The Wanderers explores how artistic identity is informed both by personal experience and the religious and cultural influences of Judaism, through the story of two Jewish-American writers — Abe and Sophie — who try to raise a family and hold their marriage together, even as they pursue parallel literary careers. The play refers and perhaps contributes to a rich tradition of literature exploring the tension of being a Jew in America.
Almost as soon as Jewish people started coming to America, writers of the 20th century began to capture the immigrant experience. Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), a Lithuanian-born writer who came to America in 1882, wrote The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), which follows its hero from a Russian shtetl to America — where he becomes a successful, but emotionally devastated, clothing manufacturer. Henry Roth (1906-1995) of Galician origin, examined the disintegration of Jewish tradition and Jewish law in America in the novel Call It Sleep (1934).
Isaac Bashevis Singer, possibly the most influential voice among Jewish immigrant writers, emigrated from Poland in 1935. After World War II decimated nearly all Yiddish speakers in Europe, Singer upheld the importance of the Yiddish language for a people yearning to connect with their cultural past. Singer wrote parables and folk tales, harkening back to his native Poland, to address the existential and spiritual questions of modern Jews. One of his most famous novels Enemies: A Love Story (1966), tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, coping with complex family relationships in post-war America, including sexual desire and the loss of faith. Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, Singer encouraged his fellow Jewish writers to view their roles as a combination of two Jewish traditions: being both entertainers and prophets.
The works of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) and Chaim Potok (1929-2002) offer two different perspectives of first-generation American Jews. Malamud, the son of a Russian Jewish shop owner in Brooklyn, drew on Jewish identity as background for, but not the central focus of, his stories. He did not write about Jewish communities, but he did feel that “Jews are absolutely the very stuff of drama … the suffering of the Jews is a distinct thing for me.” Jewish identity was more central to Potok, the son of a Polish immigrant father, also raised in Brooklyn in a conservative Jewish community. (Note that in the play, Abe jokes of the cliché of being a Jewish writer in Brooklyn today.) Potok’s characters are outsiders from traditional families and communities, who find that part of their identity comes from standing apart. My Name is Asher Lev (1972) explores whether Jewish and American identities can be reconciled through the story of a young Hasidic Jewish man whose passion to be an artist opposes the values of his family and community. While each of these authors explores their own personal relationship to Jewish identity, what unites them (and all the writers in their generation) is the perspective on being an outsider in America. This emphasis changes for a new crop of writers born and raised in this country.
The Wanderers includes specific references to American novelist Philip Roth (1933-2018), who is an inspiration for Abe in the play, as he is in reality for many Jewish American writers who came after him. Praised by The New York Times in 2018 as “the best and most important American novelist in the last 50 years,” Roth captured the experience of second-generation American Jews whose native-born parents worked hard to rise to the middle class, and who spoke English without accents. His characters are non-observant Jews with scarce sense of community or ritual. Financially comfortable but without cultural connections, Roth captured the experience of American Jews who are alienated from both their identities. Roth — who saw himself as an American writer (not a Jewish one) — described their condition as: “a Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness.” (The Counterlife, 1987)
Abe makes a reference to Portnoy’s Complaint, which brought Roth acclaim, fame, and controversy in 1969. Narrated by Alexander Portnoy from his psychiatrist’s couch, the novel satirized the expectations loaded upon “nice Jewish boys” while portraying in ribald detail Portnoy’s sexual obsessions. The book sold three million copies in five years, but Roth’s irreverent portrait of a young man rebelling against his Jewish culture offended many people in the community. One Jewish scholar went so far as to call it “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.” Portnoy is not a unique character in Roth’s oeuvre. Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Sabbath’s Theater (1995) is another sexually-obsessed man who embarks on a turbulent journey of his past and confronts mortality after his long-time lover dies. A National Book Award winner, The New York Times called Sabbath’s Theatre “Roth's longest and...richest, most rewarding novel.”
Mortality became an increasing concern in Roth’s later works. In the play, actress Julia Cheever has just starred in a movie adaptation of Roth’s Everyman (2007). Named after a medieval play by the same name, Everyman starts with the funeral of its unnamed protagonist, and then proceeds to look mournfully back at his life, tracing his encounters with illness and death from childhood to his last moments. Roth acknowledged the book was inspired by the death of his friend and colleague Saul Bellow in 2006, and he began writing it after attending Bellow’s funeral.
Roth enjoyed inventing alter egos such as Nathan Zuckerman, a fictional novelist who appeared in nine of his novels. Operation Shylock (1993), features a character named Philip Roth, who is being impersonated by another character who stole Roth’s identity. The Plot Against America (2004), features a family named “Roth” who live in New Jersey in the 1940s. Speaking about blurring the boundaries between real life and fiction, Roth said, “making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life.” In The Wanderers, we see a similar interweaving of life and fiction in the way that Abe’s writing both draws from and contributes to the drama of his life.
Abe and Sophie represent another generation of writers who offer new perspectives on the Jewish-American experience. Many in this generation were inspired by Roth, both as “a landmark to guide them, and at the same time an institution to be toppled,” as the collection New Voices in Jewish-American Literature articulated in 2018. In 2013, many younger Jewish novelists attended Roth’s 80th birthday celebration including Nicole Krauss (To Be a Man, 2020) and Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank, 2013).
Recent decades have also opened the spectrum of Jewish American literature to represent more diversity than the 20th century, which gave most attention to white male authors, something one can observe in The Wanderers as Sophie is a biracial Jewish woman. Novelist James McBride explores his dual identities of being a Black man raised by a Jewish mother (daughter of an Orthodox Rabbi) in his memoir The Color of Water (1995). Natasha Diaz’s young adult novel Color Me In (2019) was inspired by her experience as the daughter of a white Jewish father and a Liberian-Brazilian mother. Elana Dykewomon (1950-2022) a pioneering lesbian author, brought a queer perspective to the immigrant story in Beyond the Pale (1997). The book tells the story of Russian Jewish lesbian immigrants who survive the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. These are just a few examples of a rich selection of diverse Jewish voices in print today.
The Wanderers shows how artists pull from their family histories, cultural backgrounds, and individual desires to parse out their identities. In a self-deprecatory moment, Abe “writes” his own biographical note: “He writes books that touch on the American Jewish experience but were met with a shrug by both parents, dismissed as too Jewish by his mother and not Jewish enough by his father.” This line summarizes a predicament for many Americans with roots to cultures outside of the United States. The tension between our cultural backgrounds and our identity as “Americans” can challenge us to make sense of our intersecting identities; it also can provoke artists of all backgrounds and mediums to articulate their personal answer to the universal question: who am I?
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