a novel is Jewish if it contains Jewish characters, subject matter or themes, but the author does not have to be Jewish. To Helene Wecker, some aspect of the work should originate within Jewish experience. For Anita Diamant, a work of fiction is Jewish if it includes at least one Jewish character. For Jean Hanff Korelitz, her fiction, rather than her life, is where she expresses her Jewishness. Dara Horn is drawn to Hebrew and Yiddish literature because its writers don’t give their characters redemptive endings. To Ruth Knafo Setton, Jewish fiction is diverse, not just Ashkenazi. (See full replies on the following pages.)
These authors’ rich and thoughtful comments are in themselves very diverse, leading me to wonder about other diversities as well. For example, would the answers to the question “What is Jewish fiction?” differ if asked of authors—like those in my book 18—who write in languages other than English? Might these authors view Jewish fiction differently, given their specific cultural and linguistic contexts?
Generally, native English speakers hearing the phrase “Jewish fiction” think only of English-language Jewish fiction (and usually only American), when, in fact, due to our diasporic history, a key feature of Jewish fiction is its multilingualism. Yet most English-language readers are unaware of this literary treasure house. Jewish Fiction .net has published fiction translated from 20 languages, including Turkish, Albanian, Croatian, Ladino and Dutch. Perhaps the time has come to reconceptualize the way we think and talk about Jewish fiction, and to recognize in our discussions the multilingualism of our literature.
The insights of the authors presented here add to the continuing conversation about Jewish fiction. The heterogeneity of their perspectives is par for the course in Jewish tradition, where there is not only room for, but insistence on, multiple viewpoints and competing ideas, as there was with Hillel and Shamai, and indeed our whole Talmud. Maybe the debate over the nature of Jewish fiction is an unresolved question like the ones in the Talmud labeled “teiku,” which will only be decided when the Messiah comes.
All you need is at least one character identified as Jewish. The character doesn’t have to say or do anything identifiably Jewish (light Sabbath candles, sell pickles on the Lower East Side, survive the Nazis, attend Brandeis). But identifying them as Jews raises questions about identity, belief and affiliation, and begs for some kind of explanation or at least a label (Long Island, Socialist, Orthodox). Can you imagine a novel that identifies Rachel or Harry as Jewish and leaves it at that? That would be weird. Maybe even antisemitic.
By that standard, three of my five novels are certainly Jewish: Day After Night is a post-Holocaust story set in pre-state Palestine. Good Harbor’s protagonists meet at an oneg after Friday night services. The Boston Girl’s protagonist is the daughter of Jewish immigrants.
Most Jewish readers of The Red Tent consider it a Jewish novel. Many non-Jewish readers have thanked me for introducing them to Jewish tradition and/or history. I never thought of The Red Tent as a Jewish book; the action takes place long before there was “Judaism” or “Jews.” But since it’s full of names we know from the Hebrew Bible and our own family trees, by my own definition, it’s a Jewish novel.
Anita Diamant is the author of 13 books, including five novels; her latest book is nonfiction, the updated Living a Jewish Life.
In my opinion, a Jewish book contains Jewish characters, subject matter or themes. Defining Jewish books by content, I count Daniel Deronda as a great Jewish novel. The book is about Jewish identity, Jewish nationhood, and the title character is a Jew—so this is a Jewish book, although its author, George Eliot, was not Jewish.
But let me add something to my definition. I think that writers bring their background, education, experience and memory to their work. Because of this, a Jewish author may imprint a book with Jewish experience, even if the content of the book is not overtly Jewish. My novel Kaaterskill Falls, about a German Jewish community summering, is a book about Jewish people and the Jewish experience. On the other hand, my newest book, Sam, is about a girl with little connection to Judaism, although her father is Jewish. There is almost no Jewish content in the book—but my observations of unaffiliated Jews inform the novel.
