Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?

And Other Essays

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Adam Kirsch
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , March
     2019.
     232 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300240139.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The essays featured in Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? by Jewish American poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch offer a rich and diverse reading of politics, literature, and religion in a sampling of literary works by noted authors, poets, literary critics, political activists, and religious leaders in both the United States and Europe. In the preface, Kirsch notes that many of the essays in the collection “converge on the intersection of poetry and religion because these are the most available languages for discussing ultimate questions” (xi). The author asserts that literature, religion, and politics are “parts of the same enterprise of thought” (xii) but are not the same. Describing an underlying tension in his work, Kirsch writes: “Perhaps the central responsibility of a literary critic is to know how to keep those domains separate, without forgetting they are deeply connected: they are all ways of trying to understand what this world really is and how we are supposed to live in it” (xii). The essays in the collection represent a strong sampling of the very interesting interdisciplinary work that Kirsch continues to attempt.

Kirsch’s essays are reprinted from a number of publications, including the Battersea Review, the Jewish Review of Books, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Poetry. While Jewish themes and questions dominate many of the essays, Kirsch also shows himself to be a gifted critic of non-Jewish writers and poets like Seamus Heaney, Christian Wiman, and Kay Ryan. For the purposes of this review, it is Kirsch’s focus on questions of Jewish identity and literature that may provide the religious studies scholar with the most engaging work in the collection. As Kirsch reflects on these questions, he returns several times to the life, work, and thought of German Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin. Philip Roth, Herman Wouk, Franz Kafka, Cynthia Ozick, Susan Sontag, and Robert Alter are just some of the many other Jewish writers that Kirsch discusses in these essays as he explores the religious and the textual in American and European Judaism.

Conventional ways of describing the religious elements of Judaism and Jewishness in religious studies may include a focus on texts like the Torah, specifically Jewish rituals or festivals, and the Jewish communities that continue to value and celebrate these distinctives. Kirsch acknowledges the importance of these elements of identity while raising some questions about current struggles. In the essay “Who wants to be a Jewish writer?,” Kirsch describes the modern Jewish American writer’s struggle to choose a language with which to write (English or Hebrew?) and a focus for that writing (universal or more specifically Jewish). As Kirsch describes the attraction of writing poetry for himself, he writes: “Jewishness was a circumscribed part of life, having to do with going to synagogue, going to Hebrew school, keeping dietary laws, and other such discrete activities. The source of poetry went much deeper into what it meant to be alive” (15).

Moreover, the universal themes of love and life drew Kirsch beyond the confines of his Jewish experience in his writing. The mostly successful assimilation of Jews in America today works against a strong sense of uniquely Jewish identity. As he notes, “Jews in America do not speak a Jewish language, as our ancestors did; we don’t live in exclusively Jewish communities, as our ancestors did; the majority of us do not observe Jewish laws, as our ancestors did” (17). Kirsch continues, trying to depict the situation as it exists for many modern Jewish Americans, by stating that American Jewishness has become “a matter a feeling” (18).   While Kirsch readily admits that this is possibly an “insubstantial kind of Jewishness”, for many American Jews this reflects the truth of their lives and literary depictions of these lives must include this.  For the American Jewish writer in particular, one’s “denial of Jewishness can be considered a deeply expressive Jewish act” (18).  The irony of this denial is a theme that Kirsch will return to in several of his essays about Jewish writers featured in the collection.

Kirsch focuses on the literary tradition in Judaism in his essay “Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Literature?” He cites an argument put forward by Israeli author Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book Jews and Words. Kirsch writes, “What defines Jewishness, the Ozes suggest, is a special relationship to texts” (176). He quotes the authors directly: “Ours is not a bloodline but a textline” (176).

Furthermore, Kirsch traces this sentiment in a short story titled “The Pagan Rabbi” by Jewish American author Cynthia Ozick. Kirsch summarizes her work as he writes, “A Jew, Ozick suggests, is spiritually a scholar, wedded to old books, even when he thinks he is achieving communion with Nature . . . For Ozick, being authentically Jewish means choosing text over everything, even life itself” (178). But what of the Jew who has lost connection with the text or who never was completely engaged with the “old books”? Kirsch points to the examples of literary critic Walter Benjamin and author Franz Kafka. He sees in their disconnection and creative reengagement with Judaism, Jewish texts, and Jewish vocabularies a new opportunity for what might be termed “Jewish” literature. He writes, “Doing this does not require an extensive knowledge of Jewish tradition, which neither Benjamin nor Kafka possessed, but it does require an instinct for finding the elements in that tradition which can be used, or even misused, in order to communicate a modern truth” (197).  According to Kirsch’s reading, even these attempts by a writer like Benjamin or Kafka can help them to “make a place for himself or herself in that ancient lineage” (197).

Kirsch’s essays help to raise important questions about Judaism as a religion and Jewishness as an identity for Jewish writers. As Kirsch argues, even those Jews who are disconnected from text and tradition have the opportunity to contribute to what is considered Jewish literary tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Gillingham is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Kirsch is a regular contributor to the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and the author of ten books, including The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature and Why Trilling Matters. He lives in New York City.

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