The New Jewish Novel

Better ideas.
Sept. 11 1998 3:30 AM

The New Jewish Novel

The complaints are very different from Portnoy's.

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The novel has its flaws. Goodman's explanations of Jewish ritual sometimes veer from the helpful to the condescendingly overexplicit, as if she were writing for young adults. Shulman aside, you could find one-line descriptions of Goodman's main characters in any half-dozen American-Jewish novels: the rabbi with two sons, one brilliant and prodigal, one duller but more loyal; the Holocaust survivor numbed by his past; the daughters tempted by the twin heresies of feminism and Zionism (Israel is viewed as a nation of faithless sinners by these ultra-Orthodox Jews); the assimilationist Jew who comes to a bad end. But Goodman makes them believable, at least, despite bits of soggy sentimentality; she makes you care. (The exception is the cast of non-Jewish locals, who are almost all soap operaish white trash.) And whatever one's quibbles, Goodman should be credited with doing what Singer and Malamud and even Ozick were never really able to do: making the most rigorous form of Judaism seem plausible as an American life.

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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