In my work, Jewish themes and characters are sometimes clearly visible on the page. At other times, my Jewish subjects are almost imperceptible, like a watermark on paper. In all cases, my Jewish background influences my art.
Allegra Goodman’s books include Sam, Kaaterskill Falls, The Cookbook Collector and The Family Markowitz.
Twenty years ago, I met my college rabbi at a dinner party, and he asked me: “Are you living a Jewish life?” Our last contact before that night had been when I asked him to officiate at my wedding, and he declined. My fiancé wasn’t Jewish.
A Jewish life? Not by his standards, no. Apart from a large and creative Passover seder with my cousins, most of whom also have non-Jewish partners, we don’t observe, and we don’t believe. But I had a different answer: Yes. In my work.
My Jewishness lives and even thrives in my novels. Some of them (The Sabbathday River, The White Rose, The Latecomer) have more overt Jewish content than others, but fiction is where I’ve explored the Jewish experience and even considered some of the mysteries of faith. It’s where I’ve illuminated my own family history and enhanced my understanding of our traditions. Jewish fiction encompasses every degree and facet of Jewishness. As a writer and a Jewish woman, I’ve been especially impacted (and instructed) by Chaim Potok, Erica Jong, Gail Parent, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman.
My college rabbi was polite about my answer. My Irish husband and I recently celebrated our 36th anniversary.
in the past, what made someone a Jewish writer was usually very simple: the choice to write in a Jewish language. When I began writing novels, I considered all that our community has lost through the lack of a Jewish language and set out to write as though English were a Jewish language—not to write books with words in italics, but to write books where the plot structures and literary references were drawn from the archaeology of Jewish texts. I did this for 20 years.
I rarely think about this anymore. My understanding of Jewish literature now—descriptive, not prescriptive—is less about language and more about artistic humility. What draws me to Hebrew and Yiddish literature is that the best writers in those languages avoid giving their characters redemptive endings, or epiphanies, or moments of grace—things that our subtly Christian culture has taught us to expect from literature, and things that many of my favorite Hebrew and Yiddish writers clearly never even thought about. Instead, their stories rarely resolve because life rarely does. These writers are asking questions rather than providing answers. At this point in my life, this is what I find most powerful and true.
Dara Horn, a scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, is the author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.
A Jewish novel is anything that encompasses the Jewish experience, and because that experience is so vast, it is hard to define perimeters. Since Jews were scattered in the Diaspora and absorbed into many different nationalities, there is no one way to look at Jews and at books with Jewish content.
When I first started writing novels, I was greatly influenced by noir literature. But I wanted my books to say something about my Jewish identity because writing what is meaningful to me always seems to flow more smoothly. Rather than approaching Judaism from a cultural identity like in most American Jewish fiction, I purposely chose to represent the religious aspect of my faith, embodied by my character Rina Lazarus, who starts out in the series as a young, widowed, observant woman.
I did this because I thought that religion is more cross-cultural, since most people understand the rudiments of religion even if they are not actively practicing. I thought to make Rina identifiable across all denominations, making her more universal and more globally identifiable. I think she would consider herself Jewish and an ardent Zionist (I live part time in Israel) as well as an American—much like myself. And like me, she would absolutely be a lifetime member of Hadassah.
Faye Kellerman is the author of the best-selling Decker/Lazarus mystery series; her latest book is The Hunt.
As a professor, my concern with what makes Jewish fiction Jewish is to give my students a taste of the amazing diversity of Jewish voices—not just Ashkenazi, but also Sephardi, Mizrahi, Israeli, Indian, South American, Orthodox, LGBTQ, etc.
As a writer who was born in Morocco, I can’t forget an editor once telling me, “You write well. Next time try writing about the real Jews.” Ahh. Not the North African, Mediterranean, couscous-eating, mint-tea-drinking Jews I’d described in my first novel, The Road to Fez, in which a girl returns to her birthland and encounters her Moroccan family and a Jewish martyr-saint who chose death over conversion to Islam.
I’d call that Jewish fiction.
