The author of a new book on a golden age of Jewish writers explores the influence of his favorite titles, and reflects on why the works of Roth, Bellow and more are like modern-day religious texts
by mark nimar
As a Jewish New Yorker, Stephen B. Shepard grew up being more comfortable with egg creams and stickball than he was with the Torah or tefillin. But after a remarkable career as the editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek and the founding dean emeritus of what is now known as the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, Shepard decided to revisit the work of Jewish-American authors who had a profound effect on him in his youth. What resulted from his research is his book “A Literary Journey to Jewish Identity,” a literary memoir that discusses books by writers such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick and Bernard Malamud, whose collective work contributed to the golden age of Jewish-American literature in postwar America.
On Nov. 1, Shepard will join Rabbi Scott Perlo in conversation at the 92Y to discuss what it means to be a Jewish-American writer, and how postwar Jewish-American writers helped shape his identity.
We sat down with Shepard to talk about the Bronx, Bellow, and what it means to be a Jewish writer.Where are you from?
Well, I grew up in the West Bronx above Kingsbridge road on University Avenue. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood. In those days, the Bronx was the most Jewish borough. Forty to 50 percent of the Bronx was Jewish. There were also Italians, Irish. My parents belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. My mother kept a kosher home when I was a boy. Two types of dishes, one set for meat, one for dairy. It was a Jewish experience. We celebrated Yom Kippur. We lit candles on Friday night. We weren’t aggressively Jewish, but we were observant. We went to Hebrew school and played stickball in the streets. It was a Jewish neighborhood.What made you want to revisit Jewish-American literature from this period?
At the time [I first read these books], I wasn’t the least bit aware that there was something of a golden age for Jewish writers into the 50s, 60 and well into the 70s. It didn’t dawn on me that there was a golden age, and Jewish writers were emerging after WWII, some of the writers explicitly Jewish like Roth and Malamud, some were slyly so like Bellow. I began wondering, by the time I got to college, by the time I was in college, is there such a thing as a Jewish writer? Is there such a thing as a Jewish novel? What does that mean? These books stayed in my mind a while, and after I stepped down from CUNY, I decided to revisit them, and see what influence did they have on my Jewish identity. I just wanted to learn.What are some of the lessons and observations you took away from reading these books?
You can be Jewish without being religious. They were giving me permission to be less religious. The fiction reinforced it. I always saw myself as Jewish, but it was always a question of the amount of observance of my life as a Jew. My mom called it being “modern,” and [even] my mom shed some of her orthodoxy after her mother died.
I was aware of Jews as a victim. Schools had quotas, Jews couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods. My father changed his name from Shapiro to Shepard because he felt it would get him a better job. Assimilation became a form of disguise, a way of averting victimization that I thought would happen to me as a Jew. The literature I was reading supported those feelings.Why do you think so many great Jewish writers, such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Malamud, came to prominence during this time?
You know, there was an enormous decline in anti-Semitism after the war. But in the 1930s there was a lot of anti-Semitism that prevented a lot of Jews from rising up in various fields. But when I was growing up, there was very little anti-Semitism. And these writers came of age in post-war America and there was an appetite and acceptance for these stories among Jews and among all kinds of readers. I just think there was a better climate for the acceptance of Jews as major novelists.
But a lot of Jewish writers don’t want to be called Jewish writers. Saul Bellow said, calling a writer Jewish is like being called an Eskimo cellist. They didn’t want to be known as that. It was a way of dismissing them, Bellow thought. They won all the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards. And there was backlash from Gore Vidal, and others who referred to them as the Jewish mafia. But there was a decline of anti-Semitism postwar, because they were allowed to be read.Some writers that you mention, like Cynthia Ozick, feel that fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust trivialize the atrocities of that historical event. To what degree do you feel this is true?
I never felt that it trivialized it. I know that she felt she couldn’t make art out of it. But she did it a lot. She really felt very strongly about Jewish identity, and that people didn’t diminish the memory of the Holocaust ... If it’s done well, it can produce deeper feeling of what happened. Another thing that was characteristic: Roth wrote a lot about “Why them and not me,” and I think that it’s important to try to write novels that have Holocaust themes or characters from that era.
[Ozick] was drawn to it as a subject. [Her short story] “The Shawl” was an amazing piece of fiction about a survivor in that era. When Roth and Bellow were writing, these memories were still fresh. It was so recent, I don’t see how you can avoid writing about it. Some people got more religious because of the Holocaust and some people got less religious because of the Holocaust. It’s obviously very complicated.If you could recommend just one book for someone to read from this golden age of Jewish authors, what would it be?
I think that someone who isn’t too familiar with this should read Roth’s novella “Goodbye Columbus.” It deals with Jews’ suburbanization of America. That’s a good one to start with. In terms of Bellow, “Seize The Day” is a wonderful novel. So is “Herzog.” And if you like Updike, the Henry Bech novels are terrific.What is these Jewish writers’ collective legacy? Will they be remembered?
There is now a new cohort of Jewish writers like Michael Chabon. And we don’t think of them as Jewish writers, because times have changed. No one thinks it’s unusual [anymore] that Jews are writing novels.
They’ll be remembered if their novels are remembered as great novels ... They will be remembered for the quality of their fiction. Some will fade away, and some will be remembered as long as people are reading. It depends on what the quality of the work is. If the work endures, and it’s seen to be great, then the writers will be remembered. And if they’re not, they’re not ... And that’s life.