Spirituality and Religion in American Culture, Olomouc 2000
FAITH AND AMERICAN IDENTITY:
A LITERARY PERSPECTIVE (abstract)
Dr. Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, University of Gdansk, Poland
Cheryl Alexander Malcolm is assistant professor of English at the University of Gdansk. She is the co-author of Jean Rhys: A Study of the Short Fiction (Twayne 1996), and the author of Understanding Anita Brookner (University of South Carolina Press forthcoming 2001) and many articles in European and American journals including English Studies (Nijmegen) and Studies in American Jewish Literature (Penn. State). She is also the author (using the pseudonym Georgia Scott) of The Good Wife - a collection of poems about women's experiences of living in Communist Poland (University of Salzburg Press forthcoming 2001).
From the Talmudic parodists of the 1880's to Woody Allen, presentations of God and man in critiques of American society have been a constant feature of Jewish American writers. This paper charts the major developments in treatment of these subjects over more than a century. Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), depict America at odds with the traditional Jew and assimilation as involving considerable spiritual loss for the European immigrant. A generation later, faith is again a major concern in Bernard Malamud's The Assistant (1957), Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith" (1959), and Isaac Bashevis Singer's "A Wedding in Brownsville" (1961). In these texts, the problematics of being both a Jew and an American are presented from the standpoint of secularized assimilated Jews living in the shadow of the Holocaust. In Black humorist Bruce Jay Friedman's "When You're Excused, You're Excused" (1970), the affirmation of a collective Jewish identity is depicted as an act of redemption in a parable set at Yom Kippur. In Cynthia Ozick's "Levitation" (1976), scenes of miracles in a contemporary cosmopolitan setting show American Jews as set apart from Gentiles because of a history of suffering from Biblical times to the Holocaust. In David Mamet's The Old Religion (1997), antisemitism is met head on in a fictional treatment of the Leo Frank murder case in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913. Coinciding with the publication of Mary Antin's The Promised Land, Leo Frank's conviction and lynching is no less shocking with time. If writing about the past is in fact writing about the present, then Mamet's novel raises particularly disturbing questions such as whether assimilation is attainable at all. As Zygmunt Bauman contends in Modernity and Ambivalence (1991), assimilation may only ever progress to other stages of assimilation and no further. If this is the case, the price of pursuing an American identity is high indeed. No wonder that the image of the wandering Jew continues to surface in Jewish American literature to this day.