“What is essentially Jewish? Not success. Moses didn’t make it to the Promised Land. There’s only one Holocaust story: the triumph of evil.”
When Melvin Bukiet said those words, a shudder passed over the audience of 100 or so in Kanbar Hall on Sunday, Feb. 8, at the new Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. People sat up straight.
The evening was billed as a panel discussion on “The Next Generation of Jewish-American Writing.” While the future of Jewish fiction was the focus, the panelists dug deeper. What they came up with was heavy and not always pleasant to think about.
The panel’s moderator, Steve Wasserman, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, set the tone when he said, “We hope the evening will be contentious and free of cliché and platitudes.”
Although speakers were fewer than expected, as Aryeh Lev Stollman and Dani Shapiro both canceled at the last minute, the remaining participants Bukiet and Binnie Kirschenbaum compensated for the absence. Their remarks were dense and provocative to the point at which one audience member engaged them in an impassioned shouting rebuke. At other times the crowd laughed hysterically or was moved to awkward silence.
Many of the silences were the result of Bukiet’s rhetorical jolts. The novelist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College struck a curmudgeonly profile with Einstein-like hair, a rumpled suit and a prim, bemused manner.
He read from his novel in progress, “Manhattan Rhapsody,” a first-person narrative from the point of view of the island of Manhattan, that talked about the hardiness of the mutated frogs that live along its banks.
Kirschenbaum, who teaches writing at Columbia University, was a contrast to Bukiet in both personal and literary style. Her huge square earrings gleamed in the theater lights as she read a comic passage from her new novel, “An Almost Perfect Moment,” about a group of gossiping Jewish women playing mah jongg. She spoke with even-handed hopefulness.
Bukiet filled the room with a verbal pepper spray of nihilism. As he finished reading from his novel he dismantled the notion of a “next generation” of anything Jewish, fictional or otherwise, by suggesting that the Holocaust had resulted in the death of the Jewish people. Any work that tried to recover a sense of triumph or survival after the Shoah was false. For Bukiet, survivors are “statistical aberrations.” Righteous Gentiles are “unfortunate exaggerations.”
At this point, Wasserman brought the discussion back to the present state of Jewish writing from the depths of Bukiet’s mausoleum of Jewish civilization.
It’s true, he said, that Jewish experience is one of unrelieved misery and death. That is, until the Jews reach America, where their experience is one of “unimaginable prosperity. Fleeing the czar, Jews found themselves becoming dentists and doctors a generation later. Jewish American history and fiction is at heart about assimilation and its discontents.”
There have been three waves of Jewish American fiction, corresponding to the greater Jewish immigrant experience, Wasserman suggested.
The first generation was immigrants, who were able to reinvent themselves in the American “promised land” of the new country. The second generation, exemplified by Philip Roth, includes the children of the hard-working immigrants. The third generation, the current “next generation” of Jewish writing, is “engaged in identity politics as literature,” Wasserman said, “trying to research its roots, trying to find safety in renewal. This is all part of a retribalization of America. They want to recreate on their own terms something they can call Jewish.”
The quest of the new generation, he continued, stems from a Jewish “DNA of anxiety” that conflicts with the Jewish American story of success. The newest slew of Jewish American fiction is “haunted by history but divorced from it — stuck in a historical free fall.”
Kirschenbaum said that those of her generation, the third, are turning back to Jewish culture in “response to extreme acculturation that left them empty.” This emptiness is promoting a search for roots.
As an audience member mentioned the hugely successful novel “Everything is Illuminated” by the young Jewish novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Bukiet stuck out his tongue as if reflexively repulsed.
“We are dead, we are a room of ghosts,” Bukiet intoned. “Trips to Eastern Europe are dubious nostalgia trips to a shtetl Disneyland. The experience is one of false wisdom. It is useful to be dead but still writing.”
Wasserman quickly quipped, “But where do we end up after we are dead?”
Kirschenbaum inserted. “We don’t know.”
Afterward, amid cookies and soda, it generally seemed as if spectators were pleased to witness an expansive exchange in one of San Francisco’s newest spaces for Jewish culture. San Francisco writer Michael Disend, who was enraged by some of what the moderator said, was still happy that the panel explored areas “so rarely heard.”
Sheila Bihary, who works in the San Francisco Jewish community, said, “It was surprising and familiar at the same time. We expect Jews to be stimulating and opinionated.”