Typical Traits of Jewish Literature

Isaac Babel. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What is Jewish literature? The question has been raised before, and answered with various degrees of justification.

Back in 1903, a Mr. S. Levy sought to demonstrate that the term “Jewish literature” was itself unfitting. Pointing to some problems (as he saw them) with defining “English” literature, Levy argued that “the language in which the works [were] written [was] the sole and all-important criterion in any definition of literature.” Thus, he concluded, it made sense to speak of “Hebrew literature,” but not “Jewish literature.”

Reviewers took a dim view of Levy’s reasoning. W. Bacher objected that even parts of the Bible were written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. A. Wolf added:

When, moreover, Mr. Levy extends the denotation of the term Hebrew literature so as to include Yiddish literature, then he is not even consistent. Does Yiddish become Hebrew when printed in Hebrew characters? Does German literature become Latin if printed in Latin characters? And there are probably quite as many Latin words in German, English, &c., as there are Hebrew words in Yiddish.

On the whole, it seems that Levy’s zeal for neat, clear-cut definitions had led him to an unjustified rejection of the concept of “Jewish literature” as too vague. As Wolf reasoned, there is nothing wrong with speaking of “Jewish literature” in one context and “Hebrew literature” in another; both concepts are useful.

Still, Levy’s perspective is understandable. Many intellectuals have struggled to find any unifying themes within the vast universe of Jewish writing. The question arises whether there is any specific soul to Jewish literature.

In recent years, some authors have contended that Jewish literature’s main identifying characteristic is that it is written from an outsider’s perspective. There is an element of “alienation” to it; it describes social conditions from the standpoint of one who does not comfortably fit within them. This certainly explains why many Jews from the Soviet Union have shown such fondness for science fiction, as Elana Gomel and Hana Wirth-Nesher argue. However, Jews in Israel are not outsiders in the same way their co-ethnics in the USSR were. Gomel and Wirth-Nesher address this difference, noting that, indeed, Israelis not of Soviet origin have little liking for science fiction. And yet, they say, the Jews of Israel err in not seeing themselves as outsiders. In their view, “this ‘rootedness’ is yet another delusion, a phantom of another Jewish utopia. Within Israel, we may be ‘not different’, but Israel itself is not ‘just like everyone else’.”

That’s somewhat persuasive, but only somewhat. Even if it is true, there may yet come a time when it will no longer be so. And then what will set Jewish literature apart from other traditions? The element of “alienation” is essentially negative and circumstantial; it stems from being unlike one’s surroundings. It steers perilously close to the mindset which Alan Mittleman has criticized in multiculturalist Jews: “The multiculturalist Jews of the left would link the Jew to every marginal and disempowered ‘other’ at the cost of letting nothing but some elusive ‘otherness’ remain.”

So let us identify some positive features of Jewish literature.  Despite being among those who mainly stress the outsider’s perspective, Ilan Stavans does identify one such positive feature. Stavans writes that worldly Jewish literature “is not concerned with divine revelation, like the Torah and Talmud, but with the rowdy display of human frailties.” There is a great deal of truth to this, as human frailties do seem to be one of the main themes of Jewish fiction. A prime example is Peter S. Beagle’s novel The Last Unicorn. It would be an understatement to say that its main theme is mortality; the book is obsessively focused on aging, on death and its inevitability, on bodily decay, on fear of dying, on temporality, on oblivion. It’s a good thing Beagle’s writing is masterful, else such an unceasingly depressing work would never have attained popularity. Consider a typical passage:

The [unicorn] said, ‘I am myself still. This body is dying. I can feel it rotting all around me. How can anything that is going to die be real? How can it be truly beautiful?’ Molly Grue put the magician’s cloak around her shoulders again, not for modesty or seemliness, but out of a strange pity, as though to keep her from seeing herself.

There is even something comical about the book’s focus on mortality in light of its author’s biography. The Last Unicorn was published in 1968, just fourteen years after The Lord of the Rings. And yet, fifty-six years later, Peter S. Beagle is still alive. According to Wikipedia, he is now eighty-five years old. But if one had only read the novel, one might assume he had been around eighty-five when he wrote it.

A related point is this. Compared to Christianity, the Jewish religious tradition has historically shown less of a tendency to de-emphasize human beings’ physical existence in favor of the purely spiritual.* In parallel, Jewish literature tends to be comfortable portraying its characters as flawed, biological creatures.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, from what I have read of his writing, overdoes this to an absurd degree. His stories often end up being disgustingly carnal, sometimes to the point of body horror, and characters come across more as chaotic bags of chemicals than beings endowed with reason. On the other hand, Isaac Babel, with his Maupassant-inspired cynicism and focus on value-free description, focuses on the bodily just enough to add vividness to his scenes and highlight the nature of human beings as flawed biological organisms. Thankfully, he is not as cynical or dour as his French model. Whereas Maupassant’s work is soaked with Schopenhauerian pessimism, Babel’s outlook is sunnier. In the end, his characters have enough rationality and decency to balance their flaws, biases and petty selfishness. (Even his famous mobster character, Benya Krik, comes across as a sympathetic rogue.) Granted, the flaws receive more emphasis than the redeeming qualities, but Babel uses that partly for comedic effect.

