What is a Jewish Writer?

A person whose identity includes being both a “writer” and “Jewish” has some explaining to do. There is a rapport and rancor between the two identities when they reside in the same person.

The first problem is definitional. Being a “Jewish writer” has some tensions that can constrict the borders of what constitutes the group “Jewish writers,” but any of those constrictions should not apply to the form in which the writers work. Saul Bellow is a Jewish writer, and so is Leonard Cohen. Allegra Goodman is a Jewish writer, and so is Woody Allen. The “writer” part of the identity should be expansive, including all those whose primary artistic and intellectual activity includes constructing language carefully. That language can be in a poem or a screenplay, a critical essay or a comedy sketch, a song lyric or a novel.

The “Jewish” part of the definition is more difficult. The traditional definition according to Jewish law—a Jew is someone whose mother was Jewish or who converted to Judaism according to Jewish law—misses crucial questions in its reliance on formality. The identity of being Jewish is fluid and complex. The simplest approach is to be inclusive: writers who consider themselves Jewish, are broadly considered Jewish by the Jewish community, and deal to some extent or another with Jewish issues are, by the definition used here, members of the literary Jewish tribe. Some of these writers such as Bellow and Allen seem intent on putting their Jewishness into a separate compartment from an identity more important to them. Bellow saw himself as an American writer, for example. They, as well as Jewish writers more closely attached to their Jewish identity as the core one, live in the land of English. And Bellow and Allen and the rest wrestle with both the language and Jewish identity issues. So the “Jewish” part of “Jewish writer” exists on a long continuum, but the definition used above remains intact wherever the writer might be on that continuum. It is that wrestling with both language and Jewishness, that refusal to divorce their art from their heritage, that makes them Jewish writers.

The tentative definition, though, is only the beginning of the problem. The next step is to consider the relationship between the “Jewish” and “writer” parts of the identity. The title question of this essay defines the relationship between “Jewish” and “writer” in a particular way: the writer is the noun, the crucial deciding part, and being Jewish is the adjective, which just modifies the noun. The noun could exist, however diluted, without the adjective while the adjective without the noun remains a dangling, incomplete identity. “Jewish writer” works when the person’s self-identifies primarily as a writer. But if the person uses writing to advance the causes and beliefs of a Jewish self, to explain some aspect of the faith, to defend a particular practice, to argue in some way for Israel, for example, then the person isn’t a Jewish writer but a writing Jew.

Deciding on the appropriate linguistic structure necessitates the consideration of a contradiction. Being Jewish requires some kind of loyalty, some attachment to a people, a nation, a set of customs, a belief system, a family, or some combination of these. But being a writer requires the opposition to preset loyalties. Such loyalties, after all, can carry their own tyranny, requiring a reflexive answer to what is right, what constitutes the correct position. The loyalties can impose an uneasy orthodoxy, substituting pre-packaged slogans for our own thinking. Writers whose minds form slogans are not capable of figuring out what they genuinely and independently think, and their honesty as a writer requires just such knowledge. Writers who are only nourished by arguments that support their existing views will soon grow mentally flabby.

Additional tensions between being “Jewish” and being a “writer” can also exist. For example, the writer who is Jewish has to decide whether to write about Jewish subjects, secular subjects, or in some way combine the two. There are Jewish writers who mainly write about Judaism, or Israel, or intermarriage, or Jewish culture, or some other subject of interest particularly to the Jewish community. Other Jewish writers write about being in America or about their personal romances or artistic struggles or some subject external to exclusively Jewish concerns. It is also possible to discuss Jewish community as it exists in the wider American community. In part this decision is a writer’s one. Does the writer want to please the self or the audience? But beyond the psychological questions with which every writer must grapple (e.g. am I more interested in writing what’s in my heart or what I believe an audience wants?), Jewish writers also have to consider Jewish questions. How much Jewish content should I have? Will the Jewish content adversely affect the size of my audience? Do I care? Am I worried about being typecast by being a Jewish writer? Does the Jewish content restrict my thinking or force me to reach conclusions I haven’t thought through? Can I be both faithful to being Jewish and completely honest with myself?  The Jewish writer has to struggle between a personal identity and a Jewish identity, between relying on just the self and partnering with others in the community or partnering with a Divine presence.

Beyond these questions, there is yet another principal problem for the Jewish writer who writes in a non-Jewish language such as English. The rhythms of a language, its history, its subtle ideology, and its past use all combine to shape a writer’s mind in particular ways. The Bible and Talmud and all the sacred literature that flowed from these texts were not written in English. Writing about Judaism in English is not quite oxymoronic but not quite not oxymoronic. It makes sense to write about American Jewish history or literature in English, but even those subjects are ultimately dependent on particular Jewish languages, whether the sacredness of Hebrew or the more earthy Yiddish, or other Jewish languages such as Ladino. Even with translations of many texts, it is much harder to write about such subjects as Jewish theology in English, though there are heroic efforts such as by Louis Jacobs. Still, the Jewish writers who write in English must be aware of the problems, honest with themselves and their audience, and watchful for unintentional non-Jewish echoes in their prose. Jewish writing in English can be successful as made evident by a variety of writers such as Cynthia Ozick, but the effort requires extraordinary care.

A congenial relationship and an equality between the Jewish and writer sides of the identity of “Jewish writer” obliges such a person to have a particular conception of Judaism, one in which being Jewish includes a maximum of intellectual freedom, a faith that has defined but expansive borders to allow a broad range of views, and no political position, left or right, that must by definition be accepted. Judaism for the Jewish writer has to be understood as encouraging questions, letting the mind go where evidence and intuition and curiosity lead, prizing learning and language, and being respectful but cautious about received opinion.  A Jewish writer can’t be afraid to be unpopular but has no need to be unpopular. The joint identity of writer and being Jewish requires an unshakeable commitment to explore Judaism and lead a Jewish life just as it requires a comparable commitment to write clearly and accurately. It requires a personal approach to Judaism grounded in a legitimate interpretation of what it means to be Jewish, one accepted by at least a major segment of the Jewish community. Personal experience alone can lapse into bland confession but when the experience is accompanied by a diligent effort and filtered through a tradition as long and complex as Judaism it becomes not only more interesting but also more useful for both the writer and the reader. The writer, as opposed to the propagandist, has to be vigilant about using language untainted by sloganeering. Such language needs to be excised as carefully as imprecise diction.\

The ongoing dialogue between parts of the self that is required to be a Jewish writer may be difficult. But it has resulted in some of the best stories, songs, poetry, and prose that has been produced in America. That conclusion is deceptive, though. The question remains about whether the extraordinary written materials produced by Jewish writers came from the struggles between their Jewish and writer selves or in despite of them, serving as a triumph over them.

No one can say that being Jewish doesn’t provide much raw material for Jewish writers.

About the Author
I am the author of a variety of books about Jewish life including "The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America." My most recent book is "Converts to Judaism: Stories from Biblical Times to Today" published by Rowman & Littlefield.