Is the present state of Jewish-Canadian writing disappointing? The issue was brought up in a recent Jewish-Canadian arts magazine and pursued in a national literary review. Below, we reproduce these articles and encourage readers to offer their own feedback to the question in the public forum at the bottom of the page.
Comfort Rings the Death-knell
Two Poets on the Future of Jewish Canadian Literature
|The following dialogue between poets Harold Heft and Glen Rotchin originally appeared in the 2002/2003 (No. 11) issue of Parchment magazine and was reprinted in the November 2004 issue of Books in Canada.
Harold Heft was born and raised in Montreal. He completed his doctorate on "The Presence of James Joyce in the Poetry and Prose of A.M. Klein" at the University of Western Ontario in 1994, and subsequently taught English Literature, Cinema and Writing at the University of Western Ontario and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of several books of non-fiction, a book of poetry, and was a contributor to the anthology A Rich Garland: Poems for A.M. Klein (Véhicule Press, 1999).
Glen Rotchin has worked as the Head of Cultural Programming at Montreal's Jewish Public Library and has taught literature for the Jewish Education Council. With Seymour Mayne, he co-edited two poetry anthologies published by Véhicule Press. Jerusalem: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Poetry (1996) was awarded the Louis L. Lockshin Memorial Award for Creative Writing in Poetry by the Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto and A Rich Garland: Poems For A.M. Klein (1999) was a co-winner of the Henry Fuerstenberg & Betty and Morris Aaron Prize for Poetry presented by the Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto.
Harold Heft: The present state of Jewish Canadian writing is disappointing. If you go back forty or fifty years, you find Jewish writers at the vanguard of Canadian writing--Klein, Layton, Wiseman, Cohen, Waddington, etc. Not only were they producing some of the most innovative stuff around, but they were aware of their role as artistic leaders. Today, what do we have? Writers of varying talent who write minor books that appear briefly and then disappear. Fifty years ago, it would have been impossible to publish an anthology of Canadian writing without publishing Klein. Forty years ago, Layton. Thirty years ago, Cohen. Who is there today in Jewish writing refusing to be ignored? Who in Jewish writing today is so obvious a choice that to omit them from an anthology would make the anthology laughable? Maybe it's not, as some have suggested, that Jewish Canadian writers are too far from their roots in Klein and Layton (we seem quite aware of them, in fact) but that we have no voice because we have no longer have to struggle for it. Klein had to find a way to make Jewish culture meaningful in an English-speaking context. Layton had to find a way to challenge convention. The writers that I see today don't have to struggle--even when they are writing good pieces, they are comfortable with the language and the context. So no one seems interested in doing anything original.
Glen Rotchin: So comfort rings the death-knell of good writing? It does seem that struggle is a main ingredient of fine literature. And, yes, maybe that means that Jewish Canadian writing is past its prime. So with Mordecai now gone, why don't we just admit that his passing closes that particular era. Oh, there'll always be Jewish writers in Canada, some will care enough about their Jewishness to write about it, but most won't bother. Let's face it, the most promising young writers in this country who happen to be Jewish tend not to write about it. I'm thinking of the Montreal writer Elyse Gasco and poet Julie Bruck, a former Montrealer now living in San Francisco. The newer authors and poets who write on Jewish themes tend to do so in a romanticized, nostalgic fashion. With the meltdown of generations the Jewish voice in Canada has lost its authenticity and vigour. For the generation of writers that emerged from the Jewish ghetto, like Klein and Layton, being Jewish was a fact, not a choice. It informed their literary sensibilities because it was who they were. In this day and age being Jewish--writing Jewishly--is a choice, and because it is choice the writers who care to write on Jewish themes do so at a distance and the result is marred by self-consciousness, intellectualization and sentimentality.
HH: I'm not sure if Jewish Canadian writing is quite dead yet, but I agree with you about the painful tendency toward romanticized writing, and frankly, if I have to read one more poem about the significance of saying yarzeit for Bubbe, I might just go nuts, or give up on poetry altogether, which might be the same thing. I'll admit that for someone like Klein, there was an urgent need to find a voice, but I don't think that quite means that writers of our generation who lack that urgency have nothing to write about. Take Kenneth Sherman for example. Ken is doing some amazing things writing about "lesser" experiences. Not quite immigrant. Not quite Montreal (which even he admits is the more meaningful Jewish Canadian experience). Not quite urban Yiddish (more suburban. more mall), but hey, an experience is an experience, and therefore, if properly rendered, it's can be poetry. Richler's classmates at Baron Byng never knew that one day they would be representative of a major cultural movement--they were just there. Maybe that's why Jewish writers are failing to write major work these days. Everyone's looking for that big Jewish subject with which, to be honest, they often have no connection. If we're suburban, then fine, we're suburban, let's see what that means in literary terms. If we're pampered, let's deal with it, let's write about it. If you went to Ruby Foo's for expensive wonton soup every Friday night, then that is no less a Jewish Canadian experience than Klein finding his father's white beard hair in "Heirloom."
GR: I can just hear it now, instead of "Out of the ghetto streets where a jewboy/ Dreamed pavement to pleasant bible land..." It'll be "Out of suburba
n rec rooms where a budding CA/ Dreamed the information highway to wireless palm-pilots..." Which brings me to my point: it's precisely this cultural improverishment that makes Jewish Canadian literature moribund. We may have Jewish writers in Canada but precious few for whom being Jewish has central importance. Of course, Klein, Layton and Richler wrote about subject matter other than being Jewish, but they were steeped in Jewishness. It was their point of reference, the lens through which they interpreted the world. From the safety of our suburban bedrooms the current generation takes Judaism for granted. We lack Jewish knowledge and our connection to tradition is tenuous at best. Klein, Richler and Layton were writing at a time when the country itself was just beginning to come into voice. So there was opportunity to join their voices to the chorus of cultural voices aspiring to shape a national song. Now we have poets slamming words together in cafes sending fragments of their poorly constructed rhymes in all directions. We have a standardized craft taught in creative writing classes. As Layton once pointed out, poets aren't made in universities. With few exceptions, the best writing will always be forged out of the kiln of super-heated experience and personal conflict. Suburban, middle/upper class Jewish experience coddles the sensibility. We Jews are now a community of accountants, lawyers, doctors and businessmen--not writers.
|A.M. Klein (1909-1972), one of Canada's major poets and a significant Jewish voice.
