Dispatches from the Jewish Imagination

Over the last decade, publishers have benefited from a boom in dispatches from the Jewish imagination—not just any old fiction about Jews, but hyperimagined, often fantastical works centered on Jewish themes. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, and Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges have reminded publishers that non-Jews don’t mind reading about Jews and that Jews buy a startling amount of books about themselves. The frequency of commercial success of the Jewish imagination has given the phenomenon an air of naturalness. Jewish writers write about Jewish themes like cats purr and monkeys howl. And when they do, they are reacting to the eternal themes of the Jewish people: persecution, exile, chosenness, survival. Yet this perception of naturalness ignores that Jewish writers choose to write about Jewish themes, and many don’t as often as they do. And Jewish writers don’t just react to Jewishness or draw upon it. They also reveal attitudes toward it.

This season brings two new high-profile dispatches, novels by Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and Englander (The Ministry of Special Cases). Both have been justifiably praised. Both have been dissected for how Jewishness provides themes, artistic precedent, and color. Yet the blind spot remains: almost no one has asked what these books say about Jewishness—that fluid state—today. This has been a missed opportunity because both novels, different as they are, celebrate a specific mode of Jewishness in their heroes and moral centers. Their Jewishness is not a religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality, predicament, or community. It is a sensibility, one pessimistic, humanistic, luckless, attuned to the absurd, and nobly alone. This sensibility is rooted in Jewish artistic and cultural tradition (and the point of view of the modern novelist). Yet it is still just a sensibility, personal and interior, and as such a pretty shaky peg from which to hang the future of the Jews.

The Ministry of Special Cases is Nathan Englander’s second published book, following his 1999 short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Set in Argentina in 1976 at the start of a military junta and the intensifying dirty war, Special Cases hinges on one desaparecido, Pato Poznan, and the maddening, devastating impact of his kidnapping on his lower-middle-class Jewish parents: Lillian, competent and long-suffering; and Kaddish, the source of that suffering, now semi-employed chipping names off the gravestones of lowlife ancestors of respectable Buenos Aires Jews.

Moving from short stories to a novel has cost Englander none of his strengths—moral seriousness, nimble and igniting prose, the ability to capture the inner life of ordinary men—while he has gained much of what the longer form can provide in movement and patterning and depth of character. Englander is a master, to paraphrase Forster, of characters that surprise in a convincing way, and almost every line of dialogue in Special Cases is joyfully unpredictable. Englander can tighten the springs of a scene so that a description of a cup of coffee—”So much steam came off it, Kaddish wondered if all the haze he’d seen on the way had risen from there”—explodes not just with the beauty of metaphor but with a character’s inner truth. And he has a gift for bestowing life on secondary characters with a flick of the wrist; in Special Cases, a venal priest and a merciless general’s wife become instantly unforgettable. Reviews of the novel have pointed out an inconsistency of tone, and borderline magical realist elements—Kaddish tells Pato that he wishes Pato was never born a heartbeat before Pato is kidnapped—do demand a different kind of belief from the reader than scenes of straightforward realism or a more metaphysical absurd. And Kaddish’s character is intermittently blurred; his status as a holy fool is undermined sometimes by his own perceptiveness. Yet these flaws rankle not. Englander’s confident, unrushed pacing marches the novel forward, and dread, despair, depth, and consequence steadily grow.

Whereas I was expecting a strong, surprising novel from Englander, I came to Michael Chabon’s eighth published work with dread. I found his last major novel, the much ballyhooed Kavalier and Clay, to be a deadening book, one that sacrificed the life of its characters to a zealous fidelity to research and an arm-waving desire to be entertaining. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, though, is anything but deadening. Chabon found in it the right-sized—history-of-the-world-sized—canvas for his imagination. A counterfactual historical novel and a literary detective story, it creates a world in a crowded sliver of Alaska, the expiring home to three and half million Jews. While the novel is set contemporaneously, its mood is coated in the 1940s and 1950s, an age of hats, galoshes, ever-lit cigarettes, and Jewish tragedy, victory, and cultural power. The hero of the novel, Meyer Landsman, is an alcoholic noir detective following his last case, the murder of a Hasidic leader’s lost son and perhaps the messiah. Unlike in Kavalier and Clay, Chabon doesn’t fall in love with his creation, and Policemen’s Union evolves so naturally that one forgets that one has the option to not be convinced. Especially in the first half of the book, Chabon forges an extraordinary style, allusive but new, part hardboiled (“sober as carp in a bathtub”), part Yiddishy jangle, part the open-eyed lyrical glee evident in his earlier work. At the novel’s best, the ambitions of its story and the originality of its voice silence worries that the novel, as a form, is at its end.

