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The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction

Portnoy’s children
New anthology explores the arc of American Jewish literature

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – It’s been 55 years and two generations since Philip Roth’s contemporary portrait of American Jewish life, Goodbye, Columbus, won the 1960 National Jewish Book Award for fiction. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Roth, along with literary peers like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, traced the collective biography of second- and third-generation American Jews who left behind the traditional culture of their immigrant forebears to navigate questions of identity and assimilation in a free society.

Three years after Roth took home the literary prize, a second annual award was created to honor Jewish authors whose published works of fiction have particular significance for the American Jew. The Wallant Award was established in 1963 by West Hartford residents Dr. Irving and Fran Waltman, in memory of the late Edward Lewis Wallant, author of The Pawnbroker and other works of fiction. Its first honoree was Coat upon a Stick, a 1962 novel by Norman Fruchter about an aging sexton in one of the last synagogues on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In the half-century since, as Jews have continued to acculturate and thrive in North America, the literary genre that reflects their lives and concerns has evolved in tandem. The Wallant Award has moved from the Emanuel Temple, where Fran Waltman’s book group first met, to the JCC of Greater Hartford, and finally to the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. Taken together, the works selected for the award provide a window onto American Jewish life over the last 50 years.

The New Diaspora cover 2A new anthology of past winners and finalists has just been published to mark the occasion of the Wallant Award’s anniversary. The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction (Wayne State University Press), edited by Wallant Award judges Victoria Aarons (Trinity University), Avinoam Patt (University of Hartford), and Mark Shechner (University at Buffalo) brings together a representative group of those writers whose work has either won or been considered for the award. The book reflects the breadth and ongoing vitality of the fiction written by and about Jews in America.

The New Diaspora will be launched on Monday, Mar. 2 as part of the Jewish Book Festival at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford. Patt will facilitate a panel discussion with Wallant Award winners Eileen Pollack (2008, In the Mouth), Joshua Henkin (2012, The World Without You), and David Bezmozgis (2014, The Betrayers), who are also included in the anthology. Bezmozgis will receive the Wallant Award after the panel discussion.

avinoam patt

Avinoam Patt

Each of the 36 chapters comprises a selection from an award-winning North American Jewish author writing from the ‘90s on. Half of the contributors are Wallant Award recipients; the rest are writers whose work the editors believed should be recognized. All the contributors but one – Gerald Shapiro, who won the 1993 award – are living.

Patt says that the anthology reflects several prevalent themes explored by American Jewish writers. There is an evolution from the earlier narratives that capture the experience of immigrants that characterized the writing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The radical shift that Jews experienced in coming from the Old World to the New World was a major theme,” Patt says. “The post-World War Two generation spent a lot of time reflecting on questions of identity.”

Now comes a new crop of first- and second-generation immigrants – those who left the former Soviet Union in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or who were born in North America to parents who did so. Many of the anthology’s contributors – including Bezmozgis – are the voices of the most recent arrivals in the “new diaspora” of the book’s title. “These writers constitute a really important cohort who reflect on that immigrant experience,” Patt says.

Other writers in the collection mine World War Two and the Holocaust for inspiration, especially second- and third-generation survivors. And a third theme is travel to Israel and forging a connection with the land.

“In today’s American Jewish fiction, we no longer see the kind of angst, debating, and handwringing over what it means to be a Jew in America, living on the hyphen,” Patt says. “Writers are reflecting a sense of comfort in who they are as individuals and in their own identity. At the same time, we see a coming to terms with being a member of a Jewish collective, an exploration of what it means to be a member of the American Jewish community today.”

While many writers reflect on the Holocaust and on experiences in Israel to explore the state of the Jewish whole, those traditional questions of personal identity still come up, Patt says, as anthology co-editor Mark Shechner points out in the introduction. “But the writing seems to be less about I and who am I? and more reflecting on who are we? and the collective of the Jewish people,” Patt says.

