Novelists in the Nineties

In the 1970s, literary critics predicted the demise of the Jewish American novel. A talented group of novelists proved them wrong.

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Readers first met the indomitable Rose Markowitz and her sons Ed and Henry in the pages of Commentary magazine and later between the hard covers of an extraordinary collection of short stories entitled Sudden Immersion (1989). That Allegra Goodman was a Harvard senior at the time took one's breath away, not only because the stories were so masterfully crafted, but also because they demonstrated prodigious wisdom. Many of the early tales were set in the Hawaii of her childhood, as if she were out to transport the social realism and biting satire of a young Phillip Roth from Newark's immigrant Jewish suburbs to the unlikely landscape of lanai and lei; but there were also intimations ("Early Variant" is one of them) that Goodman had much wider ambitions. She understands the subtle ways in which academic pretentiousness, contemporary culture, and Jewish Orthodoxy make shaky efforts at coexistence. Most of all, however, Goodman has a knack for creating characters we remember and care about, and she has an endless capacity for human surprise.

Rebecca Goldstein

At first glance, Rebecca Goldstein seems like an older, more intellectual version of Goodman. Her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem (1983), is part academic satire, part meditation on the tension between sexuality and spiritual longing. As her fiction has evolved, Goldstein has focused more on her roots, and like the protagonist who once tried (comically) to shuck off Jewishness only to have it return, it has become an integral, abiding presence.

Born into a traditionally observant Jewish family, Goldstein attended a rigorously Orthodox girls' yeshiva for her high school years. She went on to perform distinguished academic work, first at Barnard and then at Princeton, where she completed her Ph.D. in the philosophy of science. Currently she teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Goldstein's typical protagonists tend to be women as long on academic smarts as they are short on confidence and common sense. Mazel (Viking), her latest novel, is no exception, although Sasha, the Saunders family's eighty-year-old matriarch, gives the old formula some new, unexpected twists. To her daughter, a free-thinking philosopher formed by the sixties, and her granddaughter, Phoebe, a mathematician who specializes in the "geometry of soap bubbles," Sasha's stories of how she moved from the restrictions of Old World Orthodoxy to stardom on Warsaw's pre-war Yiddish stage are as deliciously layered at a Sacher torte; and her no-nonsense, yet abiding love ("You're so open-minded," she chides her daughter, Chloe, "that I think your brain must have fallen out!") not only tells us much about "mazel," or luck, but also about the ties that bind mothers to daughters, a Jewish past to a Jewish present.

Other writers (among them Tova Reich, Allen Hoffman, Robert Cohen, and Thane Rosenbaum) could easily have been included here. Each is distinctive, but taken together they represent a direction in Jewish American literature that promises to make the next decades at least as rich as the ones that gave us writers such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, I.B. Singer, and Cynthia Ozick.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.