Policemen’s Union is not perfect, even if the imperfections leave little aftertaste. In the novel’s second half, Chabon treats his imagined Alaska as if it were the set of a play: he has erected the props and expects them to influence the audience until the end. But novels don’t work that way—setting and mood evaporate if they’re not constantly replenished. Late in the book, for instance, the narrator casually describes someone as looking like “Max Von Sydow playing Erwin Rommel.” Earlier, that description would have referred, energetically and organically, to something within the world of the novel. Such weakening vigilance joins a larger, and perhaps inevitable, source of disappointment: the forward drive of the book, fueled by the central mystery, eventually flattens his characters and the novel’s sense of possibility. Landsman loses much of his personality and becomes a generic Crime Solver. The plot loses its personality too, eventually implicating the American president and the CIA, as if by law every thriller in print and film must prove its global import just as the story narrows to particulars. At least in Policemen’s Union, Halliburton was spared.

John Leonard, in his review of Policemen’s Union in the New York Review of Books, declared, “It’s only obvious now how Jewish [Chabon] has been forever.” This is like saying that it’s only obvious now, after you’ve had five drinks, that you’ve been drunk all along. Chabon decided to soak Policemen’s Union in Jewishness; he decided not to do so in earlier books like Wonder Boys and Mysteries of Pittsburgh. (They were drenched in gay themes, and Pittsburgh.) More surprisingly, Nathan Englander decided to make Special Cases less Jewish than his previous work. Every page of Unbearable Urges centers on being Jewish, and Englander’s decision to set his novel in the Argentina of the desaparecidos was a brave, intriguing one. Englander hasn’t abandoned Jewishness as a concern—no book whose main character is named Kaddish could—but his decision reminds us that, for most authors today, a book’s Jewishness is an artistic choice, not a native tongue. As is a book’s specific attitudes towards Jewishness. Not every mention of a Jew in a novel makes a profound point about Jewishness, but Chabon’s Landsman and Englander’s Kaddish seem to purposely embody some essential “good” Jewishness in how the novels appreciate specific traits and virtues rooted in Jewish cultural tradition.

This good Jewishness is not the good Jewish boy of every mother’s dreams—far from it. Both Englander’s Kaddish and Chabon’s Landsman, for example, are deeply secular men, with no time for the practice, rituals, or belief of Judaism or even a basic ethical monotheism. Landsman, Chabon writes, is a “disbeliever by trade and inclination.” To him “heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery.” Englander writes that Kaddish “had no use for laws that saw him a bastard, and less so for traditions passed on. Let them take the rules that made him mamzer and outcast and use that extra candle to push them deeply up their collective ass.” Chabon, yes, presents the dream of the messiah with great compassion, but his portrayal feels like sympathy more for universal hope than for any Jewish religious tradition. For in Policemen’s Union, generally speaking, there is a direct correlation between the most observant and the most villainous Jews. In Special Cases too, Englander saves some of his rawest passages for Kaddish and Lillian’s anger at Jews. “They’ll pretend to grieve when really they think there’s a reason why misfortune was delivered upon him,” Kaddish tells Lillian. “Somewhere deep down, Pato will have deserved whatever he gets. They save all the innocence for their righteous.”

Also excluded from the circle of virtuous Jewishness is Zionism. The Jewish characters in both novels are all in exile—none feel easily at home—but Kaddish and Lillian, for instance, cannot imagine a life outside Argentina, either in New York (offered to them) or Israel (never mentioned). Israel is a more complicated entity in Policemen’s Union because it doesn’t exist; in the novel, the Arab armies won in 1948. There are Zionists in the book, seeking to move to Israel after the “Reversion” of Alaskan territory to the United States, but they have a high overlap with corrupt Hasidism and nutty terrorists. And while everyone else in the novel is at panic’s edge as to where to go after the Reversion, Landsman can’t be bothered to worry. The greatest wish of Bina, his policewoman ex-wife, is to remain in post-Reversion Alaska. By the end, the greatest wish of Landsman is to remain with Bina, who so often in the novel seems less like his ex-wife than his ex-self.