“Contrary to all the predictions of the death of the book and the end of literature, this is a golden age for American Jewish fiction,” Patt says. “We were struck by how eclectic and varied Jewish fiction is today. There are so many different varieties of ways to write about the American Jewish experience and so many types of authors who constitute that genre. We wanted to capture that and show the state of American Jewish writing today.”

The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction launch and panel discussion with Prof. Avinoam Patt and Wallant Award honorees, and presentation of the 2014 Wallant Award: Monday, Mar. 2, 7 PM, Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, Gilman Theater, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Reservations and tickets required: (860) 236-6316, mandelljcc.org


Wallant Award 2014
Through a Russian-Jewish-Israeli lens

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – The University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies has named author David Bezmozgis the 2014 Edward Lewis Wallant Award winner for his novel, The Betrayers (Little, Brown and Company, September 2014).

The presentation ceremony will be held on Monday, Mar. 2 at the Mandell Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford as part of the book launch event for The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction, an anthology of selections by past Wallant Award winners and finalists.

As a Wallant Award winner, Bezmozgis joins a distinguished list of past award recipients, including Cynthia Ozick, Curt Leviant, Chaim Potok, Myla Goldberg, Dara Horn, Nicole Krauss, and Julie Orringer, as well as last year’s award winner, Kenneth Bonert.

Bezmozgis represents a new and prolific generation of North American Jewish writers with fresh ties to the former Soviet Union. Born in Riga, Latvia in 1973, Bezmozgis immigrated with his family to Canada at age 6. He earned a BA in English from McGill University and an MFA from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. An award-winning writer and filmmaker now based in Toronto, Bezmozgis’s stories have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harpers, Zoetrope All-Story, and The Walrus.

His first book, Natasha and Other Stories, was published in 2004 in the U.S. and Canada and was subsequently translated into 15 languages. In summer 2010, Bezmozgis was included in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 issue, celebrating the 20 most promising fiction writers under the age of 40. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow, a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, and a Radcliffe Fellow.

The Free World, Bezmozgis’ first novel, was published in 2011 in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Holland, Germany, Italy, France, Israel, and Spain. It was selected in 2011 as a New York Times Notable Book and a Globe and Mail Best Books Title. The book was also shortlisted for the Scotiabank/Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, The Trillium Prize, and won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.

The Betrayers coverThe Betrayers, Bezmozgis’s second novel, presents one momentous day in the life of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident who now finds himself a disgraced Israeli politician. When he refuses to back down from a contrary but principled stand regarding the West Bank settlements, his political opponents expose his affair with a mistress decades his junior, and the besieged couple escapes to Yalta, the faded Crimean resort of Kotler’s youth. There, shockingly, Kotler comes face-to-face with the former friend whose denunciation sent him to the Gulag almost 40 years earlier. In a whirling 24 hours, Kotler must face the ultimate reckoning, both with those who have betrayed him and with those whom he has betrayed, including a teenage daughter, a son facing his own moral dilemma in the Israeli army, and the wife who once campaigned to secure his freedom and stood by him through so much.

This year, for the first time, Wallant Award judges selected three finalists in addition to the prize-winner: Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans; Boris Fishman, author of A Replacement Life; and David Shrayer-Petrov (ed. Maxim Shrayer), Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories.

“In naming three additional finalists for the award this year, the Greenberg Center is acknowledging the considerable vitality of contemporary Jewish literature in North America, and the significant impact of Jewish writers from the former Soviet Union,” says Avinoam Patt, the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Greenberg Center and a Wallant Award judge.

Antopol, a lecturer at Stanford University, has been recognized as a recipient of the “5 Under 35” award by the National Book Foundation. The UnAmericans, also nominated for a National Jewish Book Award, is her debut story collection, taking readers from America to Israel to the Soviet Union in critical moments of the last century.

Fishman was born in Minsk in 1979 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1988. His debut novel, A Replacement Life, chronicles the efforts of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.

