Review of Jewish American Writing and World Literature: Maybe to Millions, Maybe to Nobody by Saul Noam Zaritt

Danny Luzon

Saul Noam Zaritt, Jew­ish Amer­i­can Writ­ing and World Lit­er­a­ture: Maybe to Mil­lions, Maybe to Nobody. (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020). 256 pp. $80.00, hardcover.

In our current era of World Literature studies, one is repeatedly confronted with several questions: Where does one draw the line between the local impact of a text and its global reach? When is a text “peripheral” and how does it become “worldly”? And in what ways does the “global” map change when Anglo-American and European writing is no longer considered the world’s center of gravity? In the growing field of comparative Yiddish studies, the same questions persist, with the necessary addition: How is the tension between the translatable and untranslatable managed by writers as they shape their modern Jewish literary selves? And as they do so in a world characterized by mass migration and cultural displacement?

Saul Noam Zaritt’s recent book, Jewish American Writing and World Literature: Maybe to Millions, Maybe to Nobody, offers creative new ways to approach these questions, entering into a series of lively debates concerning the category of “world literature.” Resisting the constraints of either national or transnational models of taxonomy, the monograph invites us to consider “Jewish vernacularity in its fragmentation.” Zaritt’s work examines how Jewish American writers like Sholem Asch, Yankev Glatstein, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Saul Bellow seize upon the potential legibility of the immigrant Yiddish vernacular “in order to find a place in the institution of world literature” (151). In parallel, these writers return to the traces of this vernacularity “when confronting the incommensurability of their writerly projects” (ibid.).

Zaritt uses these cases of Jewish American writing-for-the-world to rethink prevailing theoretical models in literary studies, such as those advocated by David Damrosch, Pascale Casanova, Wai Chee Dimock, Franco Moretti, Emily Apter, and Rebecca Walkowitz. He suggests that scholars who seek to move beyond the nation often fail to break free from a similar desire “to tame the unruly multidirectionality of literature within a world system, network, or ecology” (8). Even Dimock, who famously sees the novel genre “as part of a system of porous boundaries and nebulous kinships,” fails in his eyes to move beyond a desire for “the systematization of literature on a global scale” (17).

As an alternative, Zaritt posits a complex negotiation of the agency of both author and text, which I would call a post-post-Derridean position. He states his indebtedness to “postcolonial and poststructural critiques of world literature” (3), infusing his book with Derridean terms such as deferrals, ghosts, gift-givings, double binds, letters that refuse to arrive, and undecidedness. But Zaritt by no means assigns agency exclusively to textuality or language. On the contrary, he is interested in the in-between spaces—the spectral if not necessarily agential place between text, author, and institutional and global forces. In other words, he compellingly traces how these linguistic instances of haunting presence are located somewhere between the authors’ ability to operate within a network of global(izing) literary markets and the texts’ indebtedness to a Jewish-Yiddish vernacular. The latter, in its resistance to an imperial language, subverts the impulse towards universalization.

In light of these interests, Zaritt’s work devotes significant attention to translation, as a multifaceted (at times instrumentalizing and at times hybridizing) practice that responds to “an institutional expectation that a text, and a whole culture, become identifiable within a coherent structure of exchange” (22). Taken together, the book’s four chapters as well as its epilogue illustrate “the gap that translation opens up, where writers come face to face with the multiple potentialities of their writing and remain unable to choose” (4).

The impulse towards a homogenized universal via translation characterizes a figure like Sholem Asch. The first chapter discusses how Asch sees the global circulation of his translated works as a way to redeem the world. Yet he abides by a Euro- and Anglo-centric hierarchical expectation, envisioning “a model for a monolingual world literature, which may be written in multiple languages but whose texts seek to employ a mutually translatable universal vocabulary” (4).

Sholem Asch garnered fame at a time when most Yiddish authors retreated back into cultural and linguistic particularity. This retreat is the topic of Zaritt’s second chapter, which juxtaposes Yiddish writers Yankev Glatstein and Kadya Molodowsky. Glatstein, the paragon of Anglo-modernist experimentation in Yiddish, initially posited that the writer’s marginality is what makes one a viable participant in global modernism. This places him in contrast to Asch, who believed that global circulation and universal intelligibility was the sole means to become an equal participant in world literature. However, after Glatstein’s famous visit to Lublin in 1934, the celebrated modernist poet became more pessimistic about the idea of world literature. Molodowsky, conversely, relinquished this ambition from the outset. Claiming that “a literature needs to be sovereign, it needs to live under its own light” (qtd. in Zaritt 90), she embraced the fragmented vernacular of the street, utilizing it for institution-building which transcends external demands.

