Yes, there was Franz Kafka, but from Prague, a yearning for Zion almost completely absent from American writers who came of age in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
Think Bellow, Singer, Salinger, Heller, Mailer, Malamud, Wiesel…of course, Philip Roth whom we just lost.
To backtrack for moment, critics and even friends have warned me that One, I should be more respectful towards my equals since we are all in the same business. Two, perhaps in my own books (they cite specifically “Escape from Mount Moriah” and “The Bathsheba Deadline” and “Indecent Proposal”) I need not have been so… pro-Israel. (Well excuse me!)
“It shows?” I would say.
“Yes, it shows.”
Well then, good, and keep in mind that I am American and Jewish but not an “American Jewish Writer.”
From Salinger to Heller, I admired them all, even learned something from them, but theirs was an “American Experience” I never knew. Never mind the details. But I came from a different place. While Bellow was writing from Chicago, my family were up in the Pyrenees on the run from the Gestapo.
Chicago would have suited them fine. But FDR refused them Chicago or any other place in America.
Imagine a place where “each man can sit under the shade of his vine and fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.” (Micah)
That became the Land of Israel, a dream realized, but seldom appreciated by people safe in America but fully appreciated by survivors who were sent scattering without shoes.
I.B. Singer was a Jewish Writer, but for him it was mostly the shtetl experience. He was good. They were all good. Some won Nobel Prizes.
But on Israel they were mostly disconnected, for good reason, perhaps. Making It In America came first.
No, that will not do for an explanation. True, making a name for yourself from out of nowhere is tough going. It’s each man for himself and together these writers, Bellow, Malamud, Roth – they did even more. They advanced the American Literary Voice to the sights and sounds of the tenements and the streets. Michael Gold in “Jews Without Money” did it first and as good as can be done, yet without the fame that came to the others.
“Jews Without Israel” may in fact describe the generation of novelists that won such laurels and acclaim,
They introduced a new form of writing – often unknowingly with a Yiddish twist – but where were they for their faraway brothers and sisters who could have used a page or two about the blood and guts it took to redeem that “good earth.” Leon Uris came forward, but as for the rest, a strange silence.
To keep writing about the Jewish Experience without a heart for Israel is an intentional snub. It’s like music without Beethoven, or hockey without Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Which brings to mind Mordecai Richler. He wrote wonderfully and bitingly about growing up in Montreal. But for him it was about the same as it was for the rest, as if to say –
“My folks did okay bringing me here safely to Canada and the United States. As for you out there in Israel, stop making so much trouble. The neighbors are starting to notice.”
Getting personal again, I have to say that Bellow, the father of them all (Martin Amis certainly thinks so) – Bellow’s charm always escaped me. Maybe that’s because his writing, wise as it is, sounded too much like kvetching. I’d heard it all before as a kid on the stoops of Montreal where if it wasn’t the politics, it was the rheumatism. Nothing but complaints from the old-timers.
Maybe that is why I never took much to Roth, either. Oy vey in Newark?
A knock on the door was not the milkman. It meant something else in Toulouse.
New York-based bestselling American novelist Jack Engelhard writes regularly for Arutz Sheva.
He is the author of the international book-to-movie bestseller “Indecent Proposal” and most recently the two inside journalism thrillers “The Bathsheba Deadline” and “News Anchor Sweetheart, Hollywood Edition.” Engelhard is the recipient of the Ben Hecht Award for Literary Excellence. Website: www.jackengelhard.com