- VOLUME 10
- MY LIBRARY
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The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization is a ten-volume series that collects more than 3,000 years of Jewish cultural artificats, texts, and paintings, selected by more than 120 internationally recognized scholars.
Anne Roiphe’s Journey
In 1976, around Christmas time, the writer Anne Roiphe published an article in the New York Times that touched a nerve. “Letters poured into the Times,” she recently recalled in an article. “Jews were angry.” The piece was about assimilation, and discussed her love for Christmas—“a sacred event in our family life.’’ Among those angered were rabbis, average Times readers, and Cynthia Ozick, who scolded Roiphe for her Jewish ignorance. That hurt. But it also galvanized Roiphe. “I began to explore the subject of Jewish identity, mine and other people’s,” she wrote. “I spoke to rabbis of all kinds. I read what I could find. I read Jewish history.” As a result of the public contretemps with Ozick, she began a journey back to, if not religion, then Jewish history and culture.
Not coincidentally, the word journey appears in the title of Roiphe's 1981 book, Generation Without Memory: A Jewish Journey Through Christian America. The book, a portion of which appears in Volume 10 of the Posen Library, is a hybrid creation, a sort of adult bildungsroman with pieces of diary and reportage thrown in. It chronicles Roiphe’s attempt to comprehend the urge behind her own assimilation and find some degree of comfort in her Jewish skin. After 1976, Roiphe went to Israel (fascinating); encountered Meir Kahane (alarming, disheartening); experienced her first Orthodox seder; enrolled her daughters in Hebrew School; met Jewish feminists; joined Peace Now; and grew pessimistic about Israel’s future, political and otherwise. She also immersed herself in Jewish literature. In a way, the road back to Jewish life was paved with books: Roiphe read and read, and her own book is laced with riffs and interpretations, mini-essays about classic, and not-so-classic, Jewish texts.
As she read and traveled and brooded and processed her thoughts, Roiphe moved further from the “gilded ghetto” of her youth, a place where Jews sought to become unJewish—“tribeless, stateless, countryless, classless, religionless.’' But what, then, was her journey’s destination? And how does a writer who seems most comfortable when she’s in some degree of discomfort—dubious about god, uneasy with prayer, allergic to tribalism, piqued with patriarchy—find a stable place to rest in the Jewish world?
She doesn’t, really. Discomfort, anxiety, guilt, and ambivalence seem to be at the core of her being, and they serve as the wellsprings of her writing, so it’s not surprising that the book ends with unease and regret. Roiphe looks at her family, whose connection to Jewish life is “eclectic, thin, without magic.” She realizes that she undervalued tradition; the losses “are serious losses.” Regret is the keynote of the book’s final section. And yet—and yet—Roiphe’s subsequent writing suggests that she is at least somewhat content with her own journey’s trajectory. After the 1980s, Roiphe’s byline became familiar to Jerusalem Post readers, then Forward readers, then Tablet readers. She is currently writing a 12-article series for the Forward about Jewish-American fiction. Roiphe has always been a formidable stylist—her prose is lyrical and muscular, with a Hemingwayesque leanness and propulsion—and her Forward series is not to be missed: her collisions with some of the finest Jewish writers of the 20th century make for exciting reading. She continues writing fearlessly, incisively, and obsessively about Jewish subjects. Indeed, her most recent Forward article is about Cynthia Ozick and her novel about a partly assimilated Jew, The Puttermesser Papers. Thus, the paradox of Roiphe’s Jewish journey: In a strange way, assimilation was the pathway back.