While annihilation—of individual characters, of the Jews—looms in both novels, the Holocaust, that historical event so central (as Peter Novick detailed) to contemporary Jewishness, is a pretty distant cloud. This is surprising, given the shadow it casts over some of Englander’s and Chabon’s earlier work. In the world of Policemen’s Union, two million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; most of the rest came to Alaska. While that conceit, the book’s central one, is a rebuke to the idea of the Holocaust’s inevitability, no character in the novel dwells on the historical tragedy. The Reversion worries them more. When reading Special Cases, a reader can’t help but draw parallels between the Gestapo and the Argentine junta, but Lillian and Kaddish never do. In one scene, Kaddish meets a man a named Victor Wollensky and notices “stretched and faded tattoos” on his arm. I thought that, here, Englander was going to make the parallels explicit—the tattoos would be from a concentration camp. But the tattoos are a sailor’s. Englander, in general, distances himself from any sanctimonious veneration of “Jewish memory.” His novel’s hero makes his living chiseling the names off of Jewish tombstones.

With no importance bestowed on ritual observance, Zionism, or the Holocaust—that trinity of modern Jewish life—is there any concrete, familiar Jewishness in either novel? Ethnic fellow feeling? Landsman has little fellow feeling for anyone and uses the word “Jew” as a universal synonym—you can hear him spitting it out of the side of his mouth—for vic or perp or creep. A community of mutual support? In Special Cases, Lillian reminds Kaddish that the government sees them as Jewish: “You can choose not to be one yourself, but you are to them.” Kaddish answers, “I’ve never been anything else. It’s the community of which I’m not part.” A tormenting identity? Philip Roth, in The Facts, wrote, “To me, being a Jew had to do with a real historical predicament into which you were born and not with some identity you chose to don after reading a dozen books.” Roth famously rattles the bars of his Jewishness in book after book, but Englander and Chabon, in their latest novels at least, do not present Jewishness as a source of shame or pride, or even a problem. Their heroes haven’t been anything else, and that’s the end of that.

Yet there is a good Jewishness in both novels, one that shapes their narrative voices, pulses through their moral centers, and defines their heroes’ character. This Jewishness is palpable, but interior and subtle, more Bellow than Roth. It is a Jewish sensibility, a particular one, a descendent of the sensibility of Malamud’s Morris Bober, Bellow’s Moses Herzog, and Bashevis Singer’s endless schlemiels. It is the sensibility of a people long abused, homeless, and still improbably surviving. It is the sensibility of the small unlucky man. Both Kaddish and Landsman are marked by being without: without illusions, without God, without power, without health, without luck, without success, without a future. They are men alone—orphans, literally and in spirit—with carapaces around their solitude that no one, even their wives, can crack. (At one point Landsman walks by “two of his rivals for the title of loneliest Jew.”)

Yet neither Kaddish nor Landsman is a pathetic figure, and their dignity forms the bedrock of the virtuous Jewishness in both novels. Their aloneness gives them strength to endure. Their disillusionment gives them a sometimes cynical but also humanistic acceptance of life. Their separateness gives them a wit to meet the absurd with the absurd. In Special Cases, Lillian’s sensibility—stubbornly hopeful, almost biologically maternal—is admirable and important. But it is Kaddish’s sensibility, identifiably Jewish, a resignation without the salve of Christian redemption, a brute instinct to survive without expecting the world to make sense, that gives the novel its burrowing, irreconcilable encounter with the tragic.

Chabon and Englander establish this sensibility through characterization, but they reinforce it through form. Both novels—indeed, most of the recent high-profile Jewish novels—are conspicuous for being muscularly imagined. The magical realist eruptions in Englander’s and Foer’s work and the counterfactual impulses behind Roth’s and Chabon’s novels all seem to rise from a sense that reality—power, history—has been an enemy of the Jews, and that imagination qua imagination is a source of their ability to endure. The prose of both Policemen’s Union and Special Cases deepens the sensibility of the small unlucky man. Kaddish’s syntax—”With a nose like that, you could qualify for disability”—and Policemen’s Union‘s untranslated repetition of shtarker, sholem, mazel, shlosser, ganef, nu, et cetera, weave into the novels the diction and texture of Yiddish, the language of the ghetto and the shtetl, of Jews at their most abused, skeptical, funny, and resigned.

