How to define 'Jewish Fiction'?

DiscussãoJewish Fiction

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How to define 'Jewish Fiction'?

Out 1, 2011, 12:44pm

Do you think it must have a religious component? Or can it just be about Jewish families? If the main characters are Jewish, does that make it Jewish fiction? Are there similar categories for Irish or Italian fiction? Christian fiction, I think, has a definite spiritual message as a component, but I don't think Jewish fiction does. I want to define it broadly, but I think that may mischaracterize many novels if people think there must be a religious component.

Out 1, 2011, 6:46pm

Jewish fiction does not need a religious component. I just read a very, very good book of short stories called The Cantor's Daughter. The author, Scott Nadelson, is Jewish, and the characters in all of the stories were Jewish. The themes of the stories were not Jewish. To me, this is still strong Jewish fiction.

One Jewish character is not enough to characterize a book as Jewish fiction (to me, anyway), but a Jewish theme, several recognizable Jewish characters interacting, or sometimes simply a Jewish author who writes a novel indicate Jewish fiction to me (but not always).

Hey! I just discovered that Jodi Picoult is Jewish!

Out 1, 2011, 9:33pm

I think I agree with you, although I looked at The Cantor's Daughter and just from the title and the first few pages, it does seem steeped in both religious and cultural Jewish references. My husband characterized my collection of short stories In the Middle of Almost and Other Stories as Jewish, even though I'm not sure that I agree. In two stories the characters are Jewish and the memoir pieces have Jewish themes, but the other stories have secular characters. I guess the question is whether characterizing it as "Jewish" limits the audience unnecessarily.

By the way, didn't know that about Jodi Picoult. I haven't read her, yet. Are there any Jewish themes? Would you have guessed from reading her books?

Editado: Maio 3, 2012, 9:08pm

> 3

I think the first story in The Cantor's Daughter may give the wrong impression because it deals with a Jewish cantor as a main character. The other stories deal with less defined Jewish characters, but the stories themselves do not deal with Jewish events or Jewish themes, and the characters do not have "Jewish roles".

It sounds as if I'd characterize your book as "Jewish" simply because there are some Jewish themes as well as more than one Jewish character. The point is that I, as a Jew, tend to identify with books like that and often seek them out.

As for Jodi Picoult, I found out tonight in wikipedia that she is from a non-practicing Jewish family (whatever that means!). I've never picked up any significant Jewish themes in the few books of hers that I've read. Most of her books I haven't finished. I remember one book with a Jewish character but I was bored with that book and never finished it. I think it was called Keeping Faith. I did read My Sister's Keeper which dealt with child-bearing specifically for organ donation. That book had no Jewish theme. Most of Picoult's themes have more to do with social or ethical issues.

I don't think that characterizing a book as Jewish limits its reading audience. Here at LT, I've found that most non-Jews are very curious about Jewish characters and often seek out books with Jewish themes. I'm not sure how the book choices of LTers really reflect the book choices of readers in general, though.

One thing I like very much is when Jewish authors, particularly Jewish Israeli authors, write about universal topics rather than limit themselves to just Jewish topics. Jewish writers do have a slightly different slant to their writing. This often comes out in subtle ways. A Jewish reader feels comfortable with characters to which he or she can identify.

Out 2, 2011, 9:39am

I think I have an idea of what you like and I'd recommend, to name a few, The Queen's Fool by Phillipa Gregory, which has a great female Jewish character and The Secret Book of Grazia de Rossi, for historical fiction. I also just read A Woman in Jerusalem which is contemporary and very interesting, more literary. There are so many, but these stood out for me.

Out 2, 2011, 10:00am

Historical fiction is not my thing, but I do have a (yet unread) copy of A Woman in Jerusalem in my TBR collection.

Out 10, 2011, 7:34pm

I'm a bit disappointed with the following: "That book had no Jewish theme. Most of the author's themes have more to do with social or ethical issues."
While the presence of Jewish characters may contribute to (but need not ultimately determine) a decision to characterize a work as "Jewish fiction," it seems to me that there are multiple themes, memes, preoccupations and obsessions so close to the heart of Jewish tradition that examining these themes in the context of secular (or specifically non-Jewish) characters may still make a work "Jewish" in some meaningful sense. Certainly struggles with issues of justice and ethics may be an example of such a theme, although I would certainly not claim that only Jews are engaged with these issues.
I am also saddened that in this day, folks continue to regard "Jewish" works as not universal. I had hoped we had learned that many issues and themes of universal interest and significance may best be approached through the particular, whether Jewish, Chinese, Indian. Latin American, or otherwise.
Alan Jay Weisbard

Out 11, 2011, 6:22pm

Alan- i appreciate your thoughts. we are all "human beings" and without borders we all seek universal truths. The Jewish experience resonates for both the jew and non-jew.

a wonderful book I recalled as i read your entry was The Jew in the Lotus recounting the Dali Lama's search for answers to how a people in exile maintains its identity. A universal tale.

