University of Washington professor Naomi Sokoloff issued a well-defined invitation to her Jewish Studies colleagues around the U.S. and Canada when she envisioned the symposium “American Jewish Writing Today.”
Sokoloff wanted papers, lectures and discussion to address Jewish writing published since 2000. The interdisciplinary group of contributors at the April 14 gathering at the UW covered an eclectic range of genres, themes, writers and artists in the daylong event. Sokoloff, former chair of the Jewish Studies program, described the current literary moment as “a really exciting time in Jewish publishing, with new authors being published and established authors publishing new material.”
Sara Horowitz, a professor in the Division of Humanities and the Centre for Jewish Studies at Toronto’s York University, gave the keynote address at UW Hillel as the program’s finale. Horowitz focused her remarks on the controversy surrounding a recent opinion piece in The New York Times Review of Books. Wendy Shalit’s “The Observant Reader” included harsh criticism of a number of Jewish novelists who have dealt with the ultra-Orthodox community in America.
Shalit’s essay sparked a literary firestorm that has raged in classrooms, blogs, letters to the editor, and literary publications since its appearance on January 30 of this year.
Shalit discussed a young group of authors, some of whom have published only their debut novels. She called into question the validity of fiction that does not positively represent the observant community, as well as the agendas and credentials of writers who create this fiction. Shalit named names in The Times, including critically acclaimed authors Allegra Goodman, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Rosen, Tovah Reich and Tova Mirvis.
Horowitz refrained from a frontal attack on Shalit’s point of view. Nevertheless, she methodically debunked many of Shalit’s assertions. Horowitz rejected the suggestion that fiction writing demands an author to have “insider status” in a community to write about it. Further, Horowitz denied Shalit’s implicit plea that observant characters’ motives, actions or feelings be positive and admirable when it comes to their religious practice.
Horowitz attributed the imbroglio and its still-reverberating echoes to a pair of factors: looking at the Jewish community defining itself for itself, Horowitz described a contemporary American population in flux when she said, “Jews move in and outside of communities at different times in their lives—and sometimes, at different times of the day.”
Horowitz continued by reflecting on external considerations. An audience member wondered why a nuanced discussion of the observant community was played out on the pages of The New York Times. Horowitz responded that in the literary pages of the nation’s paper of record, “The writer’s writer is Jewish, and the critic’s critic is Jewish.”
Horowitz’s remarks dealt with popular literary fiction, but the symposium traversed diverse subjects that included Philip Roth, rabbinic portraits, graphic novels, the role of women in Judaism, Hebrew poetry and Russian ÈmigrÈ writing.
Roth’s The Plot Against America sparked a polite but impassioned divergence of opinions from the invited panelists. UW professors Noam Pianko and Susan Glenn had markedly different readings of Roth’s most recent work. Roth’s “what if” book explores how fascism and anti-Jewish sentiment might have played out in a pre-World War II America that offered Charles Lindbergh as president.
Pianko described a “pro-Zionist novel” that “deconstructs the whole theme of American exceptionalism.” Pianko focused on the idea that Roth’s novel locates the American Jewish experience within historic anti-Semitism. Glenn, on the other hand, saw in this latest Roth offering the same “universalist” ideas she saw in the author’s previous works.
Sokoloff rounded out the Roth discussion with a literary focus on plot and structure. Reflecting later on the Roth panel in particular but summarizing the symposium as a whole, Sokoloff noted “a focus on anti-Semitism reflecting concern in the [American] Jewish community that has been prevalent for some time.”
Professor Michael Wiengrad of Portland State University and a graduate of the UW’s doctoral program presented the day’s most unusual subject. Weingrad was introduced, via e-mail, to the poetry of Robert Whitehill, a Texas-bred Jew who composes in Hebrew.
Raised in an assimilated family in Lubbock, Whitehall acquired his Hebrew through language tapes, library books, and independent study. Since he began writing, Whitehall has published two volumes of Hebrew poetry in Israel. He is currently seeking Israeli publication for his third volume of poems.
The event’s long list of sponsors included numerous departments and programs at the UW, Nextbook, and Hillel. Sokoloff and many of the symposium’s participants are part of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington.
According to Sokoloff, “The program consists of interested parties from a variety of disciplines who want to make Jewish Studies happen.”