Are You, Or Have You Ever Been, a Jewish Writer?

March 3, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 16 7 min read

In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country.  I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold.

We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America.

We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each.  They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights.  I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program.

Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it.  Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards?  Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish?  No.  I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it.  Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis.

Still, I got a couple of gigs.

Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me.  When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name.  Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew.  About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish.  I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth.

“Are you a Jewish writer?”

That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd.   It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious  (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse.

I’ve worked out different replies.  The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.”  Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative).  But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer.

As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth.  All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform.  And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke.  Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder.  None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature.

My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive.  Everyone wants to wear the cap.  It’s not just Updike with his Beck books.  Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot.  Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.”

coverNot long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters.  He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both.  The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity.  But that search for authenticity is not what I love.

coverIt’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy.  In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow?  By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . ..  Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more.  By us, pike is a fish.”  And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice.

What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction?  Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust.  Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place:  I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t.  Ozick’s “The Shawl” is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential.   And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance.  A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp:  “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air.  The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness.  She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.”  In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry.

coverHer writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction.  And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody.  I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story.  And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book.  So dry, they said.  So bleak.  It was missing something.  In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit.

covercoverBellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer.  He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters.  The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things.  Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead.  The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze.

Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost.  Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews.  After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all.  Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy.  American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested.

I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?”  the writers were asked.  For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered:  Is this how it goes all over the country?  You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?”

David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer.  He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it.  You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you.  He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off.  You need to get categorized in order to succeed.

Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky.  A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance.  So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer.  Invite me to your community center, please!

(Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez’s photostream)

is the author of two books: a collection of stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (winner of the 2002 PEN/Hemingway Award); and a novel, The Man from Beyond. He teaches English and creative writing at St. John's University in Queens, NY.


  1. As an author of historical/holocaust fiction whose recent novel Ghost Runners has been included as a Book of Note in this months edition of Jewish Book World, I want to agree with the perceptions expressed in your essay. My novel, for example, deals with the unambiguous quest by Jewish American Olympians to be included, despite the harsh judgment that was coming. To want is a powerful imperative. It seems, in retrospect, though I never was a fan of Phillip Roth(or Woody Allen, for that matter) his ambivalence may have become more passe. There can be no equivocation, no more self-loathing with the likes of race prejudice and anti-Semitism. In my novel, to be denied the American dream was not, nor is never, an option, despite the circumstances. As Jews we are taught to pass over. And we still endure. Am Yisroel Chai. The people of Israel live, not by uncertainty, but only be indomitable will to survive.

  2. OK, everyone is different. I have friends who read far more women than men. I read more men than women. In the intense feminist years of 35-40 years ago, I had friends who had limited time and financial resources and they read only women.

    I am drawn to Jewish writers. I see a Jewish name and with just a bit of research I decide if I want that book. I start out wanting to want it. Is it serious, has it gotten a good review or two, where did I first hear of it. But I don’t want too many details or the plot. I read Jewish writers (all mentioned above as well as Harold Brodkey, some Chabon, Deborah Eisenberg, Nicole Krauss, Katharine Weber, Mordecai Richler, Joseph Epstein–many many names) because I want a great read and I also want a sensibility I might recognize, a way of looking at the world that makes me feel connected as if in conversation with my past. Diasporic literature, immigrant literature, outsider literature.

    I feel compelled to say that I don’t only read Jewish writers–I read all over the world–but Jewish writers are special to me even though they may not like that distinction at all.

    I loved this essay.

  3. I loved this essay. I’ve never been a Jewish writer, but I do get mistaken for one every so often; a Jewish literary festival was very briefly interested, until their enquiries established that Mandel’s my married name and that I’m not actually Jewish.

    The question of categorization is interesting. I’m from Canada, which I’ve always found to be a fairly nationalistic sort of place when it comes to literature. I presently live in the United States, and when I’m sent north of the Canadian border for events I’m always asked (by booksellers, journalists, readers): “Are you a Canadian writer?”

    I of course always say yes, yes I am, usually with a quick explanation concerning the conveniences of dual citizenship, but the question always throws me a little, especially when it’s followed by “and does your book have Canadian content?” But my uneasiness with nationalism notwithstanding, perhaps David Henry Hwang’s approach is the right one. I do feel lucky to have gotten any attention at all.

  4. Great essay, and a very good question.

    I would say yes, but for me, there is an added measure of complexity: I am Israeli and American. So I am not really sure where that leaves me. Then again, everyone has complexities (complexes?) in terms of identity. In one sense, you are a Jewish writer if you are Jewish and you write. In another sense, you are a Jewish writer if your identity as a Jew influences your writing. This is different, of course, from writing about Jewish topics, which as you pointed out is frequently done by non-Jewish writers. But maybe that is what makes a Jewish writer (in that case Mr. Franzen, welcome to the tribe!).

    I am not sure how all of this works with the Korean gynocologist example, but I hope you get what I am trying to say.

    Another good question: Was Kafka a Jewish writer?:

  5. addendum: The idea of the ‘nebesh’ is antagonistic to Jews that forged our homeland or to Jews who came as a conquering army to destroy the very concept of National Socialism. There were no self-hating Jews either inside, or outside the high towers of Dachau. Out of the ashes of the holocaust was built, by Jewish hands, the State of Israel. When the American army crossed the Remagen Bridge, the proud Aryan race cowered before the gentle Yiddish language of Jewish persuasion. A relevant quote, from Ghost Runners, a story about what could have been if two Jewish –American Olympians had been allowed to compete in Nazi Germany at the Berlin Olympics of 1936.:
    ‘Joshua imagined the red clay infield, surrounded by the hundred thousand, hating him. Their hate only helped him run faster. Hate around the oval. Hate in their eyes: hate, now his, Jewish hate, heard from the nostrils, seen in flesh torn from the heart. Hate, the concept Nazis did not seem to feel from the scent of the Jews. He wanted to imagine what it would be like to be a Jew and to run for his people, not for glory and not for love.’

