A few days ago my novel, Fields of Exile, was published in the USA, and this month marks exactly four years since I started the free online literary journal that I created and edit, JewishFiction.net. The convergence of these two events has got me thinking about solitariness and community in the lives of writers.
I feel very fortunate to be both a writer and the editor ofJewishFiction.net. Writing is a solitary activity, and this journal provides me with a kind of community since producing it occurs in communal, social space. In our first four years, JewishFiction.net has published 186 first-rate works of fiction (stories or novel excerpts) that had never previously been published in English, and that were originally written in eleven languages and on five continents. We’re honored to have published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, as well as many fine writers who are not yet well-known.
I’m often asked why I started JewishFiction.net, and the answer is that—in light of the crisis in the publishing industry—I was concerned that a lot of the great Jewish fiction being written now around the world would get lost. Recently, though, reflecting on the upcoming fourth birthday of Jewish Fiction.net, I recognized another, subtler antecedent to the birth of this journal.
My paternal grandmother, Leah Shteinman Gold, strongly believed that she (and everyone else) had an obligation to support Jewish writers and artists. I heard her say more than once, “We have to feed our poets.” She meant this not only figuratively—she was generous in her encouragement and appreciation for their work—but also literally. In the world she lived in, Yiddish-speaking Montreal, her home was a haven for struggling poets, writers, and intellectuals, and she often fed them actual meals. Some of my less charitable relatives referred to these people as “shnorrers,” but my grandmother stoutly rejected this characterization. “They are our writers,” she’d say. “We have to support them. They’re the future of our culture.”
She also helped these writers by always trying to find work for them. One result of this was that my father learned his bar mitzvah portion from the great poet Yud Yud Segal, and one of my brothers and I got weekly lessons in Yiddish language and literature from Sholem Shtern, another fine poet. I remember how, whenever Lerer (Teacher) Shtern came to our home for a lesson, first of all he’d receive a cup of coffee coffee and a bagel. For me, therefore, food and literature became intimately intertwined. One fed a Yiddish poet and he fed you Yiddish poetry.
As I reminisce about this now, perhaps it’s not surprising that I started a journal to help Jewish writers. Maybe this impulse runs in my blood. But here’s what’s surprising about it. In giving JewishFiction.net to the international Jewish literary community, I got something back. In feeding other writers, I’ve been fed, too. Through bringing together writers from around the world and introducing them to each other, and introducing all these writers to our journal’s large readership, I’ve met many interesting, delightful writers from Australia, Serbia, Argentina, Israel, Russia, Romania, Spain, Poland, France, Croatia, Iraq, the UK, and of course North America.
What I have been given—what I have received—from JewishFiction.net is something incomparably precious: a literary community, maybe even a literary home. And what greater gift could there be to any writer, struggling alone in solitariness, than to know that one’s work is being—even if invisibly—supported, cherished, and appreciated, and that in our solitary writing lives, we are not alone?
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I can’t think of a period over our last 3,000 years of history—yes, since the Bible began to take shape as a compendium of folktales—when Jews haven’t been part of a literary renaissance. We’re always dying…and leave a record of our near extinction. Indeed, Jewish literature thrives because it is constantly said to be on its last stand.
We write the apocalypse: no sooner does someone announce our demise, we do everything possible to prove it wrong.
Ours, no doubt, are apocalyptic times. Not since 1945 has anti-Semitism been more noxious than it is now. All of us Jews are seen as parasites in countless places. The hatred against us wasn’t cured after the Holocaust; it simply went commando.
We’ll unquestionably survive the current climate of animosity, although not without casualties: we’ll be again be physically decimated, not to say psychologically bruised. It has taken us a long time to think ourselves out of the Holocaust. Our next survival will also require enormous stamina.
That’s the eternal cycle in which we’re actors. The theme of Jewish history—and its literature—is the dialectic between creation and destruction.
We’re textual creatures: our primary relationship with the world isn’t material but textual. We’re simultaneously authors and characters in a larger-than-life narrative. And texts connote languages. Every chapter in our history is delivered in another language. I don’t see a literary renaissance today in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Russian… Our current mode, our lengua franca, is English. In fact, English is
what Yiddish was a century ago: our portable homeland.
That habitat isn’t eternal; it will perish, just as others did before.
What puzzles me about the present-day literary renaissance is its hubris: American Jews believe they their sheer drive can overcome anything. Yet no diaspora in Jewish history has been more insular, and more monolingual too. Our literature is a testament to our arrogance.
A measured life is defined by the awareness of its own shortcomings.