The Whole Megillah is pleased to post this entry by Erika Dreifus, who joins the Fiction Panel at the May 18, 2014 Conference on Jewish Story in New York City. For more about the conference, click here>>>
It’s a perennial question: What makes a given literary work “Jewish”?
Some of my ruminations on this subject stem from my own writing, notably my short-story collection, Quiet Americans, which is inspired largely by the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. But I’ve also considered the subject more broadly, particularly as I continue to read and write about other people’s “Jewish stories.”
Helping me shape my thoughts is a website I discovered thanks to one of the innumerable Jewishly-focused newsletters I subscribe to. At The 5 Legged Table, educator Avraham Infeld’s teachings frame a discussion of the question: What is being Jewish all about? The underlying principles impress me as applicable to a related question: What is a Jewish book or story all about?
Briefly, the 5-Legged Table comprises the following elements:
• Memory: “While history is about what happened in the past, memory is about how that past drives our present and our future.”
• Covenant: Grounded in the idea that, at Sinai, Jews committed “to recognize one God; to make the world a better place for all people; and to use certain rituals to define and shape Jewish time and space. So, for Jews who observe any or all of the mitzvot, and those who are committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world), and those who serve the Jewish community, or move to Israel, the covenant established at Mount Sinai is still a tie that binds.”
My hypothesis: To the extent that these are the “legs” on which a particular book stands, that book is a Jewish book; its story is a Jewish story. Note that the work need not necessarily include all five legs. After all, tables normally stand on four. But I take pride in realizing that, to varying degrees, all five are woven into Quiet Americans,
Memory: The book itself stems from the transmitted histories of my grandparents and their families, and how all of that accumulated history is remembered and continues to influence me. Which leads to family: Family relationships are at the core of virtually every story in my book.
What about Covenant? Here, I think especially of one story in my collection, “Lebensraum,” and the role that Jewish ritual plays there. Moreover, in a small gesture of tikkun olam, I have been making quarterly donations—based on sales of Quiet Americans—to The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that aids U.S.-based Holocaust survivors.
Hebrew words—albeit transliterated—are sprinkled throughout Quiet Americans. And Israel is very much on the minds of many of my Jewish-American characters, whether they are watching Golda Meir speak on television after the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, or anguishing over the Second Lebanon War (and international condemnation of Israel for it) nearly 35 years later.
So that’s my take. How do you define a “Jewish story”?
About Erika Dreifus
Erika Dreifus lives and writes in New York City. Her prose and poetry have appeared in The Forward, Moment magazine, The Washington Post, and many others. Visit Erika online at erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus.
Thanks Erika and Barbara. This is such a meaningful approach to the question of “What Makes a Story Jewish?” So often we rely on a visceral response and it is very helpful to have a succinct framework. All best – Barbara B
Thank YOU, Barbara B.!
I was so excited to see the author of one blog I like guest posting on another blog I like that I pushed “like” before even reading the article!
That said, Erika’s mentioned this framework before and I think it is so very useful. It encompasses so many works of art that might otherwise be overlooked, and excludes things that may be included as “Jewish art” solely because the author is Jewish.
I do have one modification that I’d make, mostly on the basis of my magazine work: I think that “Family” and “Israel” are subdivisions of a larger topic, not on the list. That is “community.”
Many Jewish stories are Jewish because they push on tropes that aren’t historical–as in “memory”–but draw deeply on the culture of contemporary Jewish life. A lot of the stories you see, for example, in Jewish magazines (from the Chareidi Hamodia to the more mainstream Moment) fall into this category, I think. The characters are identifiably Jewish, refer to aspects of Jewish daily life (which may be more cultural than religious), and so on. Any thoughts?
Hi, Becca. Yes, you’re right–I’ve mentioned this before! I suppose that if one wanted to make this a four-legged table, one could combine categories as you’ve said. As for the points on memory/history/culture–I still think that there’s a way in which an awareness of the past suffuses the present of contemporary works that lends credence to the “memory” trope. Although I haven’t yet read her collection, Molly Antopol references this is a new interview I’m planning to share tomorrow on My Machberet (but here it is right now–see especially the question about whether her book is “Jewish”: http://fictionwritersreview.com/interviews/an-exercise-in-empathy-an-interview-with-molly-antopol
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