In This Article American Jewish Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • 16th to 19th Century
  • Turn of the Century to World War II
  • Postwar
  • Contemporary
  • Yiddish Literature in America
  • Hebrew Literature in America

Jewish Studies American Jewish Literature
by
Josh Lambert
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0113

Introduction

That Jews in the United States have, throughout their history in the territory, written and published a great deal of literature should surprise absolutely no one; after all, Jews in all other lands, and virtually all other American demographic groups, have done likewise. What justifies the carving out of American Jewish literature as its own field of study (poised however tenuously between Jewish studies and American literary studies) is the strength of the tradition. Each of the first waves of Jewish immigrants to the United States—beginning with Sephardic Jews in the 17th century, followed by small but growing numbers of Western and Eastern European Jews in the 18th and early 19th centuries—contributed to American literary development in ways that exceeded what one might have expected from their size. Then, beginning in the late 19th century, which saw the beginning of the largest wave of Jewish immigration, mostly of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, the experiences of American Jews have become an absolutely central thematic line throughout the development of American literature. Writers associated with this tradition, and particularly a very prominent group that emerged after World War II, produced landmark works that set the course for large swaths of American literature as a whole, with the result that much of American culture seems to speak with a Yiddish accent. To cite a handful of examples that could be easily multiplied tenfold, it’s simply impossible to imagine, or to begin to understand, the field of American autobiography without considering the contribution of Mary Antin, or American modernism without Gertrude Stein, or American drama without Arthur Miller, or postwar American fiction without Philip Roth, or the American graphic novel without Art Spiegelman. Each of these figures demonstrates how the issues at the center of American Jewish literature are likewise central to American culture as a whole. Still, because of its awkward positioning between two academic disciplines, English literature and Jewish studies, which have not always been on the best of terms, the field of American Jewish literature remains rather unstable both disciplinarily and institutionally, and it has been regularly—and not without some merit—subject to attack as undertheorized and as reinforcing or pursuing a sloppy identitarianism. The definition of the field also remains a central and active question. In the broadest sense, the corpus of American Jewish literature can be said to comprise all the literary texts, across many genres and written by people of all backgrounds, that have been produced in reaction to or as a result of the experiences of Jews in the United States. This vast collection of literary works includes internationally celebrated and influential fiction, poetry, drama, memoir, and graphic novels, written in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and, less frequently, in other languages, in the United States and outside of it, by both Jews and non-Jews, both American citizens and noncitizens. This literature has been influenced in varying measures by precedents in ancient and rabbinic Jewish texts, by the development of modern Jewish literatures in the diaspora and in the State of Israel, and by complex currents within the Anglo-American and European literary scene. Scholarship in the field has tended to privilege fiction over other genres, as is reflected in the entries of this article (and in the designation of separate headings for scholarly work on other genres), but, as the entries also suggest, that pattern has begun to change in recent years.

General Overviews

The critical study of American Jewish literature began as early as the late 19th century, but the most useful general overviews currently available are much more recent. More than just a selection of exemplary texts, Chametzky, et al. 2001, produced through a significant scholarly collaboration, is a uniquely valuable resource, with detailed, readable headnotes as well as bibliographic materials that have not been equaled; it is the recognized starting point for any serious research in the field. Liptzin 1966 remains the most comprehensive narrative overview by a single author, and is useful in its concision. Wirth-Nesher and Kramer 2003 offers a varied and extensive, if not comprehensive, series of chapters on major areas of scholarly interest in the field; because its approach is substantially similar to Fried 1988, the more recent book supersedes the older one, with some exceptions. Lambert and Harrison-Kahan 2012 brings the consideration of the state of the field almost up to the present, reflecting on both the field’s recent institutional fortunes within academia and on current trends within the scholarship.

  • Chametzky, Jules, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein, eds. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Presenting a selection of texts published between 1654 and 1998, by more than 130 writers working in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, this anthology is crucial as an introduction to the field because of its wide scope, its detailed section introductions and headnotes, and its extensive bibliographic material.

  • Fried, Lewis, ed. Handbook of American-Jewish Literature: An Analytical Guide to Topics, Themes, and Sources. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

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    Structured similarly to Wirth-Nesher and Kramer 2003, this collection covers much the same ground as the more recent book, but several of the essays—for example, on autobiography and the German reception of American Jewish texts—remain valuable.

  • Lambert, Josh, and Lori Harrison-Kahan, eds. Special Issue: Finding Home; The Future of Jewish American Literacy Studies. MELUS 37.2 (2012).

    E-mail Citation »

    The most recent overview of the field, this special issue’s introduction addresses the current state of the field—suggesting its institutional instability might be a source of its strength—and the issue includes articles and reviews that reflect methodological trends in contemporary scholarship.

  • Liptzin, Sol. The Jew in American Literature. New York: Bloch, 1966.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ranging from the colonial era to the first postwar decade, and treating both Jews’ self-representations and their depiction in the literary works of non-Jews, Liptzin’s study, with a bibliography of relevant primary sources, remains a useful one-volume overview of the field as a whole.

  • Wirth-Nesher, Hana, and Michael P. Kramer, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521792932E-mail Citation »

    Recognizing the diversity of the field, this collection presents broad essays by distinguished contributors on many areas of scholarly interest within American Jewish literature. More pointed and argumentative than encyclopedia entries, these essays also include helpful lists of suggested readings.

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