Pariah Lives: Modern Jewish Fiction and Autobiography

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses
Sophomore and above, Open—Year

The Jewish relationship to fiction and autobiography has been highly unusual. On the one hand, the Bible itself may be said to contain some of the earliest forms of both genres. Yet, restricted Jewish access to Western centers of culture and learning, linguistic and religious barriers, and inner taboos often impeded the development of these literary modes. It was only with the process of emancipation and internal cultural reform that Jewish authors could begin to emerge from the Ghetto and grapple openly with the challenges of modernity through fiction and autobiography. Some writers managed to enrich their modern existence by drawing upon popular Jewish mysticism and life in the Jewish small town (shtetl), while others sought to push away that world by reflecting modern alienation, sexuality, and violence. Certain Jewish authors, like Solomon Maimon, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and Sholem Aleichem (whose short stories formed the basis of the play, Fiddler on the Roof), engaged modernity with such force and transparency that they achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer was often torturous, entailing a rebellion against the Jewish tradition and an embrace of revolutionary or Zionist movements, followed by nostalgia, longing, and regret. It did not help that exposure to European culture also meant exposure to newly virulent forms of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust. Throughout this course, we interweave modern works of fiction with autobiographies by Jewish men and women whose pariah status gave them a unique perspective on the world. Despite the deep tensions that run through their writings, we will discover works of great beauty, poignancy, and insight.