From Phillip Roth to Nicole Krauss to Jamaica Kincaid, Jewish writers have long navigated the relationship between their Judaism and their work. For some, Jewish literature means a common set of themes and questions, a shared sense of humor or history, a basis in certain religious or cultural commitments. For others, Jewish stories are about outsiderness, what isn’t shared. And for others still, Jewish stories are simply what happen when a Jewish person sits down and writes.
For Hey Alma, four authors of brand-new books sound off about what it means to write Jewish stories today. What are the challenges, the pitfalls, the opportunities? How do contemporary Jewish writers respond to and write out of the long and evolving history of the Jewish literary canon? And hey — what is “Jewish literature,” anyway?
Corie Adjmi’s novel is about a young woman sent to the Orthodox Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn in the 1970s; Davon Loeb’s memoir is about the in-betweenness of growing up Black and Jewish-white; Courtney Sender’s linked story collection is about single women today haunted by love, longing and ghosts of the Holocaust; and Martha Anne Toll’s novel is a love story about a survivor making his way as a refugee in post-WWII New York.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What does it mean to you to write Jewish stories/books today?
Martha Toll: Judaism stretches back millennia. After a lifetime of reading and talking with friends and relatives, I still feel unschooled. I am endlessly intrigued by the many forms that Judaism takes in the diaspora. I have tried to understand my two separate cultural heritages — German on my mother’s side and Ukrainian on my dad’s. And I have read deeply about the Holocaust and spoken with many survivors and children of survivors.
My debut novel, “Three Muses,” grew out of these interrogations and my continuing sadness at the tragedy of history and the fear that human beings tend to repeat their worst mistakes.
Davon Loeb: Writing Jewish stories and books today, for me, is an exploration between my Black and Jewish heritage. While I was raised in a Black and Christian family, my ancestry is equally Jewish. I think there’s something very significant about this, about ancestry — that though I did not have a Jewish upbringing or connections to Judaism itself, I was and am very much tethered to being Jewish — that to be Jewish is not just a religious experience but a cultural identity.
Courtney Sender: To me, writing Jewish fiction has to do with navigating between ancestors and descendants. The beautiful thing about Judaism is the connection with the ancestors, the notion that we can’t pray without a minyan, that we do not exist in isolation as Jews but as part of a community. Whenever I chant Hebrew prayers, I think about my ancestors having chanted the same words with the same trope.
So my fiction is grappling with Judaism as exceedingly contemporary and also informed by the past, ghosts of the dead and never-made ancestors.
Jewish fiction is so dynamic — the themes and questions that the term evokes for me are not what it evokes for other people. And I think Judaism and Jewish fiction is large enough to contain them all.
Corie Adjmi: When I started writing fiction two decades ago, I didn’t worry about what would happen if I showed my Jewish characters in unflattering ways. In fact, I didn’t even think of my characters as Jewish. Most often, they were, but to me, they were simply people.
I also did not think I was writing Jewish fiction. It was just fiction.
Today, the world is a different place. Antisemitism is on the rise and because Jew hatred is surging, I feel more connected to my fellow Jews, more aware of who I am. And I sense a responsibility that I did not feel years ago.
What is your Jewish background or relationship to Judaism?
Loeb: I first felt a strong connection to Judaism through literature, specifically, reading Primo Levi’s memoir, “Survival in Auschwitz.” Like many books on the Holocaust, the visceral storytelling is unparalleled because the horrors of genocide are without comparison, and yet, I also felt a connection to the Holocaust and to the American Slave Trade, an affinity to inhumanity and humanity.
I realized, through reading many books on both subjects, teaching about historical discrimination as an educator, and my life as a Jewish person of color, that these two peoples are more bound than cleaved, especially in a world and country that wants to divide us.
To be clear however, being a Black American and being a Jewish American is not the same thing and should not be a comparable, should not be a scarring that we contrast — about which we say, we had it worse. Oppression should not work that way, even though some people do have it worse than others — and even though that is true, and I am very interested in bridging these narratives.
Toll: I grew up in a secular Jewish family outside of Philadelphia. One of my earliest introductions to Judaism was the Holocaust. I was related to victims; survivors were part of my extended family and were the parents of friends. But that doesn’t mean anyone really talked about it.
My formal Jewish education was thin. My parents were raconteurs but not about their family histories. They did not tend to socialize with Jewish people. I felt that I lacked roots, although I grew up in a loving and intellectually engaged family. By my early teens, I took it upon myself to try to understand where I came from — meaning Jewish history and family history. Ever since, I have immersed myself in the culture.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities of writing Jewish literature?
Sender: I think a lot about Jewish humor. I read the wonderful works of Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud and Sholem Aleichem, but I also recognize that Jewish humor is in the zeitgeist via television and sitcoms. So I think about “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, which are obviously Jewish inflected. Even “30 Rock,” where the characters speak German anytime they’re being militantly organized or hierarchical — it’s a Jewish joke! (I’m German myself now, no shade.)
In my writing, I try to incorporate wit and humor even when I’m writing about something as serious as the Holocaust. Gallows humor has often been quite literal in the case of Jews, and I hope to find what’s funny even in the most severe situations. In my book, for example, ghosts of the Holocaust watch their great-niece swipe on Tinder. And there’s something intentionally ridiculous about that.
Adjmi: As a fiction writer, I am interested in people, including their troubled, dark side. That is where our humanity lies. But if I show the failings of a Jewish character, am I adding fuel to an already blazing antisemitic fire?
