To a Leading Critic, Both American-Jewish and Israeli Literature Express Deep Ambivalences

March 31, 2021 | Julian Levinson
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In The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century, Adam Kirsch seeks to create a sort of canon of Jewish literature from the past 100 years, combining selections with brief critical essays. Julian Levinson writes in his review:

The section on America portrays the drama of acculturation as a perilous balancing act between Jewish loyalties and American allurements. For every exuberant embrace of America as a new home for Jews (Kirsch points to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and many of Grace Paley’s stories), there are darker portents that an unbridgeable gulf ultimately divides Americanness and Jewishness. Nowhere is this clearer than in Cynthia Ozick’s story “The Pagan Rabbi,” which ends with a suicide, proving Ozick’s point, according to Kirsch, that “a rabbi can never become a true pagan. . . . To cherish the world, the body, and the senses is to sin against Judaism.”

American Jews, in this view, are doomed to wander between irreconcilable choices. Most of the American Jews depicted in the texts Kirsch selects are divided selves. But Israel hardly offers the relief from existential affliction that Zionist idealists have been insisting it would. From S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday to Orly Castel-Bloom’s [1992 novel] Dolly City, Kirsch exposes recurrent themes of madness, alienation, and spiritual confusion.

Where in all of this, we might ask, are the blessings promised by the title? Tellingly, both the America and Israel sections conclude with writers who use the language of religion, ritual, and prayer to create ultimately affirmative visions.

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