“Would it be too fantastical,” asks the Anglo-Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson, “to think of Jeremiah and Isaiah as forerunners of Malamud and Mailer?” After all, Jacobson writes, the prophecies delivered by such biblical figures “are not so much prognostications of trouble to come as scathing commentaries on the present: diatribes and lamentations that are terrible indeed.” Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, and other great Jewish writers of the mid-20th century certainly had a knack for producing “scathing commentaries on the present.” But where does that leave the Jewish writer of today, who faces a present with very different failings?
A new prophecy for our times is what we look to Jewish writers for now. A flurry of art, hot from the mouth of God, as alive to the teeming world of men and women as were Jeremiah’s denunciations, but no less admonitory, perhaps a little less Chicago-and-Newark street-smart this time around, and a little more “old European” in the Singer style, or “new Israeli” in the tragic manner of David Grossman, but still manic in its high-mindedness, blasphemous, hilarious, and above all unapologetic. The great prophets knew what to say to the backsliding Jew, long before the backsliding Jew had Zionism as his excuse. They cannot be a light unto other nations who denigrate their own.