Novelists at S.F. conference discuss writing Jewish

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Jewish culture may be floating away from itself, having lost its linguistic and historic moorings, according to Jerome Chanes, a Yeshiva University professor and author of "The Dark Side of History: Anti-Semitism through the Ages."

"Seventy years ago, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Jewish people," said the imposingly tall, white-haired Chanes, introducing a National Foundation for Jewish Culture panel on fiction writing Sunday in San Francisco. "Today, English — not, I'm sorry to say, Hebrew — is the lingua franca of the Jewish people."

Alvin Rosenfeld, author of "Imagining Hitler," disagreed. The director of the Indiana University Jewish studies program said that "Jewry can survive without a Jewish language but not without language," a quote from the literary critic Harold Bloom.

"We are a verbal people if ever there was one," said the natty, erudite Rosenfeld.

The panel was part of "Writing About One's Own: New Jewish Explorations in Fiction and Memoir," held at the Yerba Buena Arts Center. In addition to Chanes and Rosenfeld, participants included Brian Morton, author of "Starting Out in the Evening," and Rebecca Goldstein, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award and author of "The Mind-Body Problem" and "Mazel."

The event was sponsored by the NFJC, of which Chanes is program director; the Koret Foundation; and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

"While it may be premature to call this a Renaissance of Jewish creativity, it is a good time," said Rosenfeld, before discussing his own favorite writers. "Take a closer look and some wonderful things begin to appear."

However, he, too, lamented the disappearance of the "rich culture" of earlier generations to draw on.

"We know where many Jews are headed — out the door," he said, leaving writers to "fill the empty Jewish places within us."

Some in attendance, however, appeared taken aback by Rosenfeld's praise for Philip Roth, insisting that "the American Jewish community has grown up enough to appreciate …the bad boy of Jewish letters."

"In 'American Pastoral,' his vengeance against the 1960s and all its messiness held forth with traditional Jewish family values," Rosenfeld said. Perhaps coincidentally, a group of four women then rose and tiptoed out the door.

His second favorite: Cynthia Ozick, who writes "Jewish novels of ideas." And Goldstein, herself a panelist, "keeps us honest" in a time when writers who do not know any better sentimentalize the Orthodox."

Morton, the editor of the progressive Dissent quarterly, insisted he "knows nothing whatever about the subject of Jewish fiction."

Tall, affable and self-effacing, Morton added with a grin, "I never thought for a moment I was writing a Jewish novel."

Rather, writers "need complete freedom" to write persuasively, he said. "A moral element" will take shape, but "not by design."

Although Morton's "The Dylanist" was called "an impressive first novel" by the New York Daily News, Morton said it "had the shelf life of milk," largely because he failed to create a full character in a believable environment. He fared better the second time around with Leonard Schiller, whom he saw as "a very marginal member of the New York intellectual" set, the central character of "Starting Out in the Evening." The character embraced the "humane democratic socialism" of one of Morton's heroes, Irving Howe.

A professor at Sarah Lawrence University, Morton closed with an anecdote from the classroom. One student commented that "genocide in South Africa means less to me than a tragedy in my own family." Another student responded, "I'm sorry your family is so small."

Like Morton, Goldstein did not set out to write a Jewish novel.

A philosopher and mathematician by training, Goldstein, who teaches at Columbia University, said pursuit of the "hard, crystalline beauty" of such subjects was her way out of a "very Orthodox family" — one in which girls were dissuaded from attending college.

The golden-haired, waif-like Goldstein said her book of stories qualifies her as five-ninths of a Jewish writer, since five of the nine feature Jewish themes and settings.

Inspired by her own trials with her adolescent daughter, Goldstein set out to write of three generations of women who "love each other, accept each other, but can't understand each other." She made the grandmother a veteran of the Yiddish theater, "and for that reason alone, the characters turned out Jewish."

Research bore a rich yield: "It was a revelation to me, what a high culture existed there, how much avant-garde experimentation was taking place…it all felt very familiar to me. People coming out of the shtetls, hungry for the world, yet pulled back."

A contradiction to all she trained herself to be, Goldstein said, "Writing is an extremely irrational process. The Jewishness will creep up on me for reasons I don't understand."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.