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February 03, 1984 - Image 16

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-02-03

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

16 Friday, February 3, 1


JPS Forms Library Unit

The Covenant in American Jewish Literature

However much things
change, the more they re-
main the same. It's true as
much for modern American
Jewish literature as for
anything else. By virtue of
its being Jewish in origin,
our literature has consis-
tently concerned itself with
As there is nothing more
Shown at the organizational meeting of the central in Judaism than
Jewish Publication Society Heritage Library Com- Covenant, it should not
mittee are, from left, committee chairman Irvin seem unusual to find its use
Borowsky, JPS President Dr. Muriel Berman, and sub-structuring the fiction
JPS trustee Stanley Sheer. Members of the committee of our authors, -though I
contribute $1,000 to JPS and receive two sets of cur- seriously doubt that either
rent JPS books. One set is donated to a library of the they or their multitude of
contributor's choice and the other can be kept by the readers have recognized
contributor or used as gifts. Each book has a how pervasive Covenant is
bookplate identifying the donor and recipient.
in their works. The extent to


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which I find it present
suggests that for the Ameri-
can Jewish community liv-
ing in the second half of the
20th Century, modern
mainstream American-
Jewish literature consti-
tutes a new agada.
The traditional agada, of
course, was the body of
stories in the Old Testa-
ment which, according to
Rabbi Samuel E. Karff in
"Agada: The Language of
Jewish Faith," published by
the Hebrew Union College
Press in 1979, "describes
the nature and reality of
God's covenant with Israel."
These are the narra-
tives on which we cut our
Jewish eye-teeth as chil-
dren, the stories of Adam
and Eve in Eden, Noah
and the Ark, the binding
of Isaac, and all the rest
of the legends, tales,
myths and other ac-
counts of the encounters
betWeen God and Israel,
which have shaped us as
a people, including that
most masterfully -
sophisticated story of
Job, as modern in its
meaning and signifi-
cance today as when it
first entered our litera-
Rabbi Karff in his fine
book explains that the tra-
ditional agada gives us a
sense of the continuity-be-
tween the past and the pre-
sent, and between the indi-
vidual Jew and the commu-
nity at large. These stories
invest our lives, he ob-
serves, with an awareness
of the transcendent bond be-
tween Jew and God, at the
same time reminding us of
the common heritage all
Jews share.
Beyond these considera-
tions, agada confirms our
faith in the meaning of life,
especially in the presence of
suffering and death; it pro-
vides answers to the eter-
nally intriguing question
"Who is a Jew?" and it rein-
forces the sanctity of the
Jewish family.
The opening chapters of
Genesis give us the three
covenants, those between
God and Adam respecting
humankind's obligations
and privileges in and after
the Garden of Eden, be-
tween God and Noah on the
subject of the non-occur-
rence of a second flood, and
between God and Abraham
on monotheistic loyalty,
chosenness and propaga-
The second and third
covenants are explicitly
stated as such in Genesis,
and the third covenant
constitutes, of course, the
heart of Judaism itself. It
makes the Jew his own
special pleader, puts him
into direct dialogue with
God, and gives him total
freedom of action not to
reject God but to chal-
lenge Him for cause.
I submit that this is the
situation in which modern,
day humankind most often
finds itself, a situation con-
stantly reflected in the
struggles of the pro-
tagonists who populate the
novels of Abraham Cahan,

