A list of the best or greatest books seems, on the surface, very silly. Whether voted on by the reading public or selected by committee, such lists are always subjective and rather arbitrary. Hold another vote, gather other experts, and the list turns out quite differently.
A Gargantuan Task
This bothered me, quite a bit, as I researched and wrote American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, which offers brief introductions to 125 selected novels and short story collections. What was I producing, I wondered, if not a list of personal favorites?
Seeing my consternation, a well-read friend lent me a copy of Gerald Prince’s Guide du Roman de Langue Française (Guide to the French Novel). Offering thumbnail reviews of hundreds of French novels, Prince models his book explicitly on the Michelin travel guides, down to their infamous star ratings. I couldn’t imagine labeling books with one, two, or three stars, but otherwise I appreciated this approach.
No travel guidebook lists only the finest hotels or world-famous attractions; rather, such books present enough suggestions in enough categories to allow travelers to navigate their destinations independently. Some people may walk around Sydney or Buenos Aires with their noses in a Frommer’s; but those are the same types who read a dictionary from A to Z. Most of us skim the guidebook on the plane and dive into our travels, letting our instincts lead us and referring back to the book only when we’re turned around.
What is American Jewish Fiction?
My first step, then, involved drawing a border around the territory I would cover: what counts as American Jewish fiction, I had to ask, and what doesn’t? Scholars of modern Jewish literature seem always to be debating this question.
My approach was to cast a very wide net. Like a guidebook author, I wanted to offer readers all the information they need to make their own decisions about what to include or leave out of their journeys, so I mapped the very outer limits of American Jewish fiction: books written by non-Jews about American Jews, like Sidney Luska’s As It Was Written (1885) and John Updike’s Bech: A Book (1970), as well as books by Jews that barely mention Jews, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933); novels by Americans that don’t mention America, like Chaim Grade’s The Yeshiva (1967) and Howard Fast’s My Glorious Brothers (1948); plus a book about America–or, rather, Amerika (1927)–by a Jewish writer, Franz Kafka, who never set foot in the country.
To broaden my purview further, I spoke to experts not only in American Jewish literature, but also in adjacent fields. Alan Wald, a leading scholar of writers on the American Left brought obscure and wonderful novels to my attention, including Vera Caspary’s epic of a Sephardic family in Chicago, Thicker than Water (1932). Scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature directed me to the critical books about America written in those languages.
Some of the best suggestions came from Eileen Pollack, an extraordinary novelist and short story writer. She pointed me to, among other things, Steven Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), which has not generally been appreciated, as it should be, for the very subtle and powerful story it tells about what it means to be a Jewish writer in America. If Roth, Bellow, Bashevis, and Ozick can be considered the Taillevent and La Tour d’Argent of American Jewish fiction–that is, the deservedly famous Parisian gastronomic temples–books like Millhauser’s and Caspary’s are the hidden gems, the unsung fromageries of the Rue Mouffetard or the tiny café on the Ile St.-Louis that serves incomparable hot chocolate.
Narrowing it Down
Having consulted experts and a dozen or so bibliographies and histories, I generated a master list of about 300 books that I considered including. And then, of course, I began to read.
Soon, I found myself eliminating a few books that tread the same ground: Myron Kaufmann’s Remember Me to God (1957) struck me as more compelling than Harvey Swados’s similar Out Went the Candle (1955), for example. My personal tastes began to come into play; if I couldn’t imagine recommending a book to a friend or colleague under any circumstance, I would cut it. But that doesn’t mean that I love every book I covered. The sloppiness and cartoonishness of Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958) is not my personal cup of literary tea, but there’s no gainsaying the influence of that novel on American Jewish readers–so in it went.
In a few cases, I made frankly eccentric choices: why Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) instead of The Chosen (1967)? Why Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park (2001) instead of Katterskill Falls (1998)? My own preferences underlie these decisions, I’ll admit, but I was also driven by a desire to make readers reconsider their understandings of a particular author: why is it that everyone seems to read The Chosen first, and not Asher Lev? Is there something about that novel that earns it priority, or is it just the fact that The Chosen was published earlier and made a bigger splash?
Raising these sorts of questions is precisely the goal of my book. Every entry includes a “Further Reading” section that mentions the author’s other works, as well as biographical and critical sources, and books on similar themes, in the hopes that readers will want to ask their own questions, thereby blazing idiosyncratic trails and making personal discoveries.
The 125 books I decided to discuss in American Jewish Fiction cannot be called the “best” or the “greatest,” then. These books are points on a map, landmarks to orient the independent traveler in a literature that spans more than a continent and more than a century, from 1867 to 2007. If I have succeeded, my book will be an aid to those readers planning new journeys or return visits to one of the richest and most complex of literary traditions. I just hope it won’t stop any readers from getting lost in their reading.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.