The sensibility of the small unlucky man is not exclusively Jewish, of course. Landsman—the archetypal detective, weary from having seen it all before—is as much a son of Chandler’s Marlowe as of Moses. And Kafka provides much of the clay of Special Cases. (Kafka was Jewish but too sui generis to establish the source of his achievement in any tradition, Jewish or otherwise.) But one need not cite influences. There is probably a similarity in the incline of the sensibilities of Chabon and Chandler, of Kafka and Englander (and Ellison, Joyce, and countless others, for that matter) because the point of view of the loner, the observer, the humanist trying to find meaning, not the Devil, in the details is on some level the default point of the view of the novelist.

Thus one could make the case that the irreverent, solitary good Jewishness of Landsman and Kaddish is simply the expected way for their creators, contemporary novelists, to be Jewish. And the Jewishness of Landsman and Kaddish does help Chabon and Englander solve an old technical challenge: how do you give a character a novelist’s sensibility without making him a novelist? Landsman and Grady Tripp, the hero of Wonder Boys, are not all that different—both are orphaned, lonely, troublesome, divorced, astute, and quite fond of mood-altering substances—but Landsman absorbs the vitality of his setting. Tripp is stuck on a college campus, the natural habitat of the modern novelist.

Nonetheless, a wry reading of the good Jewishness in Policemen’s Union and Special Cases—the Jewish sensibility as no different than a novelist’s sensibility and evidence of fiction writers’ bottomless narcissism—can go too far. For Jewishness as above all, or only, a sensibility does seem to ring true to the experience of Jewishness today. For many Jews, I would argue, a vague, interior, ethnic sensibility is all that remains. Now, that statement is impossible to prove and easy to attack, considering the quilt of Jewishness today, which includes Lubavitcher rabbis and girls in Gucci at their quarter-million-dollar bat mitzvahs. But I will take myself—and anecdotal observation that I am not alone—as evidence to indulge in a point. I frequently ask myself: am I still Jewish if I have made no active effort to be so in fifteen or twenty years? I don’t believe that Judaism is the one true faith. I am not a religious fellow-traveler, as Susan Sontag put it, prone to a spirituality for which Judaism is as good a vessel as any other. I have no outside pressure reinforcing my Jewishness, having never experienced any real anti-Semitism in my life. I almost always support Israelis over Arabs, but I’m fairly certain that that’s not something I should exclusively be proud of. I am awed by the horror of the Holocaust, but I’ve never understood how it, from which my known family was spared, can serve as a genuine pillar of my identity. And I can’t force myself to live in fear of a second Holocaust to come.

Yet I still feel Jewish, and I think I have a Jewish sensibility, one not too different than the witty, skeptical, luckless, loner, but humanistic sensibility of Policemen’s Union or Special Cases. (Granted, this could be because I’m a fiction writer too, and suffer from the same bottomless narcissism). My Jewish sensibility, like theirs, feels personal and vestigial. It comes without burdens or responsibilities. It’s a pretty funny, slippery Jewishness, all told. Is it—along with the affirmed Jewishness of Chabon’s and Englander’s novels—good or bad? I can guess what they teach in rabbinical school, but I don’t know how to make a case that this—our—Jewishness is “good,” other than to echo Kaddish’s sentiment that his Jewishness simply is.

But will it be? Kaddish and Landsman have one more biographical fact in common: Landsman’s only child was still-born and Kaddish’s only child was disappeared. No next generation will carry on their legacy. This is a telling metaphor for their particular Jewishness, a sensibility that would seem to have a constricted future given that it is a sensibility—such an interior, fuzzy thing—and not a religion, a community, a nationality, a collective memory, or an enforced predicament. There’s a reason why rabbis wouldn’t approve of this Jewishness. Which is a good Jewish joke. For Jews, I’m certain, swell with pride in the health of their culture when they note the popularity of the regular dispatches from the Jewish imagination. But when the novels themselves see a good Jewishness as a fleeting, individual, mortal sensibility, one has to ask, really, how good is it for the Jews?

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