Review of The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher

Adriana X. Jacobs

The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 720 pages, $189

In 2001, the year that I began my graduate studies at Princeton, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the publication of The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, edited by Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein. In their general introduction, the editors proclaimed a commitment “to expand the question of identity to encompass all of its turns and folds” (3) by bringing together a wide range of textual genres and forms (comedy skits, song lyrics, legal petitions). Notably, the anthology ended with the section “Jews Translating Jews,” curated by Felstiner, where the borders of “American” encompass, via translation, voices from Israel, Hungary, al-Andalus, and France (to name a few). But the last word goes to David Unger’s translation of a poem by Isaac Goldemberg, who is described in a footnote as a “Peruvian author … born in Peru and [living] in New York City” (1169). Goldemberg’s poem, “The Jews in Hell,” is dated 1973, and its inclusion in this section raises the question of why it does not appear earlier in “Wandering and Return: Literature Since 1973.” Goldemberg immigrated to the US in 1964, so his poem, written in Spanish, is precisely the kind of text that would appear to fulfil the objectives of this anthology, but for the privileging of English-language texts in the anthology’s “since 1973” configuration of Jewish literature. Instead, Goldemberg remains a stranger within: “a Peruvian living in New York City.” And Goldemberg’s poem, in turn, performs its own exclusion by offering a portrait of hell that consists solely of male figures (Noah, Spinoza, Kafka, Einstein). Last words matter.

That year, Princeton’s Jewish Studies program hosted “Celebrating Jewish-American Writers” (October 21-23, 2001), an event celebrating the acquisition and exhibition of the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Collection of Jewish-American Writers; it also showcased the Norton, which featured prominently in the accompanying book display. At the time, the Norton was beyond my budget, but I was able to pick up a copy of the Princeton University Library Chronicle (v. 63, n. 1-2), which was dedicated to the Milberg Collection and included a short introduction by Leonard L. Milberg himself. Opening this volume today, I am struck by the fact that I don’t reach the first woman writer until page 99 (of 392). That of the fourteen drawings of writers, only two are women (Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt), and that all are white, and predominantly of Western European, Ashkenazi heritage. What stands out in his introduction is the metric that Milberg, in consultation with various Princeton faculty, employs for acquiring materials: “we chose people who were clearly identified as Jews, and who had achieved a high level of literary accomplishment” (Milberg, 31). That today this reads like a narrow, problematic metric is an understatement. Milberg was also motivated by a desire to bolster Princeton’s “Jewish intellectual presence,” which in his view lagged behind “other great American universities, like Columbia and Harvard” (29). Nonetheless, his emphasis on “excellence,” while well-intentioned, remains enmeshed in a culture of privilege that affords limited access to these texts.

Two years later, the Cambridge Companion of Jewish American Literature appeared, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael P. Kramer. This volume gathered critical essays around a specific focus on race, gender, multilingualism, and transnationalism. These interests, particularly multilingualism, have been ongoing concerns for Wirth-Nesher, who teaches in the Department of English and American Studies at Tel Aviv University. From her 2008 study Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature to the present volume, her work has been invested in rethinking and reframing Jewish American literature as a polyphonic literature, and specifically in challenging the perceived monolingualism of English. Although the volume appeared in English, it could offer a more diverse reading of Jewish American writing precisely because it was not constrained by language; it could bring into its discussion texts that had not appeared yet in English-language translation. The 2016 The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature constitutes a continuation of this project, which now brings Sephardic and Mizrahi voices to the table and includes hemispheric studies, film and drama, a more nuanced treatment of race and sexuality, and even a critical examination of the genre of the anthology itself.

The jacket blurb for the present volume boldly asserts that it “offers an unparalleled examination of all aspects of Jewish American literature.” Unparalleled—how? For one, it promises to “locate” Jewish American literature in a comprehensive map, one that takes into account “current debates about ethnic writing, minority discourse, transnational literature, gender studies, and multilingualism.” This objective suggests that previous configurations of Jewish American literature were narrower and less varied with respect to language, culture, and geography. Indeed, the closing sentence of the blurb underscores that this volume will consider a more generous framing of Jewish American literature that encompasses “the spaces of exile and diaspora, and stretches the boundaries of American literature beyond the Americans and the West.” It is with this “beyond” in mind that I continued reading.