HH: Your last note gave me pause. I'm afraid that when we start writing things like "Suburban, middle/upper class Jewish experience coddles the sensibility" or "We Jews are now a community of accountants, lawyers, doctors and businessmen--not writers," we are moving too far into the realm of unsupportable generalizations. After all, Klein himself was a lawyer who nonetheless produced a body of work unparalleled in this country. The truth is there is a greater variety of Jewish Canadian experiences--from Lubavitch to pepperoni pizza on Yom Kippur, from Thornhill and Regina to the neo-Montreal Plateau dwellers--than ever before. There is also greater variety in Jewish Canadian writing than ever before. I don't think Seymour Mayne, for example, has anything in common with Ken Sherman, or Robyn Sarah with David Solway. We're all Klein's children, true, but I don't know of any two Jewish Canadian writers today whose Jewishness manifests itself in their writing in quite the same way. So we're still left with the question of why Jewish Canadian writing has become so ghettoized over the past twenty-thirty years. Perhaps it has something to do with the way that canons get formed. In Canada, we don't have a critical establishment yet, so canons are created by anthologists. Their choices are political, of course, even if they think their choices are aesthetic. And politically they are looking for emerging voices--marginal voices. Jewish writers were once considered marginal voices; that's not the case anymore. The most influential Canadian poetry anthology is the 15 Canadian Poets series. In 15 Canadian Poets X 2, 6 out of 30 poets were Jewish, a rather outstanding proportion, considering that we are about one per cent of the total population. However, in the recently published 15 Canadian Poets X 3, 15 new poets are added, and not one is Jewish. Other new groups are represented. For example, while in 15 Canadian Poets X 2, 11 poets out of 30 are women, in 15 Canadian Poets X 3, 10 out the new 15 are women. Does this mean that women poets are writing better poetry now? Maybe. But more likely it means that women hold more political power among those who create canons. Also, in 15 Canadian Poets X 2, there are no visible minorities--in X 3, there are visible minorities. In X 2, there are no openly gay writers--in X 3, there are openly gay writers. All of this is good. It is definitely a cause for celebration when any emerging voice, previously ignored, is recognized. But it should also be acknowledged that, for some reason, Jewish writers have somehow fallen off this radar. I don't know if this is a tragic thing, but it is worth noting.
GR: I don't think Jewish writers have "fallen off the radar screen" as you say. Their works can be found all over the place in many, many publications across the country. There are more Jewish writers working in this country today than ever before. If there's an aura of "invisibility" about them it's due to one of only two possible reasons: Either there is nothing about the writing that distinguishes it as Jewish, and/or it's just not worthy of further attention. I must also take issue with your assertion that eating "pepperoni pizza on Yom Kippur" can be classified as a Jewish experience, unless you mean the experience of a self-hating Jew. I think we have to be careful here. It's absurd to contend that anything a Jew does constitutes a Jewish experience. Just as I don't think anything a Jew writes constitutes Jewish writing.
When I said we were a community of professionals it was meant to imply that since the 1950s and 60s artistic pursuits have been undervalued and marginalized within the Jewish community in favour of careers in more economically advantageous and socially secure fields. As a result, very often the best and brightest of our community have opted for achievement in those areas that have been valued and encouraged, and a vicious cycle of cultural impoverishment has ensued. Actually, after I wrote that bit about suburban middle/upper class Jewish experience, a recent novel came to mind, Joel Yanofsky's Jacob's Ladder, which is unabashedly Jewish and is set in precisely the kind of environ I described. So, you may have been right after all, that the recent experiences will make ample fodder for Jewish writers. But the question of whether it is work worth reading remains.
|Joel Yanofsky's Jacob's Ladder is an unabashedly Jewish novel set in a suburban middle/upper class Jewish environment.
You are correct to imply that the Jewish community has polarized tremendously in recent years, from ultra-religious to fully assimilated, something that, once again, bodes badly for Jewish literature. The heyday of Jewish writing was possible in large part due to the fact that the writers had upbringings which steeped them in Yiddishkeit at the same time as they were beginning to assimilate the language and social characteristics of the mainstream. They effectively straddled a cultural fence which gave them sensibilities that were both credible and vital with tension. Later generations have become mono-cultured, either as fully assimilated citizens or fully isolated religious practitioners. Good writing usually sparks from a friction of cultures, as with Ondaatje and Mistry, which the Jews now lack.
HH: I went to see a play the other night here in Toronto called Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, by a young Jewish writer. I didn't think much of it. Basically, I think that if the Jewish writing you're advocating is becoming increasingly parochial--and therefore marginalized--because no matter where it's coming from, it screams Jewish. It's not subtle or nuanced, but didactic. If I can use the analogy of a sweater, the Jewishness should be the fabric, not the design or the sweater itself. It's so much more effective that way. I also disagreed with your statement that pepperoni pizza on Yom Kippur isn't a Jewish experience. I once heard Richler being interviewed on the radio on the high holidays--promoting one of his books. He was asked if, as a Jew, he should be speaking on the radio on the high holidays. He said that he reserves the right to be a Jew in a way that's meaningful to him. Was Richler not a writer of the Jewish experience? Who is allowed to say?
