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American Jewish Fiction

American Jewish writers have made an invaluable contribution to the American literary landscape. Authors like Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer have won Noble Prizes and numerous other literary awards while influencing generations of American writers. Today, American Jewish writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss continue to produce some key works of contemporary American fiction.

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American Jewish Fiction

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American Jewish writers have made an invaluable contribution to the American literary landscape. Authors like Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer have won Noble Prizes and numerous other literary awards while influencing generations of American writers. Today, American Jewish writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss continue to produce some key works of contemporary American fiction.

History of American Jewish Fiction

Jewish immigrants began arriving in the colonial United States in small numbers as early as the mid-17th century. Most of these early immigrants were Sephardi Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent, but later many Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe arrived in the United States.

Early works of American Jewish literature were similar to the works of other colonial authors, including journals, diaries, and letters to friends and family describing the writer’s new life in America. Other writers rewrote or reinterpreted biblical stories or tales from Jewish history. These texts were sometimes written in English and other times in Yiddish, Hebrew, or Ladino.

By the end of the 18th century, the American Jewish population was still quite small, only around 0.05 percent of the country’s total population. However, immigration continued to grow, and by the first part of the 20th century, the US population was nearly three percent Jewish.

The poem “The New Colossus” (1883), which is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, was written by American Jewish author Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).

Jewish immigration in the 19th century came mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, bringing writers and speakers of German, Czech, and increasingly, Yiddish to the United States. Many of these writers began combining their English prose with Yiddish words and phrases to better express the American Jewish experience.

Jewish American fiction, star of David on book, StudySmarterAmerican Jewish literature has been written in a variety of languages.

At the start of the 20th century, authors such as Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), Mary Antin (1881-1949), Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970), and Edna Ferber (1885-1968) started writing novels that entered the mainstream of American literature. These writers often explored the idea of Jewishness in America, immigration stories, the promise of the American Dream, and the urban poverty many Jewish immigrants faced.

By the mid-20th century, some of the most important writers in American literature were Jewish, including Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Saul Bellow (1915-2005), and J. D. Salinger (1919-2010), a trend that has carried through to today.

Importance of American Jewish Literature

American Jewish literature has greatly influenced American literature, particularly since the mid-20th century. American Jewish writers have written some of the best-known American novels and won numerous literary awards, including the Noble Prize for Literature.

Writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick (1928-present) brought American Jewish literature to a wider audience but also helped shape American literature as a whole and influenced writers worldwide.

Five American Jewish authors have been awarded the prestigious Noble Prize for Literature. They include Saul Bellow in 1976, Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978, Joseph Brodsky in 1987, Bob Dylan in 2016, and Louise Glück in 2020.

Writers of American Jewish Fiction

Many American Jewish writers have made significant contributions to American fiction.

Classic American Jewish Fiction

Some classic American Jewish fiction writers include Saul Bellow, Gertrude Stein, and Philip Roth.

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

Born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1874, Gertrude Stein became a key figure in the so-called Lost Generation. Stein moved to Paris in 1903, where she hosted a famous salon that was often frequented by writers, artists, and intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Ezra Pound. Stein was also an accomplished writer in her own right, known for The Making of Americans (1902-1911), Tender Buttons (1914), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

Saul Bellow (1915-2005)

Born in Canada in 1915, Saul Bellow moved with his family to Chicago when he was nine and became a naturalized US citizen in 1941. Throughout his career, Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of Arts, three National Book Awards for Fiction, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He published several well-known novels, including The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), and Herzog (1964). Although Bellow resisted being called a Jewish writer, his work featured many Jewish characters, and Jewish identity was a reoccurring theme.

Philip Roth (1933-2018)

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933 and became one of his generation’s most decorated American writers. Among his many awards, Roth won a Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle award, and three PEN/Faulkner Awards. He published more than 30 books throughout his career, including American Pastoral (1997), The Human Stain (2000), and The Plot Against America (2004).

Much of Roth’s work featured autobiographical influences and was set in his hometown of Newark. However, he was also known for his social and political satire and his exploration of American identity.

Contemporary American Jewish Fiction

Some contemporary authors of American Jewish fiction include Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Lethem.

Jonathan Safran Foer (1977-present)

Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel Everything is Illuminated (2002) began as the writer’s senior thesis for Princeton, an exploration of his maternal grandfather, who survived the Holocaust. Safran Foer’s fiction, including Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), and Here I Am (2016), has won multiple awards and has been adapted into successful films. He is known for examining the legacy of the Holocaust in consecutive generations and for his visual writing techniques that include photography and typographical elements.

Jewish American Fiction, Ukrainian countryside, StudySmarterEverything Is Illuminated is primarily set in the Ukrainian countryside.

