Jewish American Fiction
DOI link for Jewish American Fiction
Jewish American Fiction book
Many critics cite the Yiddish concept of menschlikeit as what qualitatively differentiates Jewish American literature. A mensch in Yiddish connotation is not just a man as a man, the literal meaning, but a man as a man should be. Not necessarily a smarter man, he may even be a bit of a schlemiehl, that is, a fool, or a schlimazel, that is, a magnet attracting bad luck. (The usual distinction is that when the schlemiehl drops his bowl of soup it lands in the schlimazel's lap though it is not uncommon to find a schlemiehl who is also a schlimazeQ. To be a mensch it is essential only that he be a man of heart and ethical responsibility, that he pursue ideals but never beyond human limits. A mensch is neither a creature reduced to its material needs nor a divinity able to alter a world to its heart's desire. Instead, a mensch must fulfil his obligations in the world as it is though sometimes striving to better it, frequently with somewhat ludicrous results. There are, as we shall see, problems with the concept, an obvious one being that, by definition, it leaves out women, unless Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser could be considered a mensch or at least an example of fraulichkeit. The concept also has a certain reactive quality; as Ruth Wisse points out, the cultural function of the European Yiddish version of the schlemiehl was to dramatize the persistence of faith in the most adverse circumstances whereas the Jewish American schlemiehl is
an expression of heart, of intense passionate feeling, in surroundings that stamp out individuality and equate emotion with unreason. The schlemiehl is used as a cultural reaction to the prevailing Anglo-Saxon model of restraint in action, thought, and
speech . . . . The American schlemiehl declares his humanity by loving and suffering in defiance of the forces of depersonalization and the ethic of enlightened stoicism. 1
It is no wonder, then, that the 1950s was the Jewish decade since the heart was in, responsibility was in, and Jews were specialists in both, emotionally expressive but ethically restrained. Irving Howe notes that one man's sentimentality is another's menschlikeit: 'in Yiddish culture there is a greater emotional permissibility, a greater readiness to welcome tears or laughter, than in American culture. The desperate reliance upon blandness and composure, the cult of understatement, the assumption that it is good to feel but bad to show one's feelings - these attitudes are quite alien to the Jewish ethos.'2 The 1950s construction was, that though the South might be the heart's true home, the Jew was its natural spokesman, an interrelation argued as late as 1972 by a Southern writer: 'Insofar as the twentieth-century novel in this country has consisted of the South and the Jews ... it has been the product of two profoundly similar cultures - God-and-family centred . . . gifted with unashamed feeling and eloquence, supported by ancient traditions of sorrow and the promise of justice, a comic vision of ultimate triumph.,3 Whether or not this is so, it is certainly significant that a number of Southern and Jewish writers think it to be and there is an approximate equivalence in the critical fortunes of the two literatures.