Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth and Kisufim

'Is it unrealistic to hope that Jewish literature can redeem the world?'

By STEPHANIE GINENSKY
April 26, 2007 18:01
3 minute read.
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Last week, I took a day off from writing my thesis on Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth to attend the Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets, called in Hebrew Kisufim. Of course, when you are writing a thesis, suddenly the whole world is connected to your subject, but in this case, it was true, since the theme of the day happened to be Jewish writers. The conference prompted me to reflect on how I came to be writing about Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth in the first place. A bizarre pairing, it might seem. So, I started contemplating what was the missing link between Tevye and Portnoy, the main characters of Aleichem's A Fiddler on the Roof and Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. By the end of the last discussion, having spent the last hour sitting less than two feet away from the author and critic Nessa Rapoport, I finally got it. She was the missing link, or not exactly her, but rather the fictional heroine in her 1980 novel Preparing for Sabbath. Apparently a critic once referred to this heroine as "unremarkable." Not very flattering. I think I would have either sublimated such a comment or spent the entire rest of my career in Philip Roth mode, making it the subject of every book hence. But by the end of the panel discussion, I realized that this "unremarkable" heroine was actually, remarkably, the missing link in the chain extending from Sholem Aleichem to Philip Roth. And, I also realized that though chains are usually thought of as extending chronologically from past to future, in this case, the chain went backwards. See, I was born into the world of Portnoy, not Tevye: English speaking, secular, assimilated, all-American suburbia. Though fiddlers on roofs resonated with some deep cultural memory, I myself lacked any firsthand knowledge of Yiddish, Hebrew, Yiddishkeit, Jewish ritual or the shtetl. Portnoy, on the other hand, was familiar. I thought he was just another self-absorbed kid who might have gone to my high school. Then one day, in the local public library, I spotted Preparing for Sabbath. Having exhausted just about the entire literature section, I took it home, and within a matter of hours, the book took me home. Home to a tradition that I sensed was mine. And all because the heroine in the book was nothing special. She was like me - unremarkable! And yet, she was remarkable, because she had a connection to a tradition that went beyond "Sunrise, Sunset." Preparing for Sabbath was not really the first American-Jewish literature that I had read. Apart from Portnoy's Complaint, I had read other books by well-known Jewish-American writers. But Preparing for Sabbath was the first Jewish novel. It is what ultimately transported me from the world of Philip Roth to the world of Sholem Aleichem. Suddenly, those rituals that I knew only from Fiddler on the Roof, were being enacted by this unremarkable character who spoke English and with whom, frankly, I had more in common than Portnoy. When Rivka Miriam spoke at the conference about seeing herself as part of a story that started before her and will continue after her, I understood her, literally and metaphorically. Many years before, I would have found her Hebrew and her communal consciousness foreign. But reading Rapoport's novel had prepared me. The moment I finished that book, I felt transformed. I, too, was a "bat melech," heir to a rich legacy. I wanted in. Years later, when I already had an MA in Jewish literature, I read an essay by Nessa Rapoport entitled "Text, Language, and the Hope of Redemption," in which she said, "To be a Jewish writer is to do what Jews have always done: Fashion text and language in the hope of redemption." I thought hard about that claim. Is it unrealistic to hope that Jewish literature can redeem the world? Maybe. But in Ethics of the Fathers, we find the notion that to redeem one life is to redeem the entire world. As someone who personally began her journey home with a Jewish novel as my compass, I believe in the redemptive power of Jewish literature. The writer is currently working on her Ph.D. in American-Jewish literature at Tel Aviv University.


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