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Promised Lands: New Jewish American Fiction on Longing and Belonging, edited by Derek Rubin. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010. 306 pp. $26.00.
The health of a contemporary literature might be measured by the number of anthologies that crop up to keep pace. By this standard, Jewish American fiction is doing quite well. A variety of strong anthologies—dedicated either solely or partly to this body of work—have emerged over the past ten years or so, including American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories (1998), The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Writing (1998), The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge (2003), and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (2000). Even so, critics and scholars of Jewish American fiction have displayed considerable anxiety about the future of the field ever since the passing of its golden age writers from the scene (i.e., Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, et. al.). This anxiety might explain the fiercely forward-looking organizational structure of the newest anthology of Jewish American Fiction, Promised Lands, edited by Derek Rubin.
Rather than adhere to the conventional model for such a collection (gather as many of the best previously published stories as you can get your hands on), Rubin solicited new, previously unpublished, stories by twenty-three leading contemporary writers, including Melvin Bukiet, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Jonathan Rosen, Thane Rosenbaum, and Steve Stern. To offer thematic coherence to the collection, he asked the writers to engage somehow with the idea of the Promised Land. “The aim of this new collection,” Rubin writes in his Preface, “is to look ahead and explore . . . the next stage of Jewish writing by showing that the ideal of the Promised Land, while radically transformed from geographic, religious, and political to the metaphorical and deeply personal, continues to shape, indeed inspire, this new generation.”
The immediate critique that arises against such an organizational strategy is that it would seem to dictate the imaginative terrain of the writing somewhat too forcefully. We tend to value anthologies on a given literary field for gathering together works that had been produced more organically. Rubin appears to anticipate this concern by noting that some of the writers he approached “had been working on or had completed stories in which they explored the idea of the Promised Land” . . . while “[t]hose who did not have such a story in progress eagerly rose to the challenge of the assignment.” To his credit, Rubin offers a thoughtful and comprehensive discussion in his Introduction of the pervasiveness and elasticity of the Promised Land theme in much of our historic and current Jewish American fiction. What unites the particular stories in the anthology, according to Rubin, is an overarching sense of longing that he traces to the Jewish American writer’s new rootlessness, increasingly at home in both the Jewish and American realms yet belonging fully to neither. The stories, he argues, “separately and together, not only speak to the lives of American Jews today but also go to the heart of the experience of many Americans at large who are fully at home in different worlds and yet experience the same kind of rootlessness that gives rise to a sense of unfulfilled longing.”
While this emphasis on longing strikes me as too vague to be useful, the specific points of contact between the stories in Promised Lands offer the anthology a more fruitful coherence. Indeed, as Rubin notes in his Introduction, the writers imagine the Promised Land theme in various, but overlapping, ways. Some writers locate the Promised Land in the vanished world of the shtetl. Dara Horn, for example, hilariously imagines a yiddishkeit theme park in modern-day America in “Shtetl World,” which illustrates both the enduring relevance of the shtetl and the dangers of its commodification. Several others imagine Israel as the site through which to test the possibilities of realizing a spiritual or physical Promised Land. Joan Leegant’s “Remittances,” in which a young woman repairs to Israel in the aftermath of her brutal rape, may be the most powerful story in this cohort. The Holocaust, too, continues to inform the Jewish American imagination, emerging here in Thane Rosenbaum’s “The Yehudah Triangle” as the wound that won’t heal, threatening to prevent his child of survivors protagonist, and even his scattered children, from reaching the Promised Land. Other writers in the collection, such as Edward Schwarzschild in “Midhusband,” also examine whether that age-old Jewish dramatic locale—the family—might yet be a Promised Land in contemporary America.
Some of the most intriguing entries are those in which the writers imagine new or unlikely terrain, whether Tova Mirvis’ Memphis in “Potatoes,” Joey Rubin’s Buenos Aires in “Toward Lithuania,” or Yael Goldstein Love’s wartime dairy farm in “Lonely, Lonely, Lonely Is the Lord of Hosts.” Other writers imagine the Promised Land theme more figuratively. Steve Stern’s scrawny protagonist in “Avigdor of the Apes,” for example, imagines a Promised Land in the American athleticism embodied by Tarzan movies. The protagonist of Janice Eidus’ “A Bisel This, a Bisel That,” locates a Promised Land in his camaraderie with the diverse fellow editors and writers at failing progressive newspapers, such as The Afro-American Pulse, Leftie Latinos, and Hip-Hop Jones. Aaron Hamburger’s young gay protagonist in “The End of Anti-Semitism” realizes a Promised Land, of sorts, in story-telling, itself. Finally, the last story of the collection, “The True World,” takes a fitting look backward and forward as Jonathan Rosen imagines the possibility of a fantastical communion with his Jewish literary forbears—Bernard Malamud, I. L. Peretz, Henry Roth, and especially Saul Bellow.
To the extent that Promised Lands brings the news about what drives our contemporary Jewish American fiction writers, it bears mentioning that most all of the entries hew to fairly conventional aesthetic terms for the story. There is very little here that might be regarded as innovative or experimental. One wonders whether this reflects the paucity of such fiction written by young Jewish American writers, the restrictive terms in which we collectively define Jewish literature, and/or the literary taste of Rubin, himself. That said, Promised Lands represents a significant contribution to the field of Jewish American fiction. Professors, in particular, will find it a most useful anthology for their courses on the subject.
Florida Atlantic University