The third installment of the “Flashing Swords” fantasy series offers a particularly sad example of Isaac Bashevis Singer-style, overly carnal writing by a Jewish author. The sexual promiscuity of womanizing heroes is a somewhat common fantasy trope, but in this anthology, it is interesting to observe the different ways in which the contributing authors use it. In Fritz Leiber’s “The Frost Monstreme,” it underscores the protagonists’ manliness and machismo. In L. Sprague de Camp’s “Two Yards of Dragon,” it is employed for comedic effect. But in Avram Davidson’s “Caravan to Illiel,” its purpose seems to be to depress the reader. A mediocrely attractive fruit saleswoman prostitutes herself to the main character for change, and the whole experience comes across as desperately escapist rather than enjoyable. Granted, one suspects that’s how it would be in real life. But why write it?

(Davidson also over-emphasizes human weakness. The story is not at all directed by the main character; things just happen to him.)

The takeaway, I suppose, is this: depicting human characters as deeply organic creatures has its benefits when a master of the craft like Isaac Babel does it, but it shouldn’t be overdone. When not supplemented by acknowledement of the rational, moral side to human nature, it ends up distorting reality more than one would by neglecting man’s biological character. At the extreme, it degrades humanity.

Beyond its willingness to talk about people in organic terms, Jewish literature often deals with mundane situations, with quotidian elements from real people’s lives. The unremarkable is given the dignity of literary treatment. Outside of literature, Jewish painter Max Liebermann did this with his tableau “Women Plucking Geese” as well as other pictures of prosaic, rural subjects, which “were initially ridiculed.” I don’t remember who it was (perhaps it was Max Weber), but someone pointed out that a distinctive trait of Judaism was its elevation of plain, everyday actions to religious significance. This, I think, is mirrored in Jewish art.

I believe much of Jewish literature’s distinctiveness can be grasped by examining how it responds to hardship. One way is to savor the experiences one encounters moment by moment, drawing intellectual, spiritual or artistic value from them. In his essay “Odessa,” Babel responds to the opinion that Odessa is just a town like any other:

That is true, and I am indeed biased, and perhaps intentionally so, but, parole d’honneur [word of honor], there is something to it [the town]. And a real person will catch this something and say that life is sad, monotonous—all of this is true—, and yet, quand même et malgré tout [nonetheless and despite everything], extraordinarily, extraordinarily interesting.

Another means is humor. For instance, laughing at terrible situations is a recurring theme in Igor Guberman’s poetry. In fact, just about all the themes discussed in this essay are prominent in his work. Guberman also exemplifies another Jewish answer to tragedy, which is to find some kind of purpose, however slight, in suffering. This purpose is often interpersonal. According to the Electronic Jewish Encyclopedia, Guberman was imprisoned for five years on trumped-up charges. In one poem, he describes his departure from a cell where he had been held. It is unclear whether he is being released or merely transferred. In any case, his cellmate’s parting words are memorable:

‘Listen,’ he told me, ‘you did not do your time here in vain;
It was less lonely for me to do mine [this way].’

One thing the Jewish tradition doesn’t much do, as I have noted elsewhere, is to attempt to minimize emotion as Stoics do.

These are some typical traits of Jewish literature. They are not good or bad in themselves. That depends on their execution. It is true I have not substantiated my claims very thoroughly. To do so, I would have to provide many more examples for the qualities I have outlined here. But I don’t mind. The purpose of the examples I did provide was more to illustrate than to substantiate. I have described my subjective impressions of what features one commonly finds in Jewish fiction. You either agree or you don’t.


*For instance, John Morreall writes:

One tenet which Christian theology adopted from Greek philosophy, specifically, Platonism, was metaphysical dualism[…]. […] Adopting this dualism involved a major shift from the Biblical worldview. Hebrew had words for “soul” and “spirit” such as nefesh and ruah, but they were the words for air or breath, and they meant the part of human beings that makes them be alive. These words […] did not refer to a non-physical substance.

About the Author
My writings about politics and literature have appeared in a dozen online publications. These include Providence, the Cleveland Review of Books, Merion West, VoegelinView, Redaction Report, and Cultural Revue. I occasionally publish poetry and have written a book about nationalism and ethnic identity. My academic background is in International Relations.
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