GR: I would be very interested in your thoughts on precisely what constitutes Jewish Canadian literature. I've been trying to argue that we must be more specific. It cannot be whatever a Jewish writer writes. It must be writing concerned with the Canadian Jewish experience. Your example of pepperoni pizza on Yom Kippur would qualify, as long as the writer is concerned with the meaning of a Jew eating that specific nourishment on that occasion. It's a matter of context and conflict and meaning.
I'm so glad you raised the spectre of Richler. After Klein, there is no one who lords over JewCanLit like Richler. Here's what he had to say in William Weintraub's most recent book from a letter dated 1954:
"I don't consider myself a Jewish or a Canadian writer. I am a writer. I'm not interested in the fact that Jews can't get into certain hotels or golf courses. I'm interested in Jews as individual persons... I think those who were murdered at Dachau should not be mourned as Jews but as men... I don't believe there is any such thing as a Jewish outlook or a Jewish Problem or Jewish Spokesman."
Of course, Richler was being either completely disingenuous or youthfully naïve. Too bad Hitler didn't agree with him that there isn't any such thing as a Jewish Problem. And for Richler to assert that there's no such thing as a Jewish outlook is laughable. For heaven's sake, the man made his living satirizing the "Jewish outlook."
But the quote is compelling because it forecasts an orientation which would become ubiquitous among Jews. Richler's examples about racial discrimination and Dachau are principally geared toward a socio-political definition of the Jew. There is no mention of the deeper cultural, religious or spiritual dimension of the Jewish experience. This is simply because in the post-Holocaust era, it is the socio-political aspect of the Jewish identity that has become overwhelmingly dominant among most Jews. And once that has happened, the Jewish identity, defined in these terms, becomes superfluous and there is de facto nothing unique about the Jewish experience. This is a problem for Jewish Canadian writers who may want to write about a so-called Jewish Canadian experience, because Canada is not Israel, and the Holocaust is not something that lends itself to fiction. So what do they have to write about? Plainly, the repertoire is restricted by the limited sense we have of what it means to be Jewish.
HH: I, too, am glad that we've arrived at Richler. The greatest Jewish Canadian novel, if not the greatest Canadian novel, is St. Urbain's Horseman. Why do I make this claim? Frankly, I abhor Jewish Canadian writers who think that they can write about the Holocaust with any authority. I abhor Jewish Canadian writers who think they can write about contemporary Israel with any authority. I have yet to experience any who can. When I taught Canadian literature to a graduate class at Hebrew University, they thought that the early Canadian explorers (David Thompson, Samuel Hearne, etc) were fascinating and they thought that the early Canadian settlers (Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill, etc) were equally fascinating, because they could relate to these experiences as settlers of a relatively new old country. Then I tried to teach Jewish Canadian writers writing on Israel, and they thought these people were uniformly laughable and false--with the exception of Richler and St. Urbain's Horseman. The tone and attitude in that novel are the right one. He is not saying: "I understand the Holocaust and WW2 Europe and Israel." He is saying: "I want to understand the Holocaust and WW2 Europe and Israel, but I'm a Canadian trapped within my Canadian experience and the harder I try to understand, the more I expose my ignorance and get myself in trouble." It is, frankly, brilliant and hilarious and pathetic all at the same time, and ultimately completely Canadian. In much the same way, I think that the brilliance of The Second Scroll is that it is seeking to understand these phenomena completely from a Canadian point of view, with complete respect for the natural limitations of being a Canadian. Conversely, I think that one of the least successful poems that I've ever read is "The Hitleriad," which tries to ignore those limitations and screams/pontificates.
So that is where we're left; the Jewish Canadian writer can either try to write in the St. Urbain's/Second Scroll tradition of the Canadian seeking to transcend the natural ignorance of his/her Canadian position and understand something nonetheless, or the "Hitleriad" tradition of the Canadian writer trying to write with authority about things outside of his/her personal experience and failing miserably. I suggest to you that we have too many writers within the "Hitleriad" tradition these days. I suggest to you that you or I sitting down to write a poem about Israel today have the choice to say either "Israel is..." or "From my comfortable, peaceful, plush Canadian home, where I scan the newspaper and television and am fed only a watered down, biased, warped, CNN version of the story, I imagine that Israel is..." The first version is naturally full of shit. The second version might be shit or good, depending on the skill of the writer, but at least it's valid.
By the way, we ARE capable of writing Jewish work that has nothing to do with Israel or yarzeit or Alexander Bercovitch or anything else overtly Jewish. We are capable of writing a Jewish poem about a wheelbarrow, because if we're Jewish in any way, then our wheelbarrow is Jewish too, but that's another conversation, and maybe a wheelbarrow isn't the best example (since I have yet to meet a Jew who owns one).
GR: It's not surprising that your students at Hebrew U responded to the writing of the early Canadians. As you point out, Israel is a new country and its citizens are pioneers too, so they can relate easily to the pioneer experience.. But you've touched on the central problem I have been trying to delineate. If we define ourselves as Canadian Jews uniquely in relation to political/historical Jewish realities like Israel or the Holocaust, how can we write about our Canadian Jewish identity with any authenticity? Klein was successful with The Second Scroll because he explored a larger sense of Jewish meaning and grappled with the Zionist enterprise as one important dimension of the Jewish experience within that richer context. The "Hitleriad" is essentially a satire, and I think fails because the monumental tragedy of the Holocaust and satire don't mix (though Charlie Chaplin might have disagreed with me.) I would not put the "Hitleriad" at the head of a "tradition" in Jewish Canadian writing. But, it does articulate the problem of limiting ourselves to the Holocaust as a defining characteristic of the Jewish Canadian identity.
