Deborah Wallrabenstein, Sounds of a New Generation: On Contemporary Jewish-American Literature (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2017), 201 pp.
Those of us researching contemporary Jewish American literature, find ourselves in the curious, if not altogether unpleasant, position of studying a corpus that according to some of the most prominent Jewish American critics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, should not exist. Critics like Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse noted that Jewish writers were getting further and further away from their roots in Eastern Europe, the Yiddish language, and Judaism as an everyday practice and deeper into Americanization and assimilation. Under such circumstances, these critics believed, writing known as Jewish American literature will cease to exist. There might be American writers who are Jewish, but no Jewish-American writers. Indeed, many authors, including those who often portray Jewish characters and themes, try to discard the ethnic label. We have grown used to writers saying that they are simply American writers who happen to be Jewish. And yet, it seems, that even in 2019, we do in fact have a living, growing body of Jewish American literature which engages with universal and American themes, but also seems obviously, inescapably Jewish. How did this come to pass?
In the chapter that concludes the monumental Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature (2015, ed. Hana Writh-Nesher), Josh Lambert shows how institutional changes and initiatives such as education programs, book prizes, and the narrowing of the market for literary short fiction, help create a new interest among writers and readers of explicitly Jewish fiction, most often written by Jewish writers. Deborah Wallrabenstein’s Sounds of a New Generation: On Contemporary Jewish-American Literature, a book version of her Ph. D. thesis, takes a more micro, psychological-biographical view of the issue. The book traces a need in what the book dubs the third generation of Jewish American writers to reconnect to the identity that their parents (the second generation) left behind or even fought against. As Wallrabenstein quotes from Marcus Lee Hansen “what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember” (22).
Indeed, “generation” is the key term for Sounds and I think that this focus often leads it astray. The first chapter is dedicated to defining the term “generation,” especially in regard to Jewish American life and relating it to literary study. The term generation is often applied very loosely and can have several meanings. The two main definitions are: 1) the cohort of men and women who were born during the same years. This is the way it is used when we speak of Gen X or Millennials. 2) But “generation” can also relate cycles of birth within a specific family. That is, what we mean when we talk about a family living in the same town for five generations: the grandparents’ grandparents were the first in that town. Of course, this is also the main sense conveyed by second generation when speaking of the Holocaust or immigration.
Indeed, the new generation of the title relates to what the book sees as the third generation after immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States, in other words: the grandchildren of immigrants. She also relates generation to intertextuality and influence (as Harold Bloom conceives of it) in showing that allusions to an older writer’s text also create a sense of generations akin to a family environment. I agree with this last idea and indeed, I found in my own research that Jewish American writers often describe themselves as metaphorically related to other Jewish writers. The chapter is careful to define the term generation, but in the end, the book as a whole seems to mix-and-match the definition according to the text, author, or trend under discussion. Perhaps some of this confusion could have been avoided if the term generation was not so central and instead there was a focus on writing by emerging writers from a certain period (i. e., 1990-2010, which is more or less the period the books covers). The facts simply do not fit well with the author’s paradigm: for example, and there are many examples, Philip Roth (1933-2018), who is set up as an emblem of second-generation denial of connection to the Jewish past, was the grandchild, not the child, of immigrants.
After a second chapter that gives a succinct introduction to Jewish American literature, Wallrabenstein dives into an analysis of the different voices of the new generation. Chapter three goes into the most recognizable, I think, of these trends: a search for the Jewish past in the Eastern Europe that was destroyed in the Holocaust and was already undergoing radical modernization before it. The central image of this is the Shtetl. This chapter is quite critical of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer (in Everything is Illuminated), who present what the book sees as an overly sentimental and nostalgic view of the Shtetl life, preferring instead the more realistic (and really, more scholarly) approach offered by Dara Horn’s The World to Come. Wallrabenstein is right to suspect rosy visions of Eastern European Jewish life. But I also believe she does not give enough space for seeing nostalgia and longing, even to a fantasy world that never existed, as legitimate subjects. Furthermore, the longing for a bygone way of life is not unique at all to the generation under discussion. After all, Fiddler on the Roof, the emblematic shtetl schmaltz production, came out in 1964, before most of the writers under discussion here were born.
Chapter four moves from the subject of longing for the past to the issue of Jewish religious life. It should perhaps have been turned into two chapters because it deals with two opposing trajectories. The first two readings are of memoirs about leaving behind the strict and insular world of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. These authors remake themselves in a secular world and must relinquish community and family affiliations. The three other readings, of a short story and two more memoirs, deal with Jews who go back to religion in various ways. Religious practice or simply keeping in touch with spiritually helps define a Jewish identity that has become fliting in the third generation, we are led to understand. The second group along with those in chapter three fit best into the third generation paradigm that the book promotes. Those writers escaping from orthodoxy are much more like first generation writers because they describe a transition into a much more modern and American world than the one they were born into. As is acknowledged, these narratives have much in common with immigrant stories.
The third generation paradigm becomes even more deeply unsatisfying with the fifth and final chapter. This chapter deals with writers who immigrated to the United States and Canada from the former USSR, collectively dubbed “Russian-Jewish-American” writers. Obviously, these writers are first generation immigrants (or at the most generation 1.5 because they came young enough to be much more Americanized than their parents). The material of choice for their fiction is often the process of immigration and Americanization, just as it was for Jewish and other immigrant writers from the beginning of the twentieth century and still is for immigrant writers from all over the world, not just Jewish ones. Sounds finds, nonetheless, that these writers do belong to the “third generation” because “in [the] grand searching for identity (Jewish, Jewish-American, American), finally, the new immigrant authors are more like their American born peers of age, who are quintessentially ‘third generationers’ […] and therefore quite typically wrestling with questions of identity and hyphenation” (154). Yes, there exists a similarity between these writers and their contemporaries. But why insist on inserting this comparison into a generational paradigm? It seems to me that the experience of immigration often sends one into an exploration of identity, especially if one is a writer and intellectual. This point is especially troubling because it involves a distortion of early twentieth-century writing, which is said to be more concentrated on day to day survival. But, who reads Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, or Henry Roth and is willing to say that they are not “wrestling with questions of identity”?It must be clear by now that I am quite critical of Sounds of a New Generation. Still, let me finish this review by remarking that it is an able and worthy contribution to a field of research that has not yet received its due. The book maps out many of the important trends in this age group. Wallrabenstein also offers some convincing readings of a myriad of short stories, novels, and memoirs by writers who are already well known to scholars and, what should be lauded, those who have not quite made a name for themselves (and might never achieve fame). The book will be of use to anyone planning to research or teach the field of contemporary Jewish writing and who might wish to sample some of what the rich world that Jewish Americans have created over the last three decades has to offer.
David Hadar (Beit Berl)