Shari Rabin on Michael Hoberman
Public consciousness, popular culture, and historical scholarship have lavished attention and praise on the Lower East Side immigrant experience, ignoring or marginalizing the existence of Jews outside of New York. Jews have long made homes in places like San Francisco and St. Louis; Danville, Pennsylvania, and Macon, Georgia; Milwaukee (where I grew up) and Charleston (where I lived for four years); and as recent moments of anti-Semitic agitation have highlighted, Pittsburgh and Charlottesville. Although these communities were always numerically small, to declare that they are unimportant is less to relay a fact than it is make a particular argument about the nature of American Jewry; the language of margin and center is not natural or neutral.
Jews have lived in a wide array of American locales, but, as Michael Hoberman’s new book makes clear, they have also thought deeply and written creatively about these places. Hoberman’s subject is “the geography of Jewish American literary history.” In six essays, he traces how American Jewish writers conceived of, and creatively reformulated, iconic geographic spaces: frontier, city, small town, exurbia, shtetl, and Israel. He argues that these particular places demonstrate how Jews have had a “tendency to seek fulfillment in and impose meaning upon American landscapes.”
Hoberman notes in his introduction that while Jews have revised dominant American narratives of place, in many ways they have also proven complicit in them, and by implication, in the colonial violence that they have furthered. And yet, Hoberman is a literary historian, with only a passing interest in theoretical conversations, and he gives only a tentative nod to the inherently political nature of his topic.
Hoberman casts Jews as “exiles…[with] the habit of assigning a special compensatory power to words to imagine places.” Although their history of diaspora might seem to render place uninteresting to Jews, Hoberman argues that, in fact, they “became Americans by virtue of their relationships to the North American continent.” This geographical focus expands American Jewish literary history backward and outward from turn-of-the-twentieth century New York. By focusing on the theme of continuous “homecoming,” he argues, it also offers a conceptual alternative to the dominant narrative within American Jewish literary studies, of immigrant adaptation through successive generations.
Although each chapter can stand alone, the book is essentially split into two halves. The first triptych of spaces – frontier, city, and small town – are understood as sites of “aspirational” Jewish representation in the period before World War II. Seeking to both stake a claim to America and maintain their Jewishness, Jewish writers both engaged with and rejected typical understandings of these places. For instance, antebellum Jewish travelers Solomon Nunes Carvalho and Israel Joseph Benjamin attributed spiritual meaning to the American landscape, drawing on Emersonian transcendentalism and notions of the sublime, but ultimately “decentered the era’s dominant motif of individualistic triumphalism.” They envisioned the frontier as a site of community in which to build – rather than escape – civilization. Hoberman highlights this more nuanced, gentler approach to the frontier, but still goes relatively easy on his subjects, whose spatial visions were, after all, complicit in a continental system of violence and oppression.
After the advent of mass migration from Eastern Europe, Jewish writers of Sephardic and German backgrounds crafted histories of their local Jewish communities for the benefit of the newcomers and of non-Jews. They placed Jews at the origins of American history, which they cast as fundamentally urban and cosmopolitan rather than rural and agricultural in nature. The small town, a stock trope in twentieth century American literature, was likewise re-cast in Jewish hands. Edna Ferber’s accounts, both autobiographical and fictionalized, of a number of midwestern towns, and Joseph Leiser’s juvenile fiction about upstate New York, “challenged notions of small-town obsolescence.” Ferber and Leiser didn’t romanticize the small town, but neither did they demonize it; rather, their small towns offered “opportunities for the expansion, expression, and perpetuation of pluralistic, democratic values.” In their telling, Jews in small towns was not an oxymoron, but a productive and even natural state of affairs.
The second set of chapters – on the exurb, the shtetl, and Israel – feature writings shaped by Jewish success and its resultant discontents. All of the texts discussed are novels written after 1995, which reflect a postmodern ambivalence about both Jewishness and America. These authors “were not worried about being like everyone else; they were worried by their increasing isolation from the main body of human experience.” Philip Roth and Allegra Goodman both write about Jewish characters in the postwar period who attempt the American ideal of pastoral escapism. Ultimately, however, they are shown to have been delusional, and to have succeeded only in cutting themselves off from dynamic community.
