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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Friday, February 15, 2008 3:46 pm
Lucette Lagnado, Sami Rohr, and More
Posted by: Keir Graff

Occasioned by the recent announcement of Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit as the winner of the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, Robert Cohen asks, “Do Jewish novelists write Jewish novels?” (theblogbooks, Guardian Online):

Upon reading of the lavish new Sami Rohr prize, given to the year’s best work of Jewish fiction or non-fiction, this quote was the second thing that came to mind. The first thing was the $100,000 that went with it, and the need to start writing a new Jewish novel of my own, post-haste.

But in what sense would it be Jewish? This is a perennial but weirdly slippery question among hyphenated writers, so answer-averse it’s almost rhetorical, almost boring. What makes a novel Jewish? The short answer, of course, is that the maker does. Say you are the real, chosen thing, historically and genetically certifiable. Say you have the nose, the one-generation-old name, the ironic, self-deprecating temperament, the face in which can plainly be seen the entire map of Poland. (A Jew, says Sartre, is someone others take as a Jew.) According to this argument, whatever this person – let’s call him, oh, RC – does, is going to be essentially Jewish, in the same way that Mandelstam’s house is going to always have that “little bit of musk.”

Loved this paragraph:

The Jewish writers who came after were raised inside. Most of us weren’t shamed by our immigrant parents or chased in fear of our lives down the mean streets. We were suburban kids, bred with a tenacious but sentimental and also highly confused tribalism, a sense of the Chosen as a kind of embattled, under-funded, small-market baseball team, one whose fortunes, for all the media attention we generated, were forever suspended precipitously over an abyss. Only the financial and spiritual loyalty of the community would keep the franchise afloat.

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