Bellow Was So Jewish He Could Travel Any Distance Without Risking That Allegiance

His reputation will fall and rise with his people’s.

Saul Bellow in 1989. Kevin Horan/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images.

Saul Bellow in 1989. Kevin Horan/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images.

Last Word
Oct. 28 2019
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


It was well worth my tracing of Saul Bellow’s entry into Anglo-American literature if only to elicit responses from Hillel Halkin and Adam Kirsch—keenest of readers, most learned of authors, and finest of critics.

Writing independently from Israel and New York, both respondents demur from my emphasis on Bellow’s Jewishness, associating him more with Matthew Arnold’s worldliness than with the directives of Moses at Sinai. Halkin finds him wonderfully suspended between Hebraism and Hellenism, “following the whole play of the universal order.” Kirsch thinks that until late in his life, Bellow’s Jewishness was “an empty signifier, available to be filled with emotions and ideas born of family memories, a loose understanding of Jewish history, and encounters with anti-Semitism.”

In the priorities of everyday life—that is, living as a Jew—I have been much closer to both Halkin and Kirsch than I once was to Bellow. In fact, I saw the great Nobelist as they do. But I was mistaken. As a novelist and an intellectual, Bellow was so inherently, intimately, and thoroughly Jewish that he could travel any distance and test any subject without diminishing that allegiance or putting it at risk.

What follows is just a hint of the abundant evidence for that statement.

 

Since my good friend Hillel Halkin mentions my friendship with the Bellows, I grant that one reason I felt so much at home with Saul is that we spoke the same language. He spoke Yiddish with his older brothers as I speak Yiddish with my younger brother, and we often conversed in his native tongue. Raised in a literate Yiddish home, where his father read serialized Yiddish fiction aloud to the family, he spoke it uncommonly well, as did his high-school friend Isaac Rosenfeld, who himself wrote several stories in Yiddish. Together as college students they composed Yiddish parodies of T.S.Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (parts have survived) and of John Milton (none of it has survived).

These hijinks were a function of their cultural confidence, courtesy of their homes and of growing up in America. Alas, one cannot imagine Franz Kafka and Max Brod composing Yiddish parodies of Kleist and Goethe. Bellow, by contrast, never labored in the shadow of Henry James or any other English master. When he did look for a literary model, he chose Dostoevsky: the writer who despite his anti-Jewish animus was much admired by Russian Jews and by the New York intellectuals.

Bellow could write profoundly Jewish fiction without making his characters demonstratively Jewish. One such character is Tommy Wilhelm of Seize the Day (1956), who, in searching for poetry to express his grief, quotes from his high-school anthology of British verse (probably the same one once assigned to Bellow’s high-school class). Yet as Tommy sits nervously at a brokerage, watching the status of his latest trade sink on the stock market, he is asked by the old Jew beside him whether he has already reserved his synagogue seat for Yom Kippur; when he answers, “No,” the old man urges him to hurry up if he expects to say the memorial prayer of Yizkor for his parents.

Clearly recognizable as a Jew to a fellow Jew, Tommy plunges down a chute of guilt to the realization that he himself is the wrong kind of Jew—though “Whatever you are, it always turns out to be the wrong kind.” Several pages later he realizes, “Oh, this was a day of reckoning”—and so it is, all the way to the book’s final sentence.

The American literary critic Richard Chase placed the tradition of the American novel within the genre of the “romance,” a form that goes beyond realism or naturalism to probe the Puritan drama of good and evil. In tracing that tradition through the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James, Chase concluded his course at Columbia College with . . . Bellow’s Seize the Day. No doubt, some of his Jewish undergraduates recognized the novel’s undercurrent not as Protestant but as Jewish, and understood the word “reckoning” to mean the ḥeshbon ha-nefesh, the totting up of one’s sins and failings, during the Days of Awe. For the tough-spirited, the book still makes appropriate reading at that time of year.

 

Adam Kirsch correctly notes how long Bellow waited before addressing the fate of European Jewry in his fiction. This once bothered me as well. His post-World War II novel The Victim (1947), on which I linger in my essay, seemed to make matters worse by depicting Gentile and Jew ambiguously as casualties of each other’s paranoia. But the late Israeli critic Gershon Shaked claimed the novel was a direct response to the Holocaust—and if so, it was a prescient one.

In what sense? Bellow seldom wrote about anything he had not experienced. To Hitlerism he had no direct access because American Jews were not “survivors” but rather part of the armed force that defeated the Nazis. In fact, were they to import into the land of liberty the fears that were legitimate for Europe, they would have been in danger of forfeiting the unique opportunities afforded them by American democracy.

In The Victim Bellow wrote instead about the American brands of anti-Semitism that he knew at first hand. By featuring Yankee prejudice rather than Nazi Jew-obsession, he found the right equilibrium of caution and trust, self-protection and full participation in the American project. The Jews—a self-determined minority—would always live in some tension with Gentiles; the American Jewish writer was obliged to gauge the tension honestly, without minimizing or exaggerating.

 

As American society evolved, so did its Jews. By the mid-1980s, the dangers of homegrown anti-Semitism had receded, while the dangers of self-dissolution had grown. The Bellarosa Connection (1989), a novella, reaches back to the Holocaust to recount the apparently true story of a daring rescue operation by the American Jewish showman Billy Rose to pluck endangered Jews from Europe and bring them to the United States.

The unnamed narrator of this novella is troubled by the refusal of “Bellarosa”—as Fonstein, one of the rescued Jews, mishears his benefactor’s name—to have any contact with him. But Rose fends off every attempt by Fonstein and, later by Fonstein’s wife, to offer him even simple thanks. Rescue does not imply continuing interconnection. The narrator, a professional specialist in memory, commits the same offense by neglecting his own Jewish relatives until it is too late; by the time he tries to reach them, they have been killed in a car accident.