Whereas Glatstein strove to redeem the Yiddish vernacular through a modernist fragmentation that renders it untranslatable (or open to deferred future translations), Isaac Bashevis Singer shaped his literary persona by performing his independence from a vernacular tradition. Chapter 3 studies both Bashevis’s “desire for the world and the limits of that desire” (100). It is here that Zaritt’s view of literary agency is most persuasive, as he shows that Bashevis’s texts never fully relinquish a vernacular belonging. Rather, his works, particularly his short stories in Yiddish and in English of the 60s and 70s, come to inhabit “a ghost world literature in which his global ambitions coexist with Yiddish specters that refuse to be universalized” (101). In these stories, Bashevis turns to the figure of “the contemporary Yiddish writer taking up with his ghosts” (124), thus allowing “ghosts and demons of the vernacular past to haunt his work” (127).

While Asch, Glatstein, and Bashevis face the demands of “world” literature as Yiddish writers, Saul Bellow does so while writing in the major language. Nonetheless, the interpellating label “Jewish” with which Bellow struggles operates under the same hierarchical cultural system. As Chapter 4 shows, it is this problem of naming, and being named, which leads Bellow to develop “a ‘parochial’ world literature—writing that hinges on the possibility of the local as a site of transcendence” (130).

In the book’s four chapters, Zaritt describes the often-misogynist dispositions of authors like Bashevis and Bellow, and delineates the almost exclusively male world within which these writers strove to become legible. In the epilogue, therefore, he moves on to demonstrate how Jewish American women authors have developed ways to transcend these constraints. It is here that the themes of legibility, alterity, and gender converge. Whereas for Bashevis and Bellow, “writing toward the world often requires a specific gender performance,” Anna Margolin and Grace Paley refuse to “recourse to institutional legibility and patriarchal authority” (153). For Zaritt, this places them outside the spectral dynamic that characterizes the four male authors discussed in the book. Zaritt effectively considers their historical marginalization, and he makes a solid case that institutionalized gender differences shape different political and aesthetic strategies. Nevertheless, I wonder whether this argument could have been more nuanced if the book considered writers like Anzia Yezierska or, lehavdil, Jacqueline Kahanoff, who write for the world while confronting the institution of Anglo-American literature, and who generate in their English works similar spectral presences of Jewish vernaculars. In her novels and stories, as well as in essays such as “America and I” and “How I Found America,” Yezierska utilizes the immigrant vernacular to democratize the language of literature (both with a capital L). Kahanoff similarly writes in the language of empire and publishes her early work in popular American magazines such as The Atlantic. This choice allows her to “Levantinize” English by making her text into a rich network of translational exchange.

Overall, Jewish American Writing and World Literature offers a rich and lucid discussion of the challenges Jewish-American authors faced in the course of the twentieth century, whether they originally wrote in Yiddish or English, to millions or to nobody, through the lenses of translation and “universal” reception. The book is a remarkable contribution to the fields of comparative literature, American studies, and Jewish studies, and will be useful to scholars in each of these fields precisely because of Zaritt’s deft triangulation between the interests of the three. Replete with insightful close readings of key historical and literary texts, Jewish American Writing and World Literature complicates the limiting binary of the national/transnational models. It further shifts our exploration of authorial agency to in-between peripheral spaces. Zaritt also carries forward the growing multilingual turn in Jewish studies. Conversing with seminal studies by Anita Norich, Chana Kronfeld, Lital Levy, Hana Wirth-Nesher and others, his work pushes against simplistic historical narratives of monolingual Jewish assimilation into the imperial culture. Zaritt’s reading of immigrant and post-immigrant Jewish American writing thus offers an important case study for the dynamics of literary legibility. As such, his close readings allow his monograph to develop a much-needed new perspective on the relations between literature, language, Jewishness, and the world.

*Saul Noam Zaritt is In geveb’s Peer Review Editor and one of our founding editors.

Luzon, Danny. “Review of Jewish American Writing and World Literature: Maybe to Millions, Maybe to Nobody by Saul Noam Zaritt.” In geveb, March 2021:
Luzon, Danny. “Review of Jewish American Writing and World Literature: Maybe to Millions, Maybe to Nobody by Saul Noam Zaritt.” In geveb (March 2021): Accessed Jun 22, 2024.


Danny Luzon

Danny Luzon is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of English at the University of Haifa.