I like the way you said "trapped within my Canadian experience." It suggests that you are uncomfortable with your all-pervasive "Canadianness" and may want to expand your sense of what it means to be a Jew. In this respect, you have answered the central question--a conflict/tension has taken hold of you--and the next question is, what will you do with it? Will you move in a new direction, exploring the possibility of renewing your Jewish identity as something more than just a socio-political construct? I think the palate must be expanded. We must draw on a more expansive sense of what it means to be Jewish. We must have a richer vocabulary, a wider array of tools--more than just a wheelbarrow--to plant and cultivate our literary gardens. Nevertheless, I'd still like to read a Jewish poem on a wheelbarrow.
HH: In each of your notes, you seem increasingly determined to angle me toward an acknowledgement that Canadian Jewish writing has weakened because the Canadian Jewish community has drifted from a profound sense of their Jewishness, and therefore there is no foundation on which to build something meaningful. Again, I have problems with this argument, because as I drive around different neighbourhoods of Toronto and Montreal, I see Jews with a broad range of responses to their Jewishness--and many in whom the Jewish identity is far more profoundly manife
sted than it ever was for Richler or Layton. And yet, they are not writing anything as broadly accepted as earlier writers. So in turn I have argued that it may have something to do with the way in which canons are constructed (Jewish writers today are not as sexy as they were thirty-fifty years ago, I guess) or it may simply be luck (there was only one Klein in his generation, and only one Layton in his, and only one Cohen in his--so maybe genius will just skip a generation). Or maybe we're just a pampered generation without any real drive--I look at the website for my high school, Wagar, and how much sadder an offering we are to the world than the Baron Byng of earlier generations. We have no great researchers, we have no great thinkers or artists--frankly we don't even have any intelligent business people, just lots and lots of dentists. You know, the best wine grapes grow in the roughest soil. It is interesting to me that the Montreal Jews of our generation who have made names for themselves seem to have come out of Chomedey, where things were a little bit grittier.
|"Maybe we're just a pampered generation without any real drive... We have no great researchers, we have no great thinkers or artists--frankly we don't even have any intelligent business people, just lots and lots of dentists."
But I disagree that we do not have a Jewish experience in our generation from which to write. Cohen grew up largely pampered and largely secular and look what he managed to do. Any Jewish experience is a Jewish experience worthy of examination. I reject that you and I--or anyone for that matter--can sit here and say "This Jewish experience is more meaningful than that." There are Canadian writers of all religions and ethnicities who grew up in equally suburban and vapid surroundings who are writing some wonderful stuff. I've already told you that Ken Sherman, a Montrealer manqué, is writing some very interesting poetry about his much less interesting Toronto suburban upbringing, which to him and me is equally deserving of serious literary treatment as any other Jewish experience in history, if only for its emptiness. But there has to be an audience prepared to perceive it as such. Klein once wrote that we don't only need good writers in this country--we need good readers too. That statement has never been more true. The writers we have today do have something to say, and they will be elevated as high as their audience takes them. Maybe when Klein and Layton were writing, the buzz in the Jewish community was so great that the rest of the country couldn't help but notice them (don't forget that Klein's first volume was published by a Jewish press, his first generation of critics were Jewish critics celebrating him, his audience was reached through his regular gig with the Canadian Jewish Chronicle.) Where are these opportunities for today's writers?
GR: When Richler produced his first three novels, a first printing in Canada was around 2500 copies. If you could sell that many you were considered a bestseller, and despite glowing reviews in every major newspaper in Canada and the US, Richler still couldn't earn enough to support himself. There was no Canada Council, no other funding agencies. Writers struggled financially and honed their craft, not in university writing programs but on the graveyard shifts of newspapers and writing features for magazines. It took at least three or four novels before Richler hit his stride. His St. Urbain masterpiece arrived almost two decades after his first fictions began to appear. I am continually struck by the hunger, drive, commitment and discipline exhibited by writers of this era, like Richler. And I can't help but feel that part of the weakness of our generation of writers derives to some extent from their lack of these aforementioned qualities--as you say, the best grapes grow in the roughest soil.
The question of readership, however, is an interesting one. Klein bemoaned the lack of readership in his day. The numbers simply weren't there in Canada in the 1950s. The Second Scroll was first published in the States. There was no Oprah book club. And yet, when a writer came to the Montreal's Jewish Public Library on Esplanade and Mount Royal it was "an event." The place was packed. Today, we have more readers than ever before with more purchasing power. It is a more educated readership, there is no doubt about this. And yet I have argued that we are culturally impoverished, and this is where the main problem lies. The tiny, financially challenged market of the 1950s still valued and understood books in a deeper, more profound way than we do today. Part of this has to do with the advent of television, video, internet, and other forms of amusement that has crowded out books from our lives. We are a generation that is media literate, visually-oriented, but book-challenged. And commensurate with this, the value of literature has been undermined in the Jewish community and in general. Becoming a writer is considered a second-rate occupation. A professor, doctor, lawyer, or accountant--that's the ticket. Hence, the vicious cycle of cultural impoverishment I referred to earlier.
As for the Jewish experience. I still think we are "Jewishly" less literate than we once were. It's simply a question of assimilation. Our Jewishness is either less central to our sense of meaning or particularly defined, say, vis a vis Israel or the Holocaust, which limits the extent to which a Jewish Canadian perspective can be found. The most promising writers I've come across over the past number of years tend to abandon the exploration of their Jewishness because it holds limited creative potential for them--like a palate of black, white and blue, instead of the primary colours.
Yes, you are right that any Jewish experience is one worth writing about and it's largely in the eye of the beholder. It depends on the prism through which we perceive the world, and for the writer, the skill with which that experience is rendered into words. I'm arguing that less of us nowadays perceive the world through a Jewish lens, and/or that lens is shaded in such a way as to limit the amount of light let in. But, in the end, hopefully, you will be right that the pendulum is bound to swing back in the direction of greater interest in seeing the world through a Jewish lens. A sense of Jewish meaning may once again become central to who we are and how we experience the world. It seems to me that a trend is emerging toward a richer sense of what it means to be Jewish, to balance out the fierce hug of assimilation and the vacuousness of a "branded" identity determined by the marketplace. I think this is a necessary prerequisite for the future of something called "Jewish Canadian literature."
