Please forward this error screen to 209. A number essay on faith in yourself contemporary Jewish writers are engaging with religious belief in their works.
Internet Explorer 9 or earlier. Go to the home page to see the latest top stories. Simon Rich, about a religious Jewish immigrant in 1912 Brooklyn who falls into a vat of brine at a pickle factory. Emerging intact a century later, he meets his hipster great-great-grandson and ultimately draws him back to some version of faith. Of all the things one might say of a novella about a pickled Jewish man, the last thing ought to be that it’s unoriginal. Jewish teenager in Memphis who discovers a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi in his family’s basement freezer. In Stern’s novel, the rabbi defrosts and becomes a media sensation peddling ersatz kabbalah, while the teenager experiences his first taste of true religious transcendence.
One could easily chalk up the similarities between these cryogenic Jews to coincidence. Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk — about a Jewish man who, through a surreal combination of trauma and magic, loses his personal memory and has it replaced by a collective memory of all of Jewish literature and history, allowing him to recite massive religious tracts and communal records by heart, a talent that makes him into a cabaret star. More than one Jewish author these days seems to have some preserved human vestige of the past up his sleeve — or in his freezer. Last December in these pages, the editor and critic Paul Elie wrote a much discussed essay about the relative absence of Christian belief as a theme among today’s mainstream literary novelists. Whither the Flannery O’Connors of yesteryear?
Marilynne Robinson can’t do this all by herself! But there doesn’t seem to be any corresponding dry spell among contemporary Jewish fiction writers. On the contrary, a surprising number can’t seem to avoid engaging with faith, even when they pickle their protagonists. Judaism, faith itself is largely built on the concept of preserving memory.
And the urge to stop time — to freeze the fleeting moment and thaw out its meaning later — is what drives many writers to write. Judaism that after biblical times, nothing really new ever occurs. Commanded by God dozens of times in the Hebrew bible to remember their past, Jews historically obeyed not by recording events but by ritually re-enacting them, by understanding the present through the lens of the past. The belief that we are just re-enacting history persists into the modern era, even among the nonreligious. Persian official who plotted a genocide against the Jews. This seeking out of patterns straddles the line between fantasy and our desire for real transcendence. It is the very stuff of literature.
What was suddenly drawn up from the past was not a series of facts to be contemplated at a distance, but a series of situations into which one could somehow be existentially drawn. The fictional teenager who found the rabbi in the freezer would certainly agree. That existential possibility makes Judaism into a religion unusually friendly to writers. Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost! For Jewish writers, this advice is almost unnecessary.
When you are surrounded by those who honestly believe that the past endlessly repeats — people who name you after your dead ancestors, reread the same book every year, and earnestly inform you that you yourself once stood at Sinai — you are already living in the past, so you don’t have to try that hard to be one of those people. The idea that largely nontraditional or even secular Jewish writers today would draw on a religion they barely observe may seem far-fetched. For those with vivid imaginations, that metaphor easily comes alive. The British novelist Naomi Alderman put it bluntly in a recent interview with Tablet magazine, when she traced the anxiety that often accompanies Passover preparations back to a time when the holiday coincided with Easter-inspired persecutions. Jesus, the world’s most famous death-defying Jew. I think probably at some point our great-grandmothers saw their mothers in absolute terror during this Passover preparation, knowing that someone would probably get killed, and the terror continues even when the threat is removed. Please verify you’re not a robot by clicking the box.