In her introduction, Wirth-Nesher underscores that “it is the aim of The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature to enrich the study of American and Jewish literatures by offering diverse methods and works” (13). The anthology on the whole does an admirable job in doing so, but as an anthology that is also meant to find a place in the classroom and offer new readers a critical introduction, this objective sometimes comes into tension with the book’s more ambitious conceptual project. The very fact that this is a “history” requires periodization, but this approach—largely undertaken in chronological terms—hampers the more radical and interesting work happening in chapters that propose alternative historiographical approaches to Jewish American literature (Weingrad, Casteel, Rubenstein, Kandiyoti). In the first third of the volume, we tread more or less on familiar, even cautious, ground, with essays that reevaluate the traditional (and male-centered) Jewish American canon (Michael Wood). Emma Lazarus appears frequently here as a counterfigure to the male-centeredness of this canon, as well as an exemplar of “early” Jewish American literature, though Rachel Rubenstein’s excellent chapter “Encountering Native Origins” suggests the Spanish Americas as a starting point, one that would unsettle the continued primacy given to English. Zooming in through continents, countries, and cities, Michael Weingrad’s illuminating study on American Hebrew poetry suggests a second-floor home office in Texas as one of the many centers of modern Hebrew poetry.

Perhaps not surprising is the tension throughout the volume between distinct understandings of what it means for an author and/or text to be “American.” Indeed, at the end of her acknowledgments, Wirth-Nesher offers a word of thanks to Sacvan Bercovitch, the Canadian-born scholar of American Studies, who passed away as the volume was nearing completion. “This volume attests to how much Saki taught us about American literature,” Wirth-Nesher writes (xviii). As far as acknowledgments go, this one carries significant political weight. A recurring theme in this volume is the indebtedness of Jewish American literature to the perspectives and voices of outsiders, but Bercovitch’s outside status also depends on where one places the borders of American Studies, a field that has been reshaped in recent years by its own transnational turn. If the presence of the United States still feels monolithic in this volume, Wendy Zierler’s contribution on Jewish literary anthologies reminds us that this was not always the case. Writing about The Jewish Caravan, a 1935 anthology of Jewish literature edited by Leo W. Schwarz, Zierler notes that the Americas—both the United States and Latin America included—counted for one-eighth of the total volume, leaving the “impression…of American Jewish literature as a fledgling enterprise that could not yet stand on its own” (474). Yet, by the 1970s, this canon became recentered around the United States, and particularly around the orbit of New York City.

In his essay “Jews on America’s Racial Map,” Adam Zachary Newton writes, “the elusive ideal of a modern Jewish canon succeeds only to the degree that the container takes its cue from shifting contents within” (517). Newton makes this observation in the context of his discussion of the author Walter Mosely, who is both African-American and Jewish and whose work constitutes part of a larger investigation on how race figures into current mappings of Jewish American literature. But this comment could be extended as part of a critique of this volume as a whole. Newton’s metaphor of the container recalls Edna Aizenberg’s “samovar,” which offered a theorization of Latin American Jewish literature along plurilingual and transnational lines. Like the samovar, Newton’s container applies here not only to canonization, but also to mapping. Earlier in the chapter, he writes of “the extendable boundaries—the shifting landscape—of America’s racial map” (507). And while his reading pivots around race, it is not hard to see how this emphasis on “shifting” unsettles the very questions that shape this volume: What makes a literature Jewish? American? To her credit, Wirth-Nesher allows for a debate to take place across these chapters and does not aim to settle these questions definitively. Nevertheless, when “America” expands hemispherically, globally, and even intergalactically (Weingrad, 295-96), it is not surprising that a richer array of material comes into view, like Kandiyoti’s work on Middle Eastern Jewish writing and Rebecca Margolis’s study on Canadian Jewish literature.

Josh Lambert’s closing chapter on post-2000 Jewish literature offers a critical perspective on the future of the field through an examination of the institutions that have empowered Jewish American (or American Jewish, as he prefers) literature in the twenty-first century (in the form of prizes, fellowships, scholarships). The success of writers like Dara Horn and Jonathan Safran Foer, who are amply profiled in this piece, can be credited to an educational system that, in the postwar period, “became ever more capable of supporting writers interested in Jews and Jewishness” (623). Positioning Horn and Foer, both educated in the Ivy Leagues and raised in the orbit of New York City, as the future of this field carries serious implications in this volume, a fact that Lambert himself acknowledges when he observes that the increasing institutionalization of Jewish American literature risks “the reproduction of privilege” (636). Indeed, many of the preceding chapters in this volume argue persuasively that its future relies very much on a reassessment and re-visioning (in Adrienne Rich’s sense of the term) of the past along more expansive and inclusive lines. To that end, a commitment to “stretching the boundaries” of Jewish American literature urges a careful consideration of how volumes like The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature are bookended. Ensuring that there is space enough for “all aspects” of this literature, making room for its contents to “shift,” relies in no small measure on where we place the first and last word.

Jacobs, Adriana X. “Review of The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher.” In geveb, November 2018:
Jacobs, Adriana X. “Review of The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher.” In geveb (November 2018): Accessed Dec 15, 2018.


Adriana X. Jacobs

Adriana X. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Oxford and author of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (University of Michigan, 2018).