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A Matter of Choice

My favorite Jewish book? The question comes to me

just at the right time. In the past few years I have been

reading and rereading a vast array of modern Jewish

works—novels, story collections, poetry—all with a

single purpose in mind: to understand for myself what

the modern Jewish tradition in literature is all about.

to a Q u e s t i o n n a i r e

by Ilan Stavans

out of the ghetto and inside the world. perhaps. of casual occurrences with no apparent links to one another. for history is a most un-Jewish concept. the willingness to enter the hall of memory. of course. And yet. Think of it: What could possibly link stylists like Isaac Babel and Alberto Gerchunoff. limited by spatial and temporal commonalities—in short. global.L iterature. and larger than life—a unique tradition in every sense. to escape time. What truly brings Jewish writers together. is an act of rebellion. That is why I love this idea of Jewish literature as a sequence of disconnected accidents—because it minimizes the value to history. This is not to say. memory and not history. one an Odessa Jew oppressed by the Soviet regime and killed by Stalin’s death squads in 1941. they are all part of one and the same chorus of voices. and what is the Jew if not the eternal rebel? An unrivaled tradition. that the questions of how to define a Jewish writer and what brings them . How could they not? But their ultimate goal is to live beyond it. the other an Argentine known for his 1910 classic The Jewish Gauchos? What. No matter how much one dwells on other literatures. they all seem stranded in a set of cultural motifs. How can this be? What brings them together? Well. I am not quite sure: their hope in the hopelessness of the universe. Certainly. Jews are constantly responding to their surrounding. too nationalistic. is the reader himself. a natural compulsion to see themselves constantly reflected in a misty mirror. To be a Jewish writer in modern times. to exist beyond constraints. in turn. I should add. and use miscellaneous tongues to communicate their Weltanschauung. Yes. respond to different stimuli. it is made up of disconnected accidents. their eternal status as time-travelers. could connect them to a humorist like Sholem Aleichem or a mnemonist like Elie Wiesel? Only the reader’s will to create bridges. harmonized by a single vertical code. to turn them into a vast repository of nostalgia and angst. is to help recover the pieces of a scattered ancient memory. and most important. to establish imaginary bonds. It restricts people to a here and now. But not the Jewish one. Its writers appear in different geographical settings. as Saul Bellow once argued. This is because. ambitious. by definition. though.