Henry Roth, Isaac Bashevis is a common prostitute.
Singer, Saul Bellow, Ber- Devoted to her, his inten-
nard Malamud, Cynthia tions, obvious beyond the
Ozick, Philip Roth and story's limits, will be to
Norman Mailer. A covenan- marry the girl and "be
tal involvement, usually fruitful and multiply."
hostile but nonetheless in- - In "God's Grace,"
structive, as is the case in Malamud begins this novel
the novels of Roth and with a dialogue between
Mailer, is also present in the Calvin Cohn and God in
poems of Karl Shapiro and which the former chal-
Allen Ginsberg.
lenges God directly for fail-
In his "Poems of a Jew," ing to keep His contract
Karl Shapiro explores in his with Noah. Cohn says, "Af-
introduction the "central ter Your first Holocaust
meaning of Jewish con- You promised no further
sciousness." Of it he writes, Floods . . . That was Your
"Being a Jew is the con- Covenant with Noah and all
sciousness of being a Jew, living creatures. Instead,
and the Jewish identity, You turned the water on
with or without religion, again."
with or without history, is
These days, the chal-
the significant fact. The Jew lenges to God alone confirm
is unique among mankind, the functioning significance
once he accepts this iden- of Covenant. But, to me, the
tity, and the word Jew re- single most positive exam-
tains its eternal shock, a ple of Covenant's contem-
shock that has nothing to do porary importance is to be
with Christ or the Crucifix- found in the closing passage
ion. The shock has to do O'f Saul Bellow's "Mr. Sam-
with the Covenant, the in- mler's Planet." In the
timacy of Jew and God. This presence of the deceased
intimacy is not sentimental; body of his nephew and
on the contrary, it is un- benefactor, Elya Gruner,
Sammler both prays to God
Shapiro takes the view and reminds Him of the con-
that this unfriendly inti- tinuing validity of the an-
macy between the Jew and cient contract:
God goes beyond religion
"Remember, God, the soul
and art and results in the of Elya Gruner, who, as
Jew's absolute commitment willingly as possible and
to the here and the now, to well as he was able, and
this world as it is literally even to an intolerable point,
and even in suffocation and
In a more positive vein, even as death was coming,
Abraham Cahan in his was eager, even childishly
"The Rise of David perhaps (may I be, forgiven
Levinsky" depicts the for this), even with a certain
young Levinsky glorying servility, to do what was re-
in Covenant, when in re- quired of him . . . He was
calling his childhood he aware that he must meet,
says, "My relations with and he did meet — through
God were of a personal all the confusion and de-
and of a rather familiar graded clowning of this life
character. He was in- through which we are
terested in everything I speeding — he did meet the
did or said; He watched terms of his contract. The
my every move or terms of which, in his in-
thought; He was always most heart, each man
in heaven, yet, somehow, knows. As I know mine. As
He was always near me." all know."
Though he becomes a
Can modern American
highly successful manufac- Jewish literature be
turer, Levinsky realizes thought of as the new
that the tragedy of his life agada? In the light of the
has been his failure as a evidence, it can hardly be
man to keep the Covenant described otherwise.
he revered as a child. This is
also the message of Potok's Nobel Prize
"My Name Is Asher Lev."
Other protagonists are for Peace Now?
more fortunate. Gimpel in
Singer's short story does members of the Swedish
keep his Covenant, and he Parliament have informed
thereby achieves sainthood. the Jerusalem Post that
Yasha, in "The Magician of they have nominated the
Lublin," breaks the Cove- Peace Now movement in Is-
nant but reclaims it by turn- rael for this year's Nobel
ing himself into Reb Jacob Peace Prize.
the Penitent.
In a telegram to the Post
Malamud, in "The Assis- they explained they "con-
tant" and "The Magic sider the Peace Now move-
Barrel," involves his pro- ment to be one of the most
tagonists in experiences important elements in fos-
which bring them to an tering a dialogue which
awareness of Covenant, could lead to peace between
though the experiences are Israelis and Arabs . . . a
themselves filled with solution to the conflict be-
tween Israel and the Arabs
In 'The Assistant," it is may also contribute to a les-
the non-Jew, Frank Al- sening of tensions between
pine, who accepts Cove- the superpowers."
nant; in "The Magic
Barrel," a rabbinical stu- Menahem Begin shared the
dent who has lost his Nobel Peace Prize with the
faith in Covenant, re- late Egyptian President
covers it when he falls in Anwar Sadat after conclu-
love with a Jewish girl sion of the Israel-Egypt
who unbeknownst to him peace treaty.


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