  6. As one of five writers to be singled out as a finalist for the extremely generous Sami Rohr Prize, your article could not have been more timely. In preparation for my discussion with the prize judges, I’m thinking a lot about my place in the tradition of Jewish American writers. However, I hope that my work will be of interest to a larger population, in the same way that Bellow’s characters were emblematic of all immigrants, or all who search for the American Dream. I’m thrilled that Jewish books clubs and Hadassahs want to read STATIONS WEST and fly me out to talk about it; now I wish that other groups would adopt it as well!

  7. Allison, I read Stations West a month or so ago (requested that my library buy it and they did) and first discovered it when searching around the internet for new Jewish writers. In line with your comment above, I’ve told several people about it, people who are particularly interested in that period of American history,and in that part of the American west, and not themselves Jewish. FWIW, I’ve read 3 of the 5 nominees and yours was the book I could not put down. Boggy’s story is one of a kind. In my state, each year the libraries decide on a book that has historical relevance to the state and thousands upon thousands of people read the same book and there are events, lectures, exhibitions, etc. You must get the word out to Oklahoma!

  8. Saul Bellow was uneasy with his Jewishness, yet he translated Bashevis and wrote Yiddish poetry? Uh…

  9. I wonder if I am a Jewish writer? My characters sneak in Yiddishisms to my writing — (I know I’ve saved in the back of my mind from my father — a lie will take you many places — but never back — the way you make your bed is the you sleep in — every bride on is beautiful on her wedding day, every man pious on his death bed) — and I sometimes wonder where he, my father, ends and I begin. Oy. My novel, LIE, is to be published in September, 2011 by St. Martin’s Press so we will see.. Though I agree with the playwright, Hwang, at the end of this terrific piece– better to be categorized than looked over. Oh, Jewish world, claim me, then! A very provocative piece and I too am planning to get my hands on a copy of Ghost Runners.

  10. I think there is a certain amount of choice involved (though this isn’t necessarily an ambiguity I would bring up in the synagogue basement grilling) – of subject and the writers you’ve been influenced by. In terms of presenting yourself the choice is starker – you (or your publisher’s marketing dept.) either try to promote your Jewishness or not.

    Kafka is a funny example because for all his ambivalence about Judaism (along with everything else) you can now buy T-shirts with Kafka’s face together with stars of David or Menorahs. As to Judith Butler’s essay, it wasn’t so much about whether he was a Jewish writer but of who can claim his heritage.

    For a reaction to her essay:

  11. I would classify myself as an unpublished (so far) Jewish writer. Not everything I’ve written has been Jewish, but most of it has been, including my first full length adult novel, “Sanctuaries.”

    I read the article with an eye to where and how I would classify myself within the definitions of Jewish writers offered therein. Yes, I’m Jewish and I write; that fits. For the most part, my topics are Jewish in nature, but they’re neither primarily humorous (although there is some humor included) nor morose in nature, and I’m definitely not trying to recapture my Jewish identity; I’ve never lost it.

    If I had to name one specific focus of my writing it would be Jewish unity. I am religiously observant from a completely non-observant background and I teach in a reform temple. When asked my specific affiliation, I always answer “Jewish.” The fragmentation, both religiously and community-wise, among world Jewry today, not to mention outright antagonism among various demographics, is a source of great concern for me and subsequently plays a big role in my writing. It’s a theme in “Sanctuaries” and THE theme in a little kids’ book I also wrote, “Gabe and Shmulik.” So – how does that fit into the various categories of Jewish writers mentioned in the article? I don’t know.

    To complicate things still further, “Sanctuaries” is a book of religious fantasy, involving such religious themes as prophecy, expiation of sins, the afterlife and reincarnation. I’m sure someone else has addressed similar topics in fiction, but if someone has, I don’t know about it. So, I’m left with a fairly clear idea of who I am as a Jew and as a writer, but not too sure where I stand as a Jewish writer.

  12. This is a great essay. But the penultimate paragraph is disheartening. It seems the unspoken thesis there is that *if you are not a straight white man, then* “you need to get categorized in order to succeed.”

  13. I’m a Jewish self-published novelist but I’ve created a protagonist who is so psychologically damaged, he needs two faiths to see him through to hopeful possibility. I was inspired to try this approach after reading “Joined Tribes: Jewish Indians Are the Ultimate Outsiders,” written in 1994 by Jonathon Tilove (Newhouse News Service) which featured Sharon Skolnick, an Apache who married a Jewish husband and whose daughter Debbie was a Chicago Indian Princess. The article also contained a quote by Suzan S. Harjo, a Cheyenne poet and former head of the National Congress of American Indians who compared Jews and Indians as “survivors who have lived life on the run…and who have been the victims of the most hideous kinds of politics and personal attacks”
    My coming-of-age novel, “Transgressions,” is set in upstate N.Y. 1952. Daniel Mendoza, 12. son of a Jewish pro boxer on the verge of his first title fight, blames himself for the terrible events that befall his family. But two uncles, one a Jewish Kabbalist and the other an Iroquois Faithkeeper, harbor the boy on an isolated Iroquois reservation. They protect and nurture him through rituals both spiritual and physical (including Red league lacrosse). By age 16, though deeply cynical, he’s persevered to the point where he’s willing to delve more deeply into the past to find answers to the crimes that have devastated him. Two questions haunt him: what does it mean to be a man, and what does God want from me? learn more about the book and me by visiting my author website.

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