HH: I'd like to conclude my contribution to our exchange pretty much where we began--with the acknowledgement that Jewish writing in Canada today may boast some good writers, but it cannot boast any major writers. It could be argued that the difference between a good writer and major writer is someone with the talent to convince large numbers of people that s/he is a major writer. Fine, but then we don't have anyone with that talent. But I think that there is a bigger issue here. We have lots of people writing fine, mostly confessional work, but no writers writing anything bigger than themselves and their own personal experiences. You may call it a lack of engagement in Jewishness, or you may call it a general laziness resulting from a posh upbringing, or whatever--these points are probably generally true, but ultimately unsupportable when you start moving from the general populace to individuals. I personally think that the difference between a good writer and a major writer is the ability to tap into one's own moment in history. As I started off saying, there are too many confessional works about saying yarzeit for Bubbe. They may be good pieces, they may be insightful pieces, but ultimately they are only meaningful to the writer. No one is tapping into the spirit of the moment the way that Klein did with Second Scroll or "Autobiographical" or "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape." No one is tapping into the spirit of the moment the way Cohen did in Beautiful Losers or "For Anne," or the way Wiseman did with Crackpot, or
Layton in "The Fertile Muck" or "Israelis." Major works capture the mood of a generation, not only the mood of an individual, and become meaningful to all generations as a result. Our writers have to write bigger than themselves and more universal than the rest of us. If our culture has fallen away from those things that make it noble, then somebody has to sing that fact and make it artistic, make it beautiful. It doesn't help to lament--we have to work with the materials we're given. Duddy Kravitz was about owning land--how much less "artistic" can you get? And yet in Richler's handling, it was made universally meaningful. Our writers have to see beyond their own noses, and they have to be committed enough not to stay so small, so invisible. If the audience isn't interested, then, like Layton, they have to stick themselves on the line and say: "If you're not interested, you're the ignoramus." They have to have guts. Enough with these slim books of verse, subsidized by the government, that are allowed to go nowhere fast. Our writers have to be bigger. They have to believe that their work matters. And if they don't believe, replace them with writers who do.
|Irving Layton, 1954.
"If the audience isn't interested, then, like Layton, Jewish writers have to stick themselves on the line and say: 'If you're not interested, you're the ignoramus.'"
|The following symposium -- featuring Robyn Sarah, Adam Sol, Seymour Mayne, Kenneth Sherman, Michael Greenstein, Cary Fagan, Joel Yanofsky, and Ronna Bloom -- first appeared in Books in Canada's January/February issue.
Reports of the demise of Canadian Jewish literature are somewhat exaggerated. Beginning with drama, Jason Sherman's name immediately comes to mind but what is Sherman to do with Shakespeare on the one hand, and Broadway/Hollywood on the other? His provocative plays are of the time, but will they withstand the test of time? Transcending Canadian and Jewish particulars, he arrives at universal truths.
In poetry we have several significant voices after Klein, Layton, and Cohen: Seymour Mayne, Kenneth Sherman, Anne Michaels, Rhea Tregebov, Susan Glickman, Robyn Sarah, Janis Rapoport, Michael Redhill, Adam Sol, David Solway, Mick Burrs, Ron Charach, Malca Litovitz, Karen Shenfeld, Ronna Bloom, etc. Perhaps poets know best how to tread the paths of discomfort, trade in rag and bone shops, and transform the mundane into the magical. No shortage of poems to fill an anthology, though the readership would be limited, and that's precisely part of the problem.
To gain a wider audience, some of the poets turn to fiction. Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces achieved international acclaim, but was not even short-listed for the Governor-General's Award in this country. Michael Redhill's first novel, Martin Sloane, also shows considerable promise and less reliance on the poetic craft than Michaels' highly metaphoric prose. Lilian Nattel's historic novels use magic realism to recreate the Yiddish world of 100 years ago; Nattel works in dialogue in a very different mode from Michaels, yet both share a breakthrough to the American market. Aryeh Lev Stollman also publishes in the States where he combines art, science, and Jewish learning in intricate patterns. The experimental postmodernism of Robert Majzels crosses the boundaries of Canada's solitudes, while J.J. Steinfeld's short stories deal obsessively and surrealistically with the Holocaust.
Even as Mordecai Richler had to contend with the fame of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, so younger writers labour under Richler's shadow. Matt Cohen is certainly a transitional figure who published as many novels as Richler, but never achieved the same international recognition. If one had to pick Cohen's breakthrough novel -- and the criterion of a breakthrough novel is key to any discussion about the future of fiction -- where would one look? In the shift from his early agrarian Ontario trilogy to later Sephardic sagas, Cohen was constantly looking for his voice, as alluded to in his memoir, Typing, perhaps his most interesting work, at least insofar as it reveals his discomfort with the surrounding Canadian society. Cary Fagan seems to be following in Cohen's footsteps: with each new novel, he enters new territory, but his breakthrough book has yet to appear. David Bezmozgis shows considerable promise in his debut collection of short stories -- there's nothing like the imprimatur of The New Yorker.
Currently we are in a state of transition between one moribund generation (immigrant realism) and the other struggling to be born (assimilating post-realism). Without a community of critics, Jewish voices in the Canadian void will go unheard. Canada has never had a Kazin, Howe, or Fiedler to sharpen the debate for creative writing. Our writers have not had the benefit of Commentary or Partisan Review, where the dialectics of the old Left have given way to the intractability of neo-conservatism. Looking back at adolescence, forward to geriatric societies, and sideways to Alice Munro, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, writers on the threshold have little leeway between muted regionalism and a global yawp.
