by: Richard Kostelanetz on November 19th, 2013 | 1 Comment »
Perhaps because I descend from an intramixed Jewish marriage, so to speak, I’ve always been aware of the exclusion of Sephardic or Spanish Jews from the exclusively Ashkenazic histories of the American‑Jewish experience. With this grievance in mind, I approached Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology initially with relief, as the first entry is authored by “Abraham de Lucena, et al.,” who are identified in the headnote as “leading Sephardic merchants in Amsterdam … among the first colonists to settle in the New World.” So far, I felt okay in my parochial search. So I moved on through the book’s large pages, with more than 500 words to each leaf, and found on p. 70 a single poem by Penina Moïse (1797-1880), who is identified in the headnote as descending from “a Sephardic Jewish merchant family in Charleston, South Carolina.” Need I note that the adjectives are redundant, as no Christians or Moslems are Sephardic. Around p. 101 Emma Lazarus appears with a few poems.
I continued to turn this book’s pages, finding the common Ashkenazic names of Roth, Stein, Stern, Schwartz, Marx, Asch, Shapiro, Levin, Levine, Fuchs, Glatstein, Gold, Bloom, Lewisohn, Reich, Rothenberg, Doctorow, Freidman, Sondheim, Spiegelman, Mirsky, and Pinsky – so familiar as to be the monikers of law firms or medical partnerships. Only by turning every page did I discover at p. 671 Emma Adatto Schlesinger (b. 1910), her maiden name buried before a German surname. The head notes to his contribution reflect the sentiments of editorial tokenism: “We have included Schlesinger’s autobiographical narrative, ‘La Tía Estambolía,’ for its vivid depiction of an extraordinary woman, Madame Vida de Veisí, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, imparted to the young Schlesinger a wealth of Sephardic traditions.” These remarks, so reminiscent of how a Jewish writer might have been introduced within a predominantly gentile anthology of a century ago, indicates that Ms. Adatto appears not for literary value but for certain sociological information.
More than 400 pages later, on p. 1111 (that’s four 1s, not three), is an excerpt from Miriam Israel Moses’ Survivors and Pieces of Glass (apparently not-yet-published) that, its remarkably strong prose notwithstanding, is, to quote the headnote, introduced as focussing on “cultural traditions, which Moses, as a Sephardic Jew, is careful to underline as different from than of the larger Ashkenazic community.” Doesn’t this distancing epitomize tokenism again?
Who’s missing? Consider, among other Jewish American writers, Victor Perera, Edouard Roditi, Andre Aciman, Michael Castro, Ammiel Alcalay, Emile Capouya, Ruth Knafo Setton, Victor di Suvero, Rae Dalven, Max Ascoli, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (né Monsanto), Arthur Danto, Jordan Elgraby, Robert Vas Dias, Alan Rosenus, Gini Alhadeff, Ralph de Toledano, Joseph Mazo, Benjamin de Casseres, Jane Mushabac, and Jacques Derrida (if you classify him as American for teaching here so much of every year), many of their names ending in pesky vowels more typical of Mediterranean monikers, not to mention other contributors to Diane Matza’s pioneering anthology, Sephardic-American Voices (1997). Remembering that I once characterized Sephardic Jewish writers as a minority within a minority that is lamentably invisible to the majority of the minority, I regret that Jewish American Literature perpetuates unnecessary misfortune.
What else is missing? Writing composed by Jewish Americans in languages other than English or Yiddish – multicultural this book is not. Consider that nothing here acknowledges poetry in Russian by Joseph Brodsky, among others Jews residing here; in French by Raymond Federman, likewise among others; in Spanish by Latin-American Jews residing here, among them Ilan Stavans, a Mexican teaching at Amherst; Isaac Goldemberg, a CUNY professor who edited El Gran Libro de América Judía (1999); Marjorie Agosin, a Chilean teaching at Wellesley; and Hjalmar Flax, my old friend prominent in Puerto Rico, which remains, don’t forget, part of the USA. There’s nothing here initially in German, by Hans Sahl and Stefan Heym, among other Holocaust refugees long resident in the US; or in medieval Hebrew by Ezekiel Hai Alberg, reportedly last living in Encino, CA; etc. Nothing here was initially written in Italian by, among others, Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838, yes him, a Jew born Emanuele Conegliano), who, after collaborating with W. A. Mozart, spent the last three decades of his life in America, teaching Italian at times at Columbia University. Only one contributor to this book wrote initially in Hebrew.
A few years ago I tried to get a grant for “The Other Poetries of New York City” that would include selections from of poems written in a variety of languages other than English, but no one would support what is not commonly known to exist – minorities’ literary minorities. The ultimate fault of this mammoth anthology is closing down our sense of the multi-lingual Jewish literary experience in America, rather than opening it up, not out of malice, to be sure, but, apparently, thoughtless ignorance.
Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz appear in Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Webster’s Dictionary of American Authors, and Britannica.com, among other selective directories.