Two weeks ago, my wife and I received a complimentary copy the Winter 2011 issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies because we have an article about Joann Sfar’s Klezmer published there. About a week before that, as it happens, I’d gotten an acceptance notice from a literary magazine called Drash: Northwest Mosaic for a cycle of microfiction stories about immigrants I’d written structured around the Jewish liturgical calendar. One of the reviewer comments included this intensely flattering passage: “A story for me is great when you start reading it out loud, as if the words just take your vocal cords and undo the silence so you can hear the words twice… from silence to sound. A cantor would know this well.”
It’s true that the grass always seems greener in the field next door, but it’s pretty easy to argue that the grass is actually, objectively far greener in Jewish lit than Mormon lit. After all, there are roughly the same numbers of Jews and Mormons in the world, but a lot more successful Jewish writers. I don’t have space to describe all the advantages Jewish lit has or appears to have, but odds are you’ve thought about and actively envied at least a few of them. Maybe you’re secretly a bit jealous that Jewish lit has fairly widespread institutional support from universities (Shofar, for instance, is published by Purdue) and from congregations (Drash is published by Temple Beth Am). Or maybe you’re more jealous of Jewish lit audiences, audiences which include Jews who say say nice things involving cantors about your work, Jews who live up to the stereotype of loving books and/or a good, long debate more than just about anything, and which include many millions of non-Jews who are drawn to Jewish stories (something which the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Menachem Wecker thinks may be especially true of Mormons).
You are not jealous, I am sure, of the Jewish lion’s share of Holocaust suffering, but perhaps you have noticed that wrestling with the Holocaust explicitly or implicitly is a cornerstone of contemporary American English-Department thought. You may be more jealous of Jews’ ability to claim several thousand more years of history than we typically do, of their symbolically and narratively rich holiday traditions, and of the many literary and other intellectual prizes my grandfather always used to remind my siblings and I that Jews have won and Mormons have not.
Maybe you’ve cautiously hoped that Jewish writers can be a model for Mormon writers on how to write cultural particularity, even peculiarity, in a way that taps into deeply human themes a broad audience can access. Or maybe you’ve considered, in a fit a desperation, writing a Mormon story and then doing some rewrites to quickly pretend your characters are simply part of a small and unusual sect of Jews.
But green as the grass is in the field of Jewish lit, is there any reason to be thankful for what we have as Mormons?
After my father mentioned how interested he was in reading Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, my wife and I got into a discussion about Chabon and Joann Sfar, whose work we wrote about for Shofar. Both are imaginative, critically acclaimed writers who, as my wife put it “are deeply invested in Jewishness but not at all in Judaism.” Sfar, for instance, openly attacks the idea of conflating religious observance with Jewish identity. I’m not sure if Chabon is as direct on the subject, but he certainly isn’t attached to traditional religion in life or his writing. The same could be said of many famous Jewish writers–and while I’ll admit to a little jealousy that the list of famous Jewish writers who fit into this particular grouping is still far too long to make in a mere blog post, I can also say: is it all that bad that religious Mormons don’t have to worry about competing over identity with a Mormon Michael Chabon?
In a series of emails with William Morris last year, I noted that maybe it would be more productive to use a migratory tribe rather than the American categories of ethnicity or religion as a model for talking about Mormonism. We are a community in which religious identity and activity are of paramount importance: you maintain the identity when you keep moving with the tribe–it’s extremely difficult to establish an identity based in non-religious Mormonness.
I realize, of course, that for some Mormon writers, the Judaism-Jewishness distinction is yet another reason to envy Jewish writers. If I’m honest, though, I’m fairly happy that my identity as a Mormon is both necessarily attached to my participation in a community and necessarily religious, that it is negotiated primarily by prophets and bishops, by Mormon mothers and fathers in Family Home Evenings with their children, and that would-be Mormon Chabons and Sfars and Roths don’t get much a voice in it.
If having a more accepted literature coming out of our community would also change the way Mormon identity is negotiated, maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe the admittedly green grass out there has its drawbacks, and it’s not ultimately worth envying writers who lucked into being born Jews.
What do you think?