Safran Foer is also the author of the nonfiction books Eating Animals (2009) and We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast (2019), both of which criticize the meat industry.

Nicole Krauss (1974-present)

Nicole Krauss is the award-winning author of four novels and a collection of short stories. She is best known for her novels, including Man Walks into a Room (2002), History of Love (2005), and Great House (2010), which have won or been considered for multiple awards. Krauss’ work often explores themes of memory, history, and Jewish identity and uses postmodern techniques such as following nonlinear narratives.

Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer were married for ten years and had two children together.

Jonathan Lethem (1964-present)

Jonathan Lethem is a best-selling American Jewish author from Brooklyn, New York. He is known for writing in a variety of genres, including the science fiction-detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) and the semi-autobiographical science fiction novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003). Lethem’s work has won awards such as the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. He has published a dozen novels, several collections of short stories, and numerous nonfiction works.

Themes and Characteristics of American Jewish Fiction

American Jewish fiction is a diverse body of work that has many varying themes and characteristics. Particularly with modern-day American Jewish writers, there is much variety, with some authors relying heavily on Jewish themes and others not at all. However, some themes that often reoccur in American Jewish fiction are immigration, assimilation, and memory.

Immigration and Assimilation

Like the literature of many immigrant groups, much of American Jewish literature deals with themes of immigration and the immigrant’s attempts to assimilate into the culture of the United States. One such example is the work of Anzia Yezierska (1881-1970), who immigrated to the United States with her family as an adolescent from a small town on the Russian-Polish border.

Often as I stood at my board at the laundry, I thought of Miss Whiteside, and her clean world, clothed in the snowy shirtwaists I had ironed. I was thinking—I, soaking in the foul vapors of the steaming laundry, I, with my dirty, tired hands, I am ironing the clean, immaculate shirtwaists of clean, immaculate society. I, the unclean one, am actually fashioning the pedestal of their cleanliness, from which they reach down, hoping to lift me to the height that I have created for them.” -“Soap and Water”

Much of Yezierska’s work, such as the short story “Soap and Water” (1920), was inspired by her own experiences living on New York City’s Lower East Side and working in a sweatshop with other Jewish immigrants.

Memory

Memory and the act of remembering hold an important place in Jewish culture and identity.

They hadn’t forgotten, but accommodated. Memory took the place of terror. In their efforts to remember what it was they were trying so hard to remember, they could finally think over the fear of war. The memories of birth, childhood, and adolescence resonated with greater volume than the din of exploding shells.” -Everything is Illuminated (“The Persnicketiness of Memory 1941”)

Memory is frequently a theme in American Jewish literature, especially in the work of second and third-generation American Jewish writers like Jonathan Safran Foer. In all three of Safran Foer’s novels, Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Here I Am, memory is a key way that his Jewish characters construct their identity. Particularly important is the memory of the Holocaust, which is passed through consecutive generations.

A Pew Research survey in 2013 found that 73% of Jews surveyed thought that remembering the Holocaust was a key part of what it means to be Jewish.1

Jewish American fiction, old photographs, StudySmarterMemory plays a key role in Jewish identity and American Jewish literature.

In his study of Jewish memory, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982), historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) points out that the Hebrew word for remember, zakhor, appears in the Hebrew Bible more than 150 times. He argues that memory and the act of remembering are essential to understanding how Jewish people have maintained a shared identity despite living in diaspora communities scattered across the globe for thousands of years.

Jewish American Fiction - Key Takeaways

  • American Jewish fiction began when Jews first started immigrating to the United States in the 17th century.
  • By the 1950s, some of the most important American writers were Jewish, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick.
  • Five Jewish American authors have been awarded the prestigious Noble Prize for Literature.
  • Contemporary American Jewish writers include Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Lethem.
  • Some key themes in American Jewish Fiction are immigration, assimilation, and memory.

1Drew Desilver. “Jewish essentials: For most American Jews, ancestry and culture matter more than religion.” Pew Research Center. 2013.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Jewish Fiction

American Jewish literature is a diverse body of work that includes many different styles and themes.

American Jewish writers are known for working in a variety of styles and have made important contributions to American literary movements, including Modernism and Postmodernism.

American Jewish fiction has been present in the United States for hundreds of years since the first Jewish immigrants began arriving in the mid-17th century. Jewish American fiction slowly gained prominence and popularity over time, and by the 1950s, Jewish American writers were producing some of the most important works of American literature.

Some key themes in American Jewish fiction are immigration, assimilation, and memory.

American Jewish writers have made many important contributions to American fiction and won numerous literary awards, including five Nobel Prizes.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which American Jewish author did NOT win a Nobel Prize for Literature?

Which is NOT a key theme in American Jewish literature?

Which is NOT a contemporary American Jewish author?

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