In the wide-ranging and passionate comments of Harold Heft and Glen Rotchin, I hear nostalgia for the golden age of the Montreal Jewish poets. I can relate. A native Torontonian, born into a family that lived above a tailor's shop on College Street, I was sixteen when I first encountered the work of the Montreal poets. My unbearably attractive grade ten teacher--Miss Theohar bore a striking resemblance to Nana Mouskouri--handed our class mimeographed pages of Klein, Layton, and Cohen. Although ours was a public school, the student body was primarily Jewish, and Miss Theohar cannily understood that she stood a better chance of converting us to poetry through the provocative, sexy, and tender verse of the Montreal trinity--The Father (Layton), Son (Cohen), and Holy Ghost (Klein)--than through the curriculum's prescribed poem, Pratt's "Come Away, Death." The lines she read to us that day made a deep impression on me, and ever since I have carried out my literary devotions facing east.
To the young poet I became, Montreal shone like a beacon. The Jewish cultural life of Toronto paled in comparison. I didn't know of a single Jewish poet living in my city. It would be several years before I would meet the Toronto poet and visual artist, Joe Rosenblatt, and several more years before I would get to know the Toronto-Yiddish poet, Simcha Simchovitch. But my alienation from fellow Jewish poets and from the community at large did not prevent me from writing. A writer must honour his own experience, and mine indeed has included suburbs and malls. The origin of a poem and its merit are separate matters. Do we judge the works of authors who are deeply embedded in the traditional Jewish experience (I.B. Singer, Chaim Bialik, Cynthia Ozick) to be more significant than the works of the more assimilated (Franz Kafka, Osip Mandelstam, Philip Roth)?
Rotchin and Heft are aspiring poets and their dialogue is as self-recriminatory as it is polemical. Still, I take their judgements of me and of my generation seriously. We Jews must goad one another. Moses descends from the mount and rails against his wayward people. Isaiah exhorts his fellow Israelites. Have I failed to live up to my literary legacy? The answer to this troubling question, I cannot know. What I do know is that the Jewish daemon reveals himself in many guises, and that he speaks with the same conviction to the many, and the few.
Questions about Jewish writing give me a headache. If I am Jewish and Canadian and a writer, am I not automatically a Jewish Canadian writer? Am I only a Jewish writer if I write overtly about Jewish concerns? If I address Jewishness only occasionally, am I only a Jewish writer some of the time? If "Jewish writing" is writing about Jewish characters or concerns, why need the writer be Jewish? We can go round in circles forever.
"Questions about Jewish writing give me a headache."
Yiddish-language writers in Europe did not have to declare their identity in their writing. It was who they were and what they knew. Their audience was Jewish. They did not have to explain their holidays, rituals, and customs in footnotes, or worry about how Gentiles might view the Jewish world they portrayed. This gave them a kind of freedom, but it was freedom within a closed context, like a family in the privacy of its own home. Similarly, writers in pre-state Israel, writing in modern Hebrew, saw themselves collectively forging a new identity as Jews, and wrote to an audience engaged in the same process; from this evolved an authentic and vital national literature. For both of these groups, the writing was naturally infused with a shared Jewish identity, directly experienced.
The immigrant generation in Canada, as Glen Rotchin points out, took energy from the friction between Yiddish culture and that of the new world. Since these writers wrote in English, they could and did reach beyond a Jewish readership, but they were still engaged in a "Jewish" experience that was collective--that of remaking themselves as "new world Jews." Such collectivity of purpose (of Jewish writers and their Jewish audience alike) no longer exists. Jewish writers in Canada today take for granted the wider audience that was new for the first generations writing in English, and they take for granted their freedom to write as individuals. They may choose to address Jewish identity overtly, covertly, tangentially, or not at all.
I agree that North American Jews today, at least the secularized, have a greatly diluted sense of Jewish identity, often a confused, ambivalent or ambiguous one. I think it's natural for younger Jewish writers, given their freedom to be part of the mainstream, to dodge this uncomfortable reality (their ambivalent Jewishness) by ignoring it in their writing. It may be more honest to dodge the subject of Jewishness altogether than to play the ethnic identity card by retreating into nostalgic/romantic/ folkloric stereotypes, or hitching onto some Jewish ideological agenda (Zionist, anti-Zionist). Honest writing, cognizant of writers' lived realities, is the sine qua non for literature that will last.
But if Jewish Canadian writers are to write authentically as Jews today, we have first to acknowledge that this diluted, ill-defined, individualized, in-flux Jewish identity is our Jewish reality--and learn to write honestly and feelingly from inside of it, as Jews of other times and places wrote from theirs. How does one write from this Jewish reality--murky and inchoate as it is? It may take time to give it voice. It will certainly take courage. And only in retrospect will we see (or will a next generation see) which Jewish Canadian writers are doing this today, and what exactly it is they are doing.
"So tell me," he said. "There's Joseph, Henry, and Philip [Roth]. And with each generation the genius is watered down a little. Meanwhile the audience still left for serious books has grown tired of Jewish writers with their fancy styles and references to Kafka and Dostoevsky, their deep thoughts and depressing sex. I tell you that it is over for the Jewish writer--his day in the sun is gone."
So says Harry Winter, an eccentric critic in my 1999 novel, Felix Roth. Well, anxiety comes with the trade. It always has. And critics always prefer the books they read in their formative years to the stuff being published now. And why compare oneself only to Jewish writers from a minor country? Why not compare oneself to Tolstoy, Joyce, Woolf? Why not Aeschylus? Why not feel truly insignificant?