In my forthcoming novel, Zigzag Girl, an Irish magician in Atlantic City tries to solve her friend’s murder. I wouldn’t call it Jewish fiction though it was born in my Sephardi imagination, and the characters struggle to outrun ghosts of the past as they attempt to redefine themselves. And the novel I’m currently working on has a mix of Jewish (Sephardi and Ashkenazi) characters and non-Jews, archaeologists and artists searching the past for answers to the present.
Jewish? Not Jewish? I’d go for Jewish. And for keeping the door open for all Jewish voices.
Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel The Road to Fez. She is a multi-genre writer whose award-winning fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have been widely published.
How is Jewish fiction different from all other fiction? Well, I’ve tied myself in knots about it, and as usual I end up identifying with the Wicked Child: It depends on what that means to you.
For my own tastes, some animating aspect of a Jewish story should originate from within the vast kaleidoscope of Jewish experience, whether that be religious or secular, historical or mythical. Like scholars arguing over a text, the story needs to wrestle with something—a difficult relationship, a futuristic vision, a questionable deity—the better to understand it. And just as Jewish life has historically existed at the periphery of other societies, the best of Jewish fiction incorporates that outsider’s view: the discomfort of never quite fitting in or feeling at rest, of habitually shying away from certainty even as one longs for it.
Of course, you might say that these are the characteristics of good literature, period—to which I will reply that it’s the particulars that lend the flavor, just as all foods satisfy our hunger but there’s only some that taste like home.
What makes a novel a Jewish novel? Does it need to be written by a Jew? Or have a rabbi as its protagonist, or a cantor, or maybe a psychoanalyst? Does it need to be set in Israel, or wartime France—or Scarsdale?
The late great novelist David Foster Wallace once shared this parable: Two young fish are swimming along when they cross paths with an older fish. The older fish calls out: “Hey guys! How’s the water?” and then swims on. A few moments later, one of the young fish turns to the other and asks: “What’s water?”
To me, as a human being and as a novelist, Jewishness is the water I swim in. It is as inseparable from me as the other deepest aspects of my identity: wife, mother, daughter, friend, writer. And a Jewish novel is one that is suffused with Jewishness to its core, which can mean many things. When Signal Fires first came out, I received an annoyed note from a reader who asked why I was representing Jewish families who ate non-kosher food or drove on Shabbos.
I thought about this question a lot. Was I misrepresenting my Jewish characters, or was I representing, in Signal Fires, a slice of Jewish life in America—an America in which Jews have been able to ask: What is water?
We’re living now in a time when we cannot afford not to know the water we’re swimming in, or to ignore the realities and exigencies of being Jews today. I wanted to write a novel in which my characters are indelibly Jewish, in their gestures, their dialogue, their memories, their choices, to the point where it is simply unspoken fact. Sarah has a memory of Noah Kantrowitz throwing up in the neighbor’s azalea bush after his bar mitzvah. Peter refers to a trip to Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve of 1999 as “Erev Armageddon.”
And, of course, there’s the guilt, the worry, the parental love, the grief, the shame these families face as they live their lives, Jewish to their core, perhaps for this reason most of all: They never stop asking questions. They’re living their lives, yes, their modern, assimilated lives, but if asked, they know exactly what water is. Like me, it would be the first thing they’d say when asked to define themselves.
Dani Shapiro is the author of 11 books, including her most recent novel Signal Fires, and the host and creator of the hit podcast Family Secrets. This essay was adapted from remarks given by the author earlier this year when she received the National Jewish Book Award’s JJ Greenberg Memorial Award in Fiction from the Jewish Book Council for Signal Fires.
Nora Gold, author and editor of the literary journal Jewish Fiction .net, has won two Canadian Jewish Book/Literary Awards. Her latest book is 18: Jewish Stories Translated From 18 Languages. In Sickness and in Health/Yom Kippur in a Gym (two novellas) is slated for publication in March 2024.