With hate crimes on the rise, exposing the world to flawed Jewish characters seems precarious. Will readers judge my Jewish characters and make negative assumptions about Jewish people across the globe?
Ultimately, I’ve had to let that concern go. I can’t censor. It’s through one’s limitations that one’s humanity is exposed, where our grace and compassion are called upon. We are all imperfect, every single one of us.
Toll: The 20th century saw the lionization of male Jewish fiction writers — Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud come immediately to mind. These authors were trying to capture the Jewish experience in America. Their characters bring a certain neurotic, sometimes not-so-lovable, immigrant Jewish man to the fore.
This is great literature, but leaves a lot out. Of course there are later (and earlier) Jewish writers who diverge considerably. I was not looking to emulate writers with whom I was familiar. As an author, I was laser focused on my characters and the particular challenges that they face.
Can you say more about the challenges of Jewish stereotype in fiction?
Adjmi: Jews are often stereotyped as rich. But what many don’t know is that we are also poor. We are Sephardic and Ashkenazic. We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. We are fair-skinned and dark. We eat gefilte fish, hamud and pizza. We wear black hats and yarmulkes, long skirts and wigs, jeans and crop-tops. We are Republicans and Democrats. We are straight, and we are gay. We live in America, Israel, Africa, Italy and many other places around the world. We are not one thing.
Writers have the opportunity, if not an obligation, to show these truths, one story at a time. If we don’t share our stories, we gamble with others taking the easy way out, relying on old and false tropes.
One way to avoid this is to create Jewish characters, lots of them, sharing what it means to be Jewish. Our Holocaust stories are a must, but we are also more than our Holocaust stories. Jews are a nuanced, colorful, fascinating, diverse people. And Jewish life, and all its vibrancy, has not been represented fully in books and film.
We must tell our stories — the good, the bad and everything in between. Or we risk not being seen and known.
Toll: Stereotypes of any kind are insidious. Human beings present a huge range of diversity, even and especially within ethnic groups and religions. The challenge of fiction is to present each character with their full humanity — flaws and weaknesses, ways in which they love.
How does your book contribute to “Jewish literature”?
Loeb: It is my hope that my memoir, “The In-Betweens,” a coming-of-age journey about growing up Black and Jewish-white, is that bridge, is that literary work that wants to challenge the ways racism and antisemitism still exist, like a disease, in our society.
My memoir dissects what it means to be between races and cultures, being Black and Jewish-white, and how that in-betweenness is where my identity emerges and equally dissolves — for who I am, as a Black and Jewish-white man, is an amalgamation of both, of both people, both histories, its traumas, its joys.
I want to question what it means to be a culture when you’re not whole; you don’t fit, especially when you do not look like a thing, look Black, look Jewish. I want to embrace that ambiguity and not retreat, not search for the easy answer. And I believe my memoir is more important now than ever.
Sender: I’m writing about single women in “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me.” The book shows the longing and hope of this lonely modern world, through mythical Jewish characters like Lilith (whom I conceive of as abandoned by Adam for Eve, and maybe finding love elsewhere instead).
My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and to me, this puts a fine point on the questions of love and reproduction today. That’s what the characters in my book are grappling with. The global Jewish population has still not quite recovered to pre-Holocaust levels, and Judaism is a matrilineal religion, so what is the responsibility on a contemporary Jewish woman to have children, to make a family?
This is an interesting question to consider abstractly, but for my characters, it runs up very uncomfortably against the realities of dating and partnership in the modern age. Dating today happens via dating apps and technological innovations that seem unfathomable from the perspective of the ancestors.
Adjmi: In my novel, “The Marriage Box,” I portray the Orthodox Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn. This is a community that has not been sufficiently represented, and some might find it interesting that while Jews are known to be scholarly, people of the book, this community has historically prioritized hard work and family.
Toll: I did not write “Three Muses” with a “purpose,” but I do believe storytelling is key to “telling it forward.” As a fiction writer, I believe one story can be more compelling than all of the horrifying statistics. The magnitude of the crime of the Shoah grows the more you know about it, and the worldwide participation to wipe out the Jewish people can overwhelm.
The story of my protagonist, John Curtin, tells a bigger story through one person’s lens: how a survivor who lost his whole family can find meaning in his life, and make his way as a refugee in the United States. The fallout does not end, but future possibilities do unfold.
Corie Adjmi is the best-selling award-winning author of the novel “The Marriage Box” and the short story collection “Life and Other Shortcomings.” She lives and works in New York City. Check out more on Adjmi’s website and Instagram.
Davon Loeb is the author of the memoir “The In-Betweens” (West Virginia University Press) and an assistant features editor at the Rumpus. He earned an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University-Camden and has had work published in the Sun Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and others. Check out more on Loeb’s website and Twitter.
Courtney Sender has written for The New York Times’ Modern Love, The Atlantic, Slate, and iHeartMedia’s Noble Blood. Her debut book, “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me” (2023, WVU Press), was called “a stunner” by Deesha Philyaw and “literary rock ‘n’ roll” by Aimee Bender. Check out more on Sender’s website, Instagram and Twitter.
Martha Anne Toll won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction for her debut novel, “Three Muses.” Her second novel, “Duet for One,” is scheduled for publication early 2025. Check out more on Toll’s website, Instagram and Twitter.