An Unfamiliar Look at Jewish-American Writers

by Richard Kostelanetz
Originally published in Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine, July/August 2012
(See also a PDF Version)

More than once I’ve protested the limited sense of Jewish writing in America, for instance noting that Sephardic writers are routinely omitted and, for another, that few publicists acknowledged Gertrude Stein as, yes, Jewish.

The initial surprise of Lightness and Soul (Seraphim Books, Woodstock, Ontario), subtitled “Musing on Eight Jewish Writers,” is J. S. Porter’s selection: Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger, Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and, greater surprise, Edward Said. (The last, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem don’t forget, wrote about European Jewish thinkers toward the end of his life.)

Lax, a great minimal poet, converted to the Catholicism of his college buddy Thomas Merton without ceasing to be Jewish. Though Sontag was born Susan Lee Rosenblatt, she rarely mentioned Judaism anywhere in her voluminous writings. Manguel was born in Israel, the child of the Argentine ambassador. Residing in Canada for most of his adult life, he has published many books reflecting his awesome literacy and gut enthusiasm for books, books, and more books.

Since Porter is a Canadian, Lightness and Soul includes an obligatory chapter on Leonard Cohen, whose significance has always puzzled me, credit though I now do Porter with discovering significances that have escaped me.

His real hero is the British art writer John Berger (pronounced not Berg/er but Bir/ger), born of a Jewish father, whom I’d not seen acknowledged as Jewish before. Another Porter chapter is devoted to Simone Weil (pronounced not “while” but “whey,”) who like Lax converted to Catholicism with results quite different from Lax’s.

Otherwise, know that Porter is a fluent and engaging writer, often aphoristic, who takes pride in staking unfamiliar intellectual territory. I review this book initially because I liked it, but then because I doubt if anyone else south of the Canadian border will.

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