In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish novels of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
It’s been some year for Jewish fiction, though we continue to scream about, ponder and dissect what that even means. It is produced by Jewish writers, certainly, but not always. It centers on otherness, our history and culture, the nature of family and whatever we call god. It’s set in Israel or in Europe before or after the war, in New York City, England and America’s heartland. Its heroes are bold, men-children, revolutionists or the inward-looking. And like we’re boarding Noah’s ark, much of the fiction we loved this year can be discussed in pairs.
There were the young men who wrote big books that tinkered with language and form while winking at their readers. Joshua Cohen mellifluously skewers capitalism in “Witz” as he writes about the last Jew on earth. With less hubris, Adam Levin’s “The Instructions” spurred difficult conversations about religion and terrorism by tunneling into the mind of a puckish Day School student.
This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist featured two authors who write about groups not often represented in British literature. Howard Jacobson, author of “The Finkler Question,” has made a career crafting a literary image of the English Jew, while Andrea Levy, shortlisted for “The Long Song,” has documented the black British experience in her five novels, most recently focusing on colonial slaves in nineteenth-century Jamaica. While Jacobson ultimately took the prize, “The Long Song” thrust its author back into the spotlight — in October, Levy was a guest at the Vancouver International Writers Festival and Toronto’s International Festival of Authors.
Both Jews and blacks fall outside of the traditional stiff upper-lip of the English novel; in a way, Levy’s novels about black Britons echo many of the issues of identity shared by Jews in both Britain and North America. And, coincidentally or not, Judaism is one of the missing pieces of Levy’s own identity puzzle.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
In this season of good will and holiday cheer, Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Finkler Question” and a guest last term of George Washington’s English Department, has made mincemeat of Hanukkah. Taking to The New York Times to make his case, he suggests that this Jewish holiday has outlived its usefulness — if, in fact, it had any in the first place.
Hanukkah, argues the British novelist in a cascading procession of paragraphs, simply fails to engage the contemporary imagination. Nothing about it — the food, the ritual, the music — can hold a candle to Christmas. “The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext,” he writes, sidestepping history in favor of sociology. The best Jacobson can say of the holiday is that its name is “lovely.” Really now.
For most New Yorkers, the idea of Jews beyond Israel, New York and New York South (aka Florida) is an annoying complication. For many American Jews, the existence of proud, older, historically significant communities in places other than America and Israel is a constant surprise. As a friend of my then girlfriend asked when first meeting me, “There are Jews in England? Does the Queen know?”
So when the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced, containing within the baker’s dozen Britain’s best known living Jewish novelist and a Levy (Andrea), the general inclination was to either ignore it or to grasp at straws — “Didn’t the New Yorker do a piece on David Mitchell?” “Was “The Sopranos” based on Alan Warner’s book of the same name?” “Will Howard Jacobson make it in America?”
Jacobson, who was named one of the shortlisted authors today (along with Levy and four others), has been an important writer for over 20 years. He was previously longlisted for the Booker twice: for “Kalooki Nights” (2006) (which he described as ”the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere”) and for “Who’s Sorry Now?” (2002).