Editado: Out 22, 2011, 1:02am

Thanks, Bert.
Re: Jew in the Lotus: I know Rodger Kamenetz, the author, as well as several of the rabbis and Jewish thinkers who participated in the visit. I too felt this was a fascinating and compelling tale. One of my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, a neuroscientist, has been working with the Dalai Lama on brain activity associated with deep meditation, particularly as it affects compassion. It's a fascinating tale in itself, and the research team is beginning to consider contemplative practice in other religious traditions as well.

Out 17, 2011, 1:16pm

my sister in law, Darlene Markovich, has been involved in the Tibetan cause for many years. I have great affinity for the Dali Lama.

while i am no longer "religious" and no longer regularly attend shul I do recall the meditative qualities of davenning.

i look forward to future comments as we run across one another on LT.

good to hear from you.

i will look at your library (though quite extensive) for future references and journeys.


Maio 3, 2012, 4:56pm

an interesting piece in MOMENT
Is There Such A Thing As Jewish Fiction

a survey of several Jewish authors.

after reading this peice i conclude that the answer is:
Yes and No.

Which in itself strikes me as a "jewish" answer. Jews seem comfortable, accept that ambivelence, confusion, messiness, is all part of the human condition. there aree no clear answers and it is man's quest that defines the answer.

so, is there such a thing as jewish fiction?

who knows. each person/reader will need to decide for themselves.

Editado: Maio 3, 2012, 8:59pm

(deleted message as I was referring to non-fiction - off topic, I guess)

Editado: Maio 3, 2012, 9:07pm

...and speaking Jewish fiction, have you read the book by Alan Cheuse (the author of the Moment magazine piece referred to in msg #11) called The Grandmothers' Club? I just finished it recently and thought it was excellent!!

Nice article, Bert!

Maio 4, 2012, 11:57am

another interesting article on this subject.
Adam Kirsch has an illuminating essay on IB Singer:

Set 8, 2013, 5:50pm

A wonderful essay by Dora Horn appeared in the NY Times Book Review dated September 1, 2013. In it she highlights the unique role memory plays in Jewish traditions and some examples of this in recent "Jewish" fiction.

Among the authors she sites are : Steve Stern, Yoram Kaniuk, Joshua Cohen, and Naomi Alderman.

In addition she speaks of the special book Zakhor by the late historian, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi.

Here is the link:

Abr 28, 2020, 12:04pm

I think part of the problem is deciding the purpose of separating out Jewish fiction in the first place. Categories only exist to serve a purpose, an what gets included would be based on what will achieve that purpose.

Christians make up the majority of the United States. I would guess Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, too, but I didn't look at any sources.

Thus, Christians are unmarked. In the imagination of the average Christian, reader and writer alike, in the US, at least, the generic, unmarked person is Christian, and so are all fictional characters unless you specify otherwise.

So Christian fiction would have to be narrowly defined, or else you'd end up with nearly all fiction in English being Christian fiction, and making the category basically useless. After all, Harry Bosch is Christian, but I wouldn't call any of Michael Connolly's Harry Bosch detective novels 'Christian Fiction.'

On the other hand, we Jews are a minority. Per Wikipedia, we make up only between 1.7 and 2.6% of the US population as of 2012 (the last census.) Pew puts the worldwide Jewish population at 0.2% of the world population as a whole.

Books featuring Jewish protagonists, given the above, likely make up a much smaller percentage of fiction in general than fiction with non-Jewish protagonists.

If the purpose of separating out Jewish fiction is for readers to be able to find books about people like them, to see themselves in fiction, which we are now recognizing is actually very important, especially but not only for the young, then including books with Jewish protagonists or Jewish ensemble characters with significant roles makes perfect sense. It would allow people to find them.

If the purpose is specifically to separate out books about Judaism as a religion or practice, you'd have to have a more narrow definition, of course. As in all things, your mileage may vary.

But for my purposes, I include anything about an explicitly Jewish (as opposed to Jewish-coded) protagonist or prominent and important ensemble character as well as books that feature the religion and practices.

Jewish themes are a more iffy prospect for me if there are no Jewish characters, especially in a book that takes place in a real-world or real-world adjacent setting. It depends on a lot of things, including whether the author is Jewish. Secondary world fiction would obviously be a little different, and there coding might be acceptable on a case by case basis, again especially if the author is Jewish.

This thread has been dead for literally seven years, but if anyone has any thoughts, I'd love to read them.

Editado: Out 9, 2020, 1:39pm

Anyone interested in posting to topics in this group so that it won't become archived after a year of no action? Once it's archived you can look up old posts, but no more posting. The group becomes 'frozen'. Of course you can always start a new group on the same subject but then you lose all the past conversations and have to scramble up members from scratch.