first in the Old Continent and then in the Middle East. then. Those are the years when Rabbi Nachman. for one. with the memoir of Gluckel of Hameln? Or was it when Abraham Mapu brought out. For my own sake. Should the writer manifest his sense of belonging or should this belonging be imposed on him? Is Joseph Brodsky a Jewish writer? Kafka? How about Nadine Gordimer and J. And so do Gordimer and Jerzy Kosinsky. Salinger and Norman Mailer tell me nothing concretely about the Jewish experience. not to mention Moacyr Scliar. but Kafka certainly does. his major work Phädon. later transcribed them in Sippure Ha-Maasiyot shel Rabbi Nachman mi-Bratzlav. inserted themselves into the path of Western progress. when European Jews. before Rabbi Nachman. began telling oral stories to his disciples. his first Hebrew novel? Or should one settle for 1864. both from a purely religious viewpoint and from an aesthetic one. and other tongues. So the reader. the German-Jewish philosopher. while Rabbi Nachman and his followers were traveling inward in a voyage to the heart of their faith and to the core of the story as a literary genre. J. in 1767. It was born. Czech. is the genuine protagonist of this tradition. capitalized on the verbal stamina of Yiddish. simply proves how Jewish literature is both a key to existential enigmas and a ticket to modernity. In other words. after much penury. all dealing with faith and cosmic redemption. I have chosen 1806-1810 as the birth date. published. his Yiddish. and Danilo Kiˇ. away from orthodox religion and into normality. when one leaves it for the reader to decide. True. His odyssey is enchanting. Spanish. Polish.k. inward and outward. This itinerary took place just as the French Revolution was settling its social and economic scores and almost half a century after Moses Mendelssohn. In other words. when S. Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov. Perl and Aksenfeld. and across the Atlantic. but it was 13 . closely followed by English. Mendele Mokher Sefarim) decided to switch his linguistic mode from Hebrew to Yiddish? What is unquestionable. after the deaths of his wife and son. Russian. it is clear. but without failing to draw a sharp line. Only then can the chain of accidents acquire meaning.all together are not troublesome. Hebrew. than this ambivalent one almost a hundred years ago? A hundred years is but a speck of time. This double path. What better birth date. the enlightened Jews were moving in the opposite direction—outward. where he was hailed as a zaddik. is that the tradition is very much a result of Spinoza’s earthly philosophy. Rabbi Nachman opened the door to an abundance of masterpieces. Salinger? I. A pariah in constant tension with the god-fearing establishment. he traveled to Palestine in 1789-1790. would argue in favor of as flexible a definition as possible. he returned to Bratzlav. a Bratzlaver Hasid and a blood relative of Israel Baal Shem-Tov. then to Kamenets Podolski and Shargorod.a. And when and where does the tradition begin? At what point was the Jewish writer caught up by modernity? Was it when Solomon Maimon wrote his autobiography? Before perhaps. One pupil. Africa. Abramovich (a. by choice or by force. Joseph Roth. Finally. thus settling the tone for the Haskalah. abandoned the seclusion of ghetto life and. but they envision character and plot in modern fashion.D. Rabbi Nachman’s stories are typical Hasidic responsa. French. toward a realm where literature would help resolve their dilemma. Yiddish. and not the writer. And yet. still remains the main language of the Jewish canon. through the Haskalah. this question of who is s and who is not a Jewish writer can only be handled when one applies the famous “law of reciprocity” to it—that is. so to speak.

of course: literature. it ought to be contained. I have similar trouble responding to an often-asked question: If left stranded on a desert island. My reaction to the . Natalia Ginzburg’s hypnotizing Italian in “The Mother. and Henry Roth’s Yiddishized English in Call It Sleep.” Danilo Kiˇ’s Serbo-Croatian in A Tomb for Boris s Davidovich. He entered the hall of Western literature with a vengeance. and what is the Jew if not the eternal rebel? But literature is also about usurping a foreign language and turning it upside down. and what they hope to become. where they come from. among other things. I always react to what the writer is plotting for me. I wondered as I wandered. is not an empty vessel. Inevitably. I have taken a detour. not only of other people’s work but also of their own. are displayed in all varieties of modern Jewish literature. obviously. Asked what my favorite Jewish book is. Moacyr Scliar’s Brazilian Portuguese in The Centaur in the Garden. not exclusive. Gerchunoff knew Russian. and Jewish writers use their language to deliver social commentary. for nothing strikes me more ardently than the fashion in which verbal rhythm and sounds. Language. But language. Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick are famous. To exist. It could not have been otherwise. one needs to infiltrate and conquer an alien verbal reality. Total immersion awaits at one end of the road. I am not sure I would have the concentration to read. from Rabbi Nachman to George Steiner. Brodsky. It is intimate and personal. occupied by matter. translating himself back and forth. for their lucid translations from Yiddish into English. is an act of rebellion. the Jewish writer’s polyglotism. is about the tension between integration and exclusion. their ouvre.the responsibility of Sefarim and Sholem Aleichem and Peretz to turn it into a flexible literary vehicle. Yiddish. in part. once forbidden by divine will to portray human figures. All this makes it look as if. is the most essential feature in this tradition. Spanish. I envision his universe and wonder what it says about him and about me and about life in general. To come alive. My excuse is simple: I really do not have a favorite Jewish book. to move in many directions and function on many levels at once. and Hebrew. This talent is often taken to the limit. They write about who they are. among other tongues. What is Tevye the Dairyman if not about Tevye’s magisterial puns and misunderstandings? And what is Babel’s Odessa Stories if not about the astonishing beauty of a gleaming Russian language? The same ought to be said of Albert Cohen’s French musicality in Belle du Seigneur. My literary taste is expansive. I believe. And in between. to make words one’s own. verbal magic. Not by chance. the deceitful abyss we call routine. Clearly. But as I read. the Jewish writer was more than ready to become an idolater. from Moishe Leib Halpern and Tchernichovsky to Isaac Bashevis Singer. often done in the silence of the night. by definition. Many have devoted considerable time and energy to translation. for sure. for one. even in Israel. Sefarim also adopted his own novels from Yiddish to Hebrew and vice-versa. which explains. what half a dozen books would you take with you? Well. Reading for me is very much a social act. complete rejection at the other. Theirs has been the need to multiply themselves. wrote in Russian and English. which we fill with nothing but language. Isaac Babel was not only fluent in Russian but knew Yiddish perfectly and also French and Polish. have almost all modern Jewish writers. it appears to me. to use an image of Langston Hughes. been multilingual. between assimilation and rejection.

