When Saul Bellow’s (1915–2005) Artur Sammler, Holocaust survivor, transplanted “refugee in Manhattan,” wonders, “Is our species crazy?” he can only reply, with the absolute conviction born of experience and observation: “Plenty of evidence.” Artur Sammler, the protagonist of Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published serially in 1969 in the Atlantic Monthly and in book form in 1970, is a man betrayed by history. He is a Jew who barely escaped the Holocaust with only one good eye, the other “struck … by a gun butt and blinded” (SP 137). He is a man who, condemned to die, “clawed his way out” of the mass grave that he was forced to dig, emerging while his wife and others “had been buried alive” (SP 273). Having dug his way, “inside death,” Sammler inexplicably resurfaces, literally scrambling from the grave that was not yet to be his (SP 273). And then, with the eventuality of inexorable oddity, by way of a displaced persons (DP) camp in Salzburg, the bewildered Sammler, resurrected from the grave, finds himself reassigned to America, “advertised throughout the universe as the most desirable, most exemplary of all nations” (SP 14). It is here in America that, far from the European nightmare of Sammler’s ever-receding past, the unimaginable might finally be imagined. Having thus survived, Sammler finds himself in America in the midst of a century that has seen, in Bellow’s own words, “a crime so vast that it brings all Being into Judgment.” And Sammler, “separated from the rest of his species, if not in some fashion severed,” must come to grips with his reconstructed life, must attempt to reinvent himself by negotiating “the charm, the ebullient glamour, the almost unbearable agitation that came from being able to describe oneself as a twentieth-century American” (SP 43, 73).
Irving Howe, in the introduction to the 1977 collection, Jewish-American Stories, poses an unsettled and unsettling question: “What is the likely future of American Jewish writing?” Howe's problematical response bears the weight of an anxious history of Jewish exile. American Jewish writing, in the second half of the twentieth century had, Howe contends, “probably moved past its high point,” having found “its voice and its passion at exactly the moment it approache[d] disintegration.” The culture of Yiddishkeit – the distinctive ethos of a culture derived from the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern and Central Europe – was diminishing from the urban landscapes of American Jewish sensibilities, absorbed and attenuated by the mainstream culture to which it aspired. American Jewish writers, Howe contended, ran out of literary steam, a situation certainly no-good-for-the-Jews, to borrow a phrase from Philip Roth, and counterintuitive given the Jewish penchant for words. For if they do little else, Jewish characters in and out of literature talk. The urban landscape of American Jewish literature has, since the fiction of the immigrant and through the end of the twentieth century, resonated with sound, with characters who talk their way through their self-invented lives.
Most certainly there has continued now beyond the twentieth century a long tradition of Jewish storytelling, established well before the arrival of the immigrant on the shores of America, a tradition of talking lives, a language of memory and desire. This tradition developed out of the rich Yiddish conventions of storytelling, established notably by the Eastern European writers Sholom Aleichem , Mendele Mocher Sforim , and I. L. Peretz and brought to America most prominently by I. B. Singer.
Eli Peck, Philip Roth's characteristically neurotic protagonist in the short story “Eli, the Fanatic,” ardently maintains of the Jewish refugees who, emerging from the devastation of the Holocaust, settle in the suburban town of Woodenton, “I am me. They are them.” In this way, he defiantly dissociates himself from the defining and, to him, static markers of Jewish identity and history, both past and immediate. Eli Peck, a product of the secularization of American Jewry in the mid-twentieth century, believes himself freed from the restricting weight of a legacy linked to him only by an imposed inheritance, the remnants of history and blood. For Eli, the weight of such identification is as heavy as the stone tablets and a liability in America. In his insistent separation from his identity as a Jew, represented by his uneasy fear of the Jewish refugees, whose yeshiva is a constant reminder to Eli and the other Jews of Woodenton of the dangers of seeming “too Jewish,” Roth's apprehensively charged protagonist unconsciously exposes his fears of marginalization, shared by the other “assimilated” Jews of suburban Woodenton, of forever being considered outsiders and interlopers among the rightful inheritors of American culture.
Eli Peck's disavowal of the European refugees, the displaced men and “the little kids with little yamalkahs chanting their Hebrew lessons,” who have come to infiltrate the suburban haven of Woodenton, is motivated by the sure conviction that their very presence will threaten the “good healthy relationship in this town [among] modern Jews and Protestants” (“Eli, the Fanatic,” 277-78).
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