Actually, in my own opinion, my invented critic is wrong. Philip Roth is a better writer than Henry. Of course, not everyone wants to call Philip Roth a Jewish writer. Or Kafka either. Which reminds me of an incident I heard some years ago, about a Jewish literary magazine asking Matt Cohen for a story and then rejecting it on the grounds that it wasn't Jewish enough. I imagined the editors suggesting that he add a Passover seder scene, or references to Maimonedes and Martin Buber.
There was never a golden age of Jewish Canadian literature. Only a handful of excellent novels, stories, poems, strewn across the years. Mordecai Richler was not a literary movement, he was one particular writer. It happens that Richler is not my own favourite even of his generation, but then I've never much taken to his kind of satire. (I recognize this as a personal response, not a grand pronouncement.) I prefer the spare and haunting stories of Norman Levine, a writer with an even more uneasy relationship to his Jewishness. I prefer him because, first of all, he writes beautifully, and second, because he has never attempted to write "big" and "important" novels.
|"There was never a golden age of Jewish Canadian literature. Only a handful of excellent novels, stories, poems, strewn across the years."
Was Montreal in the forties a more interesting place than suburban Toronto is today? Of course. Are the thoughts of a kid leaning on a lamppost on St. Urbain Street more interesting than the thoughts of a kid floating with his eyes closed in the backyard pool? Depends on the writing.
There has not been a decline in Jewish writing in this country; there has been a rise in the writing of other cultures. It wasn't long ago when Jews were considered exotic by the mainstream culture, their food, their wit, their energy, their voices. A Jewish writer was like a figure in a red suit at a black-tie party. Now people are wearing blue, yellow, purple, rainbow. Now we have Indian-Canadian writing, and African-Canadian writing, and Jewish lesbian writing. The room has become more crowded and more brilliantly coloured. And the party is a hell of a lot more interesting.
My decision to contribute to this discussion was clinched when Carmine Starnino told me about the writers who had said no. Apparently, they hadn't simply declined, they had been offended by the question, by the conversation, by the whole idea of defining themselves as Jewish writers.
I'd like to sympathize, but I'd prefer it if we just get over ourselves. Of course, our Jewishness plays a role in the kind of writers we are--at least for most of us--and even if I can't exactly pin down what that role is, I, for one, welcome the opportunity to kick the whole topic around yet again.
But like most writers the first thing I asked when I read Glen Rotchin and Harold Heft's lively, if somewhat hand-wringing, correspondence is did anyone mention me? Turns out Rotchin did; referring to my novel Jacob's Ladder as an example of a book that deals with the "suburban middle/upper class Jewish experience." He also called it "unabashedly Jewish." Do I agree that my book is unabashedly Jewish? Sure, why not. That wasn't my intention, mind you. If I had a pre-meditated aim it was to defend or celebrate (as well as gently mock) suburbia, which, at the time, felt under greater attack than my being Jewish. Frankly, I take all that Jewish stuff for granted. It's part of me and it would require an effort to keep it out of my work. So if it shows up, fine, I'm glad it's there. Because anything that makes your work more distinctive, more particular, more authentically you is welcome. Even Philip Roth, the aging poster boy for Jewish self-doubt, admitted once that he felt lucky to be born a Jew. It's complicated, he said, but it's also "a morally demanding and very singular experience and I like that. I find myself in the historic predicament of being Jewish, with all its implications. Who could ask for more?" Not me, certainly.
Which is probably why I find myself agreeing more with Heft than Rotchin. Rotchin wants Jews to be more Jewish, to struggle with what it means to be Jewish. But what's to struggle with? To write well and to write personally and honestly-which I regard as the same thing- you have to accept who you are, but you don't necessarily have to worry about being better than you are or more authentic. When Richler wrote that letter in 1954, the one Rotchin refers to, about not considering himself a Jewish or Canadian writer, he was being high-falutin and stupid, the way only young writers can be. (He also smoked a pipe and wore a beret.) He would realize his mistake soon enough. He would realize that everything he wrote was inevitably, instinctively Jewish, whether he liked it or not--and, yes, he often didn't. But when you come up with an argument that is exclusive as Rotchin's appears to be, you end up with the same kind of absurdity that shows up in Ruth Wisse's book about the modern Jewish canon: you end up, in other words, finding a way to leave writers like Richler out. Why? Well, because they marry shiksas or eat bacon - because they don't have a nice word to say.
|"The most important lesson every writer needs to learn--and the sooner he or she learns it the better--is that you are what you are, you have what you have, and you better make the most of it."
That's a problem for me. Instead, I prefer Heft's quote from Richler that he would be a Jew in any damn way he pleased. That's close to saying you will be a writer in any damn way you please, and that's what I take away from their dialogue. The most important lesson every writer needs to learn--and the sooner he or she learns it the better--is that you are what you are, you have what you have, and you better make the most of it.
What is a judicious response to Harold Heft and Glen Rotchin's exchange on the future of Jewish Canadian writing? In the first instance, it is a disappointing short dialogue relying for its shock effect on generalizations and untimely literary lamentations. It is as if the two poets were talking, parked in some SUV, with their gaze fixed on the scene afforded solely by a rear view mirror. Somehow they can not focus on the territory ahead, which is full of promise and new achievement in all genres.
Like professional wailers, they are keen to bemoan the passing of the Golden Age of Jewish Canadian literature, the days of Klein, Layton and Richler, predicting that it is all over and washed up for this unique stream in Canadian letters. They are too quick to offer a generalized overview which averts its gaze from what has happened in the past two to three decades in Jewish writing in Canada. Fiction, drama and poetry are thriving; excellent and engaging novels, stories, plays and poetry are being written by Jewish-Canadian writers, some of whom are more rooted in Jewish literacy and values than even during the purported Golden Age. And this is all in keeping with a major renaissance in Jewish culture--religious and artistic--that encompasses the English-speaking diasporas. There are now more younger Jews who are educated in their literary and religious tradition than we have ever seen in English-speaking communities, and this is clearly reflected in the work of the new writers. Whether Canadian literary critics and scholars have given adequate attention to the new writing is another question.
