I loved Lenore Skenazy’s recent essay about how immersion among gentiles can make even the most secular Jew feel suddenly Jewish — and conversely, how being in a very Jewish environment can make us feel, well, not Jewish.
Then this week Phillip Roth insisted that he doesn’t “write Jewish”; rather, he writes American and regional.
The ongoing discussion about self-identification echoes deeply for me. Two years ago, I wrote for the Sisterhood about arriving at my MFA grad program in Vermont and discovering myself to be one of only a handful of Jewish students, none of whom were my age. This meant no bar-mitzvah jokes, no oy gevalts, no one asking me what I wanted for Hanukkah — but lots of kindred spirits despite the cultural divide.
As I expected I might, I taught my new friends how to spin dreidels and how to say “baruch hashem!” and I learned about their family traditions and holidays, too. I wore my first Christmas sweater, even.
This weekend, The New York Times Book Review, which has a real knack for hiring known anti-feminists as writers, featured Katie “Rape, shmape” Roiphe’s essay on literary sex in the works of Great Male writers. The essay bemoans the supposed sissiness of today’s male novelists, such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and company — compared with their predecessors, the Updikes, Roths, Mailers and Bellows, who featured coupling in vivid details throughout their works.
Many of these writers are Jewish, and the sexual angst they describe is a particularly Jewish American male variety. I haven’t read all the works Roiphe quotes, but I found the timing of her piece amusing. I’ve just read my first Chabon novel and had planned to write a Sisterhood post about how I preferred Chabon’s gentler, more humanistic (and less hetero-normative) version of Jewish manhood to Roth’s out-and-out misogyny. Not quite the same reaction as Roiphe’s. Roiphe sprinkles the terms “virile” and “postfeminist” in opposition to one another throughout her piece, implying that feminism killed off virility. She seems to believe that male writers who wonder what women think while in bed, or while flipping the page, are effectively castrated. Sigh.