The final two chapters abandon American soil altogether, as Hoberman helpfully points to a new transnational Jewish imaginary, which goes beyond mere celebration of so-called “Jewish” places. By writing about characters who engage with the Eastern European shtetl, “millennial-era Jews sought to recover a sense of the past and of Jewish distinctiveness”; by depicting characters who move to Israel, they ironically draw on the genre of the American immigrant narrative while showing Israel itself to be a “a troubling and alien backdrop for their characters’ ineffectual attempts to redress misgivings that result from their peculiarly American condition of social isolation and spiritual anomie.” These literary encounters with small-town Eastern Europe and with Israeli settlements echo the literature of the small town and the frontier that are described in the first half of the book, although in a postmodern register. Their characters, shaped by convictions of American inauthenticity, feel compelled to leave its borders to live out its most characteristic forms of self-making and place-making, although they never truly succeed.
Within each chapter, the texts are carefully chosen, sensitively read, historically contextualized, and situated within the broader currents of American literature. Although there are few women to be found in the first two chapters, the book begins with memoirist Ellen Mordecai and the final four chapters all pair a male and female author on the same space, showing an admirable, if unremarked-upon, sensitivity to the politics of representation. And yet, as is perhaps inevitable in a book dealing with literary texts, the precise selection raises significant questions. While it is certainly admirable to look beyond the usual canonical suspects, I couldn’t help but think, is it really fair to put poor Solomon Nunes Carvalho in the same conversation as Philip Roth? In terms of literary quality and cultural impact, there is no comparison. American Pastoral is a masterpiece of literary fiction; Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West is memoir cum political propaganda, an account of a western expedition written in support of its leader, John C. Fremont’s, presidential aspirations. I am one of the handful of people, apart from Hoberman, who has read both, and I can say confidently that Carvalho is no Roth. Indeed, the book’s twelve major texts include a wide array of genres – fiction and non-fiction, memoirs and histories, novels and short stories – written in an array of registers, ranging from high literature (Roth) to the middlebrow (Edna Ferber’s writings on small towns) to the barely readable (late nineteenth century histories of local Jewish communities). A few of the texts are world-famous, but some are almost certainly unread by all but the occasional researcher. Half of the texts were written between 1850 and 1940 and half after 1995. The result is that this book is at once quite eclectic as a study of American Jewish literature and relatively limited as a study of American Jewish history.
And yet, Hoberman is right to draw our attention to geography and place, both of which, as he notes, are underappreciated aspects of American Jewish history and the culture it produced. Several other scholars, myself included, have commented on this recently in a more directly historical vein. Lila Corwin Berman and Deborah Dash Moore have written convincingly of urbanism’s centrality to American Jewish identity. Sarah Imhoff’s Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism describes how acculturated Jews in the early twentieth century promoted visions of proper manhood centered on a relationship with American land. And Eli Lederhendler’s American Jewry: A New History aptly notes that, “Jews, mainly an urban people, nevertheless developed a rural or ‘pastoral’ imagination as part of their foray into American life.” Hoberman’s book adds nicely to this literature, which, as a whole, reflects critically on the spaces, places, and characteristics we include in the rubric of “American” Jewish studies. Hoberman shows how an array of American places outside of New York have been productive sites for Jewish writers navigating the competing imperatives of American individualism and Jewish collective experience.
Although Hoberman shies away the politics of geography, his book arrives at a moment in which American Jews are deeply divided over political questions that are also territorial in nature. On the right, there is an ongoing and intensified commitment to Israel and its expanding settlements in the West Bank. On the left, young Jews have revived the Bundist concept of “doykayt” – literally “here-ness” – the idea that Jewish political concern should be focused on where one lives. And in places like Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, anti-Semites are putting forth visions of an America without Jews altogether. In the midst of these conversations, Hoberman’s book was, to me at least, an apt reminder that Jews’ engagement with place has always been fraught and that the places that we take for granted are always in the midst of being imagined and invented, a process that is almost never innocent.
Shari Rabin is assistant professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin College. She is the author of Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-century America (NYU Press, 2017), which won the National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She received a PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2015. Tweets @ShariRabin