I think Heft and Rotchin have tuned in too earnestly to the tradition of lamentation in Jewish thinking. A pity that so much has passed them by--in the literary work of the new writers now flourishing in Canada, alongside their peers in the U.K. and the U.S.
In reading Glen Rotchen and Harold Heft's conversation, I feel the way I do when many Jews I know have debates: like I am being yelled at. Like they know. And I react from the same place of anger, defensiveness and fear. I want to throw a spanner in, make a minor tangential point just to get my voice out. I can barely enter the fray. I want to yell back "who are you to say what good Jewish Canadian writing is?"
Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion. "Come on," I say to myself "Be Jewish. Have an opinion." But do I count? Do I want to? The problem is that what Rotchen and Heft see as being Jewish Literature is batted around but never stated; they have strong biases that are not acknowledged, yet which skew the argument. I hear them saying: "you are not Jewish enough because you are not suffering" or "you are annoying because you've romanticized history" or "you're a self-hating Jew because you ate pizza on Yom Kippur." Rather, I want to know why we are engaged in this particular act of self-hatred? What's the compulsion to adversity, the terror of comfort?
I appreciate Harold Heft saying "any Jewish experience is a Jewish experience worthy of examination." He also asks if there's an audience to receive them. What stories and poems do we want to read now? Which ones do we need? The poems I want and want to write, to quote Richler here, are "human" poems. The Jewish part features just because that's who I am, and I am that sometimes more loudly than others.
The four men discussed as the height of Jewish Canadian literature's greatness are popular yes, but great? All of them? Irving Layton is not a role model for me as a Jewish writer, except in that yelling kind of way. What about subtlety? What I'm looking for is someone unsentimental, aware of and aroused by Jewishness yet not singularly writing Jewishly. That reflects me more than the blockbuster Jewish experience. Perhaps audiences want to get to know a culture in wide swaths and louder voices. There are quieter ones: you offer Ken Sherman; I'll take anything by Rhea Tregebov. These voices are no less urgent if we read them.
In some ways it is frightening to write Jewish themes in a big way: you lay yourself open to the world as the ambassador of a community you don't represent, as well as to the sharp eye of your own. Maybe I hide behind "human themes", let my Jewishness peek out like the smoked meat in a rye bread sandwich. I may not yell it or proclaim it with as much fearlessness as Rotchen and Heft and the four men they cite, but it's there and it's meat.
I agree with much of what Glen and Harold have to say, though I have a few quibbles. I think Harold may be a touch over-concerned with the current quotas in contemporary anthologies of Canadian verse--those anthologies rarely testify to the greatness of anything, and the recent dearth of Jewish writers in them hardly constitutes a condemnation of Jewish writing. At the same time, I agree with Harold that it's time we changed our expectations about what Jewish literature is supposed to do to be "Jewish". Glen's assertion that suburban upper-middle class experience "coddles the sensibility" is specious--look at Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Robert Lowell, Maimonides.
More importantly, Glen makes a savvy point about Jewish identity blending into the general population. Glen writes, "in the post-Holocaust era, it is the socio-political aspect of the Jewish identity that has become overwhelmingly dominant among most Jews. And once that has happened, the Jewish identity, defined in these terms, becomes superfluous." It seems to me that Glen has the right diagnosis here but the wrong prescription. It's true that as Jewish life has become more mainstream, there's less inherently significant in the personal and family dramas that made Bellow's, Roth's, and Richler's early work so interesting. That doesn't have to matter--witness Jonathan Safran Foer's recent Everything Is Illuminated--but I'll concede that it is more difficult to write Jewish work that is resonant in an age where uniqueness of perspective cannot not assumed. This is part of the reason that David Bezmozgis's recent collection of stories, Natasha, caused such a stir--as immigrant tales, they allow readers to tread familiar ground, adding new spice to some old soup. It may be that contemporary Jewish experience has more to do with the language of the suburban mall. So be it. But Jewish literature must then confront the language of the suburban mall and give meaning to the experience of Suburban Mall Judaism with originality and depth. If that seems ridiculous, I would assert that this is because our writers have not been working hard enough to make it seem obvious.
Yet the main problem with contemporary Jewish writing in Canada is not that Jews don't know how to write, it's that they don't know a damned thing about Judaism. Neither do Roth or Bellow, for that matter, but their proximity to the immigrant experience seemed to suffice. For us it does not suffice. If we are to continue to write Jewish literature--and no one is under that obligation, of course--we must begin to dig deeper into what it means to be a Jew, not just what it means to be Jewish. If we can read up on Wittgenstein, the Poetics, and eighteenth-century pigment manufacturing, we should also be able to learn a little Talmud. Thus far, the only contemporary writers I've encountered who have been capable of serious engagement with Jewish texts have been Americans. Foer I mentioned above. Myla Goldberg's remarkable novel Bee Season plays a wonderfully subtle game with the kabbalist's story of the four rabbis entering paradise. All of these writers owe something to Cynthia Ozick, who was thinking about Jewish texts before it became fashionable to do so. It's no accident that many of these writers have some orthodox backgrounds.
|"In the end I'm not so worried about Jewish writing in Canada. If it needs to be written--if its audience continues to seek real innovation and complexity--then the writers will be found. Or I should say that the writers will find a way. "
In the end I'm not so worried about Jewish writing in Canada. If it needs to be written--if its audience continues to seek real innovation and complexity--then the writers will be found. Or I should say that the writers will find a way. The existence of this forum itself bodes well--no sooner than the death of some kind of literature is pronounced that it seems to rise from the grave. Let's hope that the next time a debate like this occurs in print it will be a celebration, not an autopsy.
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