Shrayer-Petrov, a well-known contemporary Russian-American writer and medical scientist, was born in Leningrad in 1936 and immigrated to the United States in 1987. Dinner with Stalin is a collection of 14 short stories set in the former Soviet Union that feature Soviet Jews grappling with issues of identity, acculturation, assimilation, and persecution.

The seeds of The Betrayers were planted in the Soviet soil of Bezmozgis’s homeland. “The original inspiration behind the story was an anecdote I discovered, a historical footnote about Natan Sharansky – then Anatoly Sharansky – being betrayed by Sanya Lipavsky, somebody who was ostensibly his friend,” Bezmozgis says. “I was curious to find out what had happened to Lipavsky more than I was curious about a character like Sharansky. In researching and thinking more about it, I became interested in the question of why some people are highly principled and will sacrifice anything for those principles, and some people are not – who is good and who is less good and why that is. So the book engages with that and asks that question and at some point, offers a kind of answer to the question.”

The other motivation behind The Betrayers, says Bezmozgis, was a desire to address the complexities of modern-day Israel – “to think about what that country has achieved and where it’s going, something a lot of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, think about and are concerned about.”

“We often hear one side or the other, expressed in polemical ways,” he says. “I wanted to write a book that treated the issue not polemically, but rather considered it from all sides – and from an angle that people don’t think about: the tremendous impact of Russian immigrants to Israel on the life of that country.”

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, some one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, mostly Jews, have come to Israel. As part of his research Bezmozgis traveled there in 2012 to talk to as many people as possible, across the political spectrum – especially Soviet-Jewish dissidents. “I was curious to hear them talk about their past and get their impressions of Israel,” he says. “I wanted to understand how they thought about the country and how they saw its future.”

A year prior, he traveled to Crimea, his first-ever trip to the popular summer resort during the Soviet era, and the stage where The Betrayers is set.

While Bezmozgis is the product of three cultures and languages – Russian from his native country, Hebrew/Jewish from Jewish dayschool, and English/Canadian from his adopted country – he doesn’t use The Betrayers as a forum for exploring the identity issues of an immigrant; that theme was at the center of his first two books. Rather, he employs his unique experience and perspective for a different purpose.

“The fact that I have a foot in both Russian and North American cultures enables me to write about one or the other,” he says. “I’m able to write about the Russian-Jewish world for American and other Western readers, so my dual identity is just that: I have two passports that allow me to cross the border. People are writing books about the experience of having a foot in both and negotiating whatever identity crisis that comes with that. More interesting to me, in this instance, is writing and describing that Russian world for Western readers so that, as with any kind of foreign literature, they can discover something strange and familiar at the same time.”

Though already acclaimed for his work, Bezmozgis is not yet used to the spotlight. “To receive an award is a rare and pleasant surprise,” he says. “There are a great many books published and a great many good ones published. Having not won many awards, you realize what an honor and thrill it is, so any time it happens, you celebrate a little bit – or a lot.”


Bezmozgis will be presented with the Wallant Award on Monday, Mar. 2 at 7 PM as part of the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford Jewish Book Festival. Tickets/info: mandelljcc.org / (860) 236-4571.


The Betrayers was also awarded the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for fiction, presented by the Jewish Book Council (JBC). Wallant Award finalists The UnAmericans and A Replacement Life were among the National Jewish Book Award runners-up.


In addition, for the first time in its history, the JBC bestowed the 2014 Jewish Book of the Year on a series, the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, which illuminates the lives of great figures in Jewish history. The honor, presented four years into the publication of the series, was given “in recognition of its achievements thus far and its forthcoming contributions for years to come,” according to the JBC website. “JBC seeks to highlight and applaud the publisher, Yale University Press, in collaboration with the Leon D. Black Foundation, for taking on this important task as well as show support for the endeavor and continue to nurture an audience for works that share the stories and people behind our collective history.”

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