Bellow kept track of distant cousins; in real life, the memory specialist’s offense is one he would have taken very seriously. But in the book the true voice of memory is that of Fonstein’s wife Sorella, who tries unsuccessfully to blackmail Billy Rose into the minor courtesy of meeting with her husband. Once, Bellow, who was then living in Boston, visited my Harvard seminar when we were studying this work, and a student, having picked up a rumor, asked him whether he had based the figure of Sorella on the Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz—not physically, for Lucy was diminutive and Sorella is massive, but as the conscience of American Jewish memory.

An otherwise friendly interlocutor, Bellow bridled as he always did when asked about how his fiction got made, but Sorella’s concluding words are indeed reminiscent of Dawidowicz:

[If] you want my basic view, here it is: the Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now comes the next test—America. Can they hold their ground, or will the U.S.A. be too much for them?

Among American Jewish writers, only Cynthia Ozick ever saw this problem in its true dimensions and posed the question so clearly. Since 1989 when The Bellarosa Connection was published, a swath of American Jews has become not merely forgetful but antagonistic to the Jewish state. Read it and weep.

 

On one occasion Bellow did step out of his literary comfort zone to create a Holocaust survivor. This was the eponymous Artur Sammler of Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970): an assimilated Polish Jew who (like Joseph Conrad) acquired English through exposure to British culture. Foreign everywhere, Sammler has literally risen from the mass grave of European Jewry and thereby earned the right to pass judgment on human affairs, in this case human affairs on New York’s upper west side.

Sammler is indeed the most contrived figure in Bellow’s fiction; Kirsch cites the “improbability” of his life story, Nevertheless, he satisfies the literary theorist Viktor Shklovky’s concept that literature de-familiarizes to make us see the usual afresh. Because Sammler approaches his Jewishness from the outside, we get to see not only American Jewish life but Jewish life in Israel, which he has visited, as we had not seen it before.

I have always loved the description of Sammler’s first trip to the Holy Land, a name and a place that for him have been stripped of Jewish historical resonance because he was not raised as a Jew. Instead, in keeping with his education, Sammler visits Nazareth and then Capernaum, where Jesus may have preached in the synagogue. Near the latter site the one-eyed tourist sees from afar the Mount of the Beatitudes and then, turning eastward to gaze across the Sea of Galilee, the Syria-occupied Golan.

Two eyes would have been inadequate to the heaviness and smoothness of the color, parted with difficulty by fishing boats—the blue water, unusually dense, heavy, seemed sunk under the naked Syrian heights. Sammler’s heart was very much torn by feelings as he stood under the short, leaf-streaming banana trees.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon . . .

But those were England’s mountains green. The mountains opposite in serpentine nakedness were not at all green; they were ruddy, with smoky cavities and mysteries of inhuman power flaming above them.

The literate English-speaking reader is expected to supply here the rest of William Blake’s famous poem on Milton that serves the British as a hymn and ends with this extraordinary oath: “I will not cease from Mental Fight/ Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ On England’s green and pleasant land.” If the Torah speaks in the language of men, Bellow speaks in the language of his readers to evoke in them the biblical reverberations as transmitted through Milton and Blake. At the time of the novel’s publication, Jewish readers familiar with that Galilean landscape would have sensed the threat from the smoky cavities in those Syrian hills that, since Sammler’s visit, had been overcome by Israel in the Six-Day War. Through this surprising route, Bellow brings up to date the Psalmist’s pledge: “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. . . .”

 

Without even mentioning Bellow’s evisceration of Noam Chomsky and other anti-Israel assailants in To Jerusalem and Back (nonfiction, 1976) or the illuminating introduction he provides to his collection of Great Jewish Short Stories (1963), I want to adduce a final example from his fiction to show why his Jewish writing matters so much.

The novella Something to Remember Me By (1991) is the ethical will of a father to his only son that is itself cast in the form of a story, “the exact date of which will not matter much”—except that it surely did in the life of the author. Whether or not the fictional events in the story occurred just as Bellow describes them, they are set in Depression-era Chicago on a wintry afternoon in February 1933 when the topic for a local discussion group is “Von Hindenburg’s choice of Hitler to form a new government.”

This, for the father telling the story, evokes the day in his own life when as a seventeen-year-old he was forced to realize that his mother was dying. The sharpness of detail about her sickroom, the two urban prowlers whom he sees shooting pigeons for meat, the Chicago streetcar route that, in his afternoon job for a flower shop, has him delivering a bouquet to a dead Catholic girl, his later humiliation when he thinks he is about to be initiated into the mysteries of sex and instead suffers a torrent of abuse that ends with his returning home in ragtag women’s clothing: every element impresses us with what may have been Bellow’s greatest gift as a writer, namely, his astonishing memory. (As the memory expert in The Bellarosa Connection puts it, “At times I feel like a socket that remembers its tooth.”)

Upon returning home at the end of this mortifying adventure, the father reminisces,

I didn’t follow the plan I had laid for avoiding my father. There were people sitting at the kitchen table. I went straight in. My father rose from his chair and hurried toward me. His fist was ready. I took off my tam or woolen beret and when he hit me on the head the blow filled me with gratitude. If my mother had already died, he would have embraced me instead.

That is the most Jewish ending I’ve ever read, the refreshing pain of life overpowering the prospect of unbearable loss. The welcome slap is how it feels to stand under God’s judgment. The spiritual in Bellow comes in the form of paternal discipline. The steady disappearance of that judgment from American Jewish life, and of that discipline, should make us all the more grateful for its presence in his fiction.

Bellow was so very Jewish that I predict he will share the fate of the Jews in America, his reputation falling and rising with theirs.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Saul Bellow