The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century

Norton. Oct. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9780393652406. $30. LIT
In this far-ranging survey, celebrated poet biographer Kirsch (Who Wants To Be a Jewish Writer? And Other Essays) explores 20th-century Jewish literature through four primary themes, starting with the alienation and “exile” of Jews and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe as depicted by (among others) Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, and Primo Levi. Next, Kirsch traces the coming of age of Jewish-American literature in the 20th century, the literary and cultural achievements of Jewish writers in Israel, and the philosophical concerns of modern Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik. At the core of this engaging, insightful book are literary analyses of some of the fiction, poetry, and essays of modern Jewish-American writers, chronologically from Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yerierska to Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. More contemporary authors are discussed (e.g., Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and Grace Paley), with thoughtful attention given to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. In the latter section, Kirsch evaluates literature written in Israel in light of its Jewish content, and in the final chapter elaborates on the nature of modern Judaism, starting with Buber’s question: “Why do we call ourselves Jews?”
VERDICT The focus throughout this illuminating and invaluable study is on secular modern Jewish writers from Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants. For all Jewish literature collections, and for informed general readers interested in modern Jewish secular literary culture.
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