Not for me. My favorite Jewish book keeps empty pages for future entries. perhaps. a book by others.” by I. long and short—all disconnected from one another. chapter 3. I find it delightful that not having written a single word of it. ILAN STAVANS is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. This chain of reactions. three poems I memorized as a child by Bialik. On Borrowed Words.” by Clarice Lispector. This is as it should be. It is an idea I got from Walter Benjamin and that I adore: to compose an anthology of my favorite segments. Peretz. a couple of passing lines from Anne Frank’s diary.” by Lamed Shapiro. the concluding chapter of Call It Sleep. Fluent in several languages. readers making writers. In other words. especially “The Cafeteria”. “Inside My Dirty Head — The Holocaust. by Paul Celan. It is made up of other people’s quotes and anecdotes. the section of I. and what not. s Todesfuge. his Doppelgänger. It is reprinted with generous permission. Professor Stavans is currently at work on a Spanglish translation of Don Quijote. at least. Singer’s The Family Carnovsky in which Jegor Carnovsky is ridiculed by Professor Kirchenmeier in the Goethe Gymnasium. Still. “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting. including The Inveterate Dreamer. is where my answer to the question lies. reading is not a monologue.J. in Berlin. I already have a partial list of the possible entries: Kafka’s segment from The Castle about a forbidden door. A certain page might infuriate me and the next might inspire me. “If Not Higher. for readers are what the modern Jewish literary tradition is really about. I probably will never be asked to assemble it. I do not have a favorite Jewish book.” by Walter Benjamin. of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé. several of Bashevis Singer’s stories. a chair he has occupied since 1993.” by Scliar.J. “Simon Magus. a kind of Bible for today. “The Whole Loaf ” by S.” All in all. on ideas bubbling in my mind at random. a testament. on recent intellectual interests. on the events of the previous day. as well as Sholem Aleichem’s stories “The Yom Kippur Scandal” and “Dreyfus in Kasrilevka”. The book I read triggers all sorts of responses. without a rational sequence. I am.L. from which this essay was taken. Praised for its warmth. the scene in Operation Shylock in which Philip Roth talks by phone to Philip Roth. Isaac Babel’s “Story of My Dovecoat”. a symphonic artifact at once ahistorical and translingual but with mordant social commentary. the chapter “Hodel” from Tevye the Dairyman. but I do have favorite passages from Jewish books. a book of choices and accidents.” by Danilo Kiˇ and perhaps his whole novella Garden.reading depends on my mood. Isaiah Spiegel’s “The Ghetto Dog”. He is the author of Dictionary Days and an earlier memoir. readers collecting memory. passion and erudition. in some mysterious way. its sole author. scattered paragraphs of Irving Howe’s Collected Essays: 1950-1990. organized accidentally. Dan Jacobson’s “The Zulu and the Seide. To the point that I have often envisioned a Book of Books. “The Kiss. 15 . Readers making books. “Family Ties. Agnon. part 3. for the first time. much in the way Jewish literature manifests itself to me. his critical writing is gathered in four volumes. Ashes. Rabbi Nachman’s “The Rabbi’s Son”.