the new yiddishists


Until he was invited to a symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University in 1962, Philip Roth felt fairly comfortable as a Jewish writer. But that night, the celebrated young novelist was jeered and threatened, called a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite—all by an overwhelmingly Jewish audience that Roth had expected to be welcoming. … “It was the most bruising public exchange of my life,” Roth later recalled, but a defining one. His novels, from Portnoy’s Complaint to American Pastoral, to his latest, Indignation, would dwell largely on those same themes of Jews finding their place in American society (often by running away from Newark into the arms of shiksa goddesses). “After an experience like mine at Yeshiva,” Roth said, “a writer would have had to be no writer at all to go looking elsewhere for something to write about.” Indeed, the first generation of Americanized Jewish writers—Roth and Saul Bellow foremost among them—filled their books with stories of Jewish assimilation that perfectly captured the hunger for the American Dream and made their authors some of the most acclaimed American novelists of the past century. Today a new breed of American Jewish writers can be found on the best-seller lists (although Roth still shows up there with impressive regularity). Equally comfortable with their American and Jewish identities, this group, which I’ll call the New Yiddishists, is responsible for a renaissance in Jewish storytelling that is turning the narrative of assimilation on its head.

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