Jewish Immigrant Literature

Yiddish-speaking Jews put faith in the language of their new country and left an indelible mark on American letters.

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The story of the Jewish immigrant in American literature hardly ends there. After the lauded generation of Roth, Bernard Malamud and others wrote about them as their parents, a new generation of American Jewish writers, most with little firsthand experience of immigrants, adopted the stories of their grandparents’ generation as their own.

Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (2003), Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (2006), and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2008) borrowed the Yiddish culture and Eastern European roots of the Jewish past for their historically infused tales of past meeting present. And young, contemporary writers like Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis are themselves immigrants from the former Soviet Union, their wise, witty stories of fearful parents, world- weary children, and overbearing relatives, like Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) and Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories (2005) are direct descendants, updated for the modern age, of writers like Yezierska and Cahan. As far as American Jews have traveled, and as many inroads as they have made into the mainstream of the country’s life, the immigrant’s tale remains fundamentally their own. 

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.