Jewish Literature and Literacy

Josh Lambert

Scholars of English literacy tell us that it’s a difficult subject to pin down: does it refer to the ability to read a Stop sign, an income tax form, or a sonnet? Jewish literacy is even more multiform and elusive. So what does it mean to be literate in “Jewish”?


One answer can be found in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, the book, published in 1991 and then revised in 2008, that can be credited with popularizing the term. It’s a wonderful, capacious, and useful resource, modeled on E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Cultural Literacy. But as much as it can teach a reader about the history and beliefs of Jews, it also speaks volumes in what it excludes.


Look up the name “Roth” in Telushkin’s index, and you’ll find Cecil, the historian, but not the writers Joseph, Henry or Philip. There’s no mention of Kafka or Babel or Ozick. Henrietta Szold is in there, but not her contemporary Emma Lazarus.


This isn’t because Telushkin is ignorant of belles lettres. On the contrary, he devotes a chapter to Sholem Aleichem, and mentions the great Yiddish and Hebrew writers I. L. Peretz, C. N. Bialik, S. Y. Agnon and I. B. Singer at least in passing. But Jewish Literacy’s lack of attention to Jewish authors who wrote in English, German, Russian and other languages reflects the degree to which modern Jewish literature—especially that written in non-Jewish languages, but also in modern Hebrew and Yiddish—has often not seemed to be necessary for Jewish literacy.


I observed this firsthand: I attended Jewish day schools in Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s, from kindergarten until the end of high school, but it was only when I enrolled at a university founded by Protestants that I first heard the names Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. In my high school English classes, we read Canadian writers Farley Mowat and Margaret Laurence, but never Canadian Jewish writers like Mordecai Richler or Adele Wiseman. We did not, in other words, read literature written about Jews like us.


There was a reason for this, I came to understand later. The literary scholar Julian Levinson has noted that, from its beginnings, the premises and goals of modern Jewish literature have struck many as being at odds with the goals of Jewish education. Though he himself directed a Jewish school in Odessa, the pioneer of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, S. Y. Abramovitsh, who published under the name of Mendele the Book Peddler, wrote vicious, hilarious satires of the Jewish communal authorities of his time. Almost a century later, Philip Roth’s early stories were denounced in print and from the pulpit by the some of the most prominent rabbis of his day. For the most part, modern literature has been regarded by Jewish authorities as a waste of time at best, and a threat at worst.


That’s a shame, because in modern Jewish literature we have what Ruth Wisse called “the repository of modern Jewish experience,” a treasure house for the kind of Jewish literacy that is most relevant to us today. That is, modern literature has preserved the everyday behaviors, speech, and conflicts of modern Jews, in a way that nothing else in the curriculum of Jewish studies captures with as much detail or drama.


Take, for one small example, one of my favorite stories to teach in the Great Jewish Books Summer Program at the Yiddish Book Center, Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith.” Published in the New Yorker in 1959, this was the first short story that brought Roth, then twenty-six years old, to national attention (and, yes, it’s one of the ones attacked by prominent rabbis). There’s a moment at the beginning of the story in which some American Jewish soldiers, on a base in Missouri near the end of World War II, are trying to figure out whether their sergeant, Marx, is Jewish too.


This, in and of itself, is an experience with which most of our students will identify. Part of being a Jew in twenty-first-century America is, on occasion, being unsure whether or not someone you meet is Jewish. And how, exactly, do you find out?


In the story, the decisive moment arrives when Marx, exasperated, snaps at one of the soldiers and says that if he wants to, yes, he can skip out on his Friday night duties and “go to shul.” Up to this point in the story, Marx and the others have used the term “services” to describe prayers, but when Marx drops the Yiddish term for a synagogue, his identity becomes crystal clear.


When I teach this moment, I ask students to list all the names they use, or have heard people use, to describe the place where Jewish religious services are held. They always tell me, in addition to “services” and “shul,” words like “temple,” “synagogue,” and “Beit Knesset.” I ask them why it is that we have so many words for the same thing, and what each word connotes. Many students know the answers, but many have never thought about it before, and most have not considered the relationships the denominations have to Yiddish, English, Hebrew and Greek.


Ultimately, Roth’s story explores a much bigger question: whether and when it is ethical for American Jews to show preferential treatment to other Jews over their fellow, non-Jewish Americans. This is a real-life question that students will encounter, in various forms, both when they get to college and in the working world. It is one of the issues in which a Jew has to be fluent, so to speak, in our time. Roth’s story gives the question flesh, as well as life-or-death stakes.


Indeed, part of the reason Roth’s story works so well in the classroom is that its stakes are so high. That’s why dozens of readers wrote to him after it was published, some praising him for writing a truly honest story, others accusing him of self-hatred. This is a key aspect of modern Jewish literature that makes it educationally powerful: like all modern and contemporary literature, it emphasizes conflict.


Let me give another example. In 1945, the Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky wrote a poem called “El Chanun,” which has been translated as “God of Mercy.” In it, the poetic speaker entreats God to “choose another people”: “We are tired of death and dying, / We have no more prayers … We have no more blood / To be a sacrifice.”


It’s a grim, angry poem that argues with God, at a moment of the most intense collective suffering and despair. Of course, such feelings are common enough among modern Jews contemplating tragedies like the Holocaust. The fascinating thing about Molodowsky’s poem is that it employs the language of prayer to sharpen its critique, drawing many terms from liturgical language. So, when I teach the poem, students enter into a conversation about the phrase El chanun and where it appears in Tanakh and liturgy, and how the students, individually, communicate with God. It’s a short poem that students can read in five minutes, but that leads to hours of productive, challenging discussion about chosenness, gender and prayer. I have taught it to students who identify as ultra-Orthodox, secular humanist, and everything in between, and I have never encountered one not moved by it.


Those are just a couple of examples of texts that confront the most challenging questions students will have about Jewishness. What these texts can do is to increase the fluency of students in discussing the major Jewish questions of our times—and this, I submit, is a kind of Jewish literacy that matters very much.


Literary texts treat every issue or concern a Jewish student might have, reflecting all the major historical and theological Jewish movements of modern times, from the Haskalah to the latest debate in the Knesset. And it’s one thing to tell students that Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews, or religious and secular Jews, or Israeli and American Jews have disagreed about this or that. It’s another to give them the stories or poems in which such conflicts are felt, so that they can feel them, too.


Such literature has a key role to play in English and language-arts courses at Jewish day schools, and in Jewish history and Judaic studies classes, too. Notwithstanding the recent, controversial banning of a novel by the Israeli Ministry of Education, the time should be long past when an author who has dramatized intermarriage, or religious doubt, or political controversy could be seriously seen as a threat to a teenager’s Jewish education. Most of the teachers I have talked to in recent years agree that teaching modern Jewish literature is a natural way to introduce the most important issues in contemporary Jewish life. But many teachers still have not had the opportunity to study this material in depth, and aren’t sure where to start.


That excites me, as a literary scholar, because I know how much extraordinary work is being done by my academic colleagues to make the rich, multilingual library of modern Jewish literature newly accessible to students, teachers, and the Jewish community as a whole. The opportunity, right now, is to find the right ways to get this rich material into the hands of teachers who will know exactly how to use it.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016