The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century
An erudite and accessible survey of Jewish life and culture in the twentieth century, as reflected in seminal texts.
Following The People and the Books, which "covers more than 2,500 years of highly variegated Jewish cultural expression" (Robert Alter, New York Times Book Review), poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch now turns to the story of modern Jewish literature. From the vast emigration of Jews out of Eastern Europe to the Holocaust to the creation of Israel, the twentieth century transformed Jewish life. The same was true of Jewish writing: the novels, plays, poems, and memoirs of Jewish writers provided intimate access to new worlds of experience.
Kirsch surveys four themes that shaped the twentieth century in Jewish literature and culture: Europe, America, Israel, and the endeavor to reimagine Judaism as a modern faith. With discussions of major books by over thirty writers—ranging from Franz Kafka to Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel to Tony Kushner, Hannah Arendt to Judith Plaskow—he argues that literature offers a new way to think about what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. With a wide scope and diverse, original observations, Kirsch draws fascinating parallels between familiar writers and their less familiar counterparts. While everyone knows the diary of Anne Frank, for example, few outside of Israel have read the diary of Hannah Senesh. Kirsch sheds new light on the literature of the Holocaust through the work of Primo Levi, explores the emergence of America as a Jewish home through the stories of Bernard Malamud, and shows how Yehuda Amichai captured the paradoxes of Israeli identity.
An insightful and engaging work from "one of America’s finest literary critics" (Wall Street Journal), The Blessing and the Curse brings the Jewish experience vividly to life.
Kirsch's excellent follow-up to 2016's The People and the Books again explores "central aspects of Jewish experience" through essential reading material. This time he focuses on crucial works of 20th-century literature by authors including Saul Bellow, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, and Elie Wiesel. Kirsch argues that events of the 20th century caused a "liquidation of the Jewish concept of exile" and also caused a dramatic expansion of Jewish literature, through which it became "possible to gain an unprecedentedly rich and intimate understanding of Jewish experience." The ways in which exile was mooted by the Holocaust, by American acceptance of Jews, and the creation of the nation of Israel are explored in three geographic sections: Europe, where Jews saw their future disappear; the U.S., where, in Kirsch's estimation, Jews could voluntarily abandon "most of what had long defined Jewishness"; and Israel, where writers confronted the "tension between Zionist dream and Israeli reality." Kirsch smoothly places the unprecedented events of the last century in a broad literary context that will help readers deepen understanding of them. Kirsch's wide, trenchant reading of Jewish writings provides insight for lay readers and scholars alike.