Before the Flood: An Author Interview with Michael P. Kramer

Laura Arnold Leibman

I'm extremely pleased this month to interview Michael P. Kramer of Bar-Ilan University. Michael is the author  Imagining Language in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 1992) and the editor of numerous important collections, including  The Turn Around Religion in America: Literature, Culture and the Work of Sacvan Bercovitch (with Nan Goodman, 2011) and The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature (with Hana Wirth-Nesher; 2003).  He is currently translating S.Y. Agnon's And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (Forthcoming, 2014), but this interview focuses on his most recent editing project, the special issue "Before the Flood: Early Jewish American Writing" for Studies in American Literature 33.1 (2014).

1. What led you to decide to edit an issue on Jews in early America?

The short answer is this: Early Jewish American literature has been woefully neglected by critics. Few nowadays know anything about what Jews wrote in America before the arrival of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, before, say, Abraham Cahan published Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto in 1896. Few have even heard of Isaac Harby, Penina Moise, or Adah Isaacs Menken, let alone Antonio de Montezinos or Isaac Aboab de Fonseca. I had been arguing for some years that Jewish American literary study will not leave its provincial swaddling clothes behind, will not achieve full scholarly maturity, until it comes to terms with the field’s early history, and it occurred to me that it was time to do more than publish polemics. So I thought I would invite scholars who were interested in early Jewish American writing—there were a few—and entice some others into venturing into the mostly uncharted territory to join me in a project. Ben Schreier, the editor of Studies in Jewish American Literature, was gratifyingly open to the idea and generously agreed to devote an issue to the venture. The result was “Before the Flood.”

There’s a longer answer, too. I was trained in graduate school by Sacvan Bercovitch, one of the truly great Americanists of the last half-century. Unlike many Americanists before him—Perry Miller being the prominent exception—Bercovitch took early American writers seriously, particularly Puritan writers. I cut my scholarly milk teeth in the mid-70s on the likes of John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, Anne Bradstreet, and Cotton Mather. What fascinated me about his approach was essentially twofold. First, his interest in the Puritans was neither antiquarian nor filio-pietistic but critical. He took them seriously as writers, on their own terms, in all their otherness, not despite their Puritanism but because of it, reading their sermons, histories, personal narratives, and poetry as the literary fruits of their religio-political worldview, as extraordinarily complex cultural achievements. He took texts that others found uninteresting or impenetrable and opened their idiomatic power and wonder. Second, he believed that, for all its distinctiveness, the worldview of American Puritanism exceeded its local boundaries. Taking the long view of American literature and culture, he argued that you really couldn’t make sense of the great writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without understanding what came before, that to be a writer in America was to participate in a cultural process, in an anthropological rite of assent, that found its origins in the writings of those peculiar Puritans. He understood the America we live in—including its democratic pluralism and its growing multicultural openness, however paradoxical that might sound—to be the flowering of the New England Puritan imagination.

 So when I began to focus on Jewish American literature, I instinctively turned backward. My path had been paved by Bercovitch. I looked to the early centuries, convinced even before I started down the road—or, rather, I had a hunch, since I really didn’t know—that I would find riches. If others found the field barren, I surmised, it was because they didn’t know what to look for, or didn’t know what to make of what they’d found. I believed as well that what I discovered would help me better understand what came later. I invited some friends to come with me, and along the way I found others who had come for their own, different reasons. And the issue took shape.

2. What makes early writings by Jewish Americans different from those by later Jewish American writers?

To begin with, the same things that makes Renaissance or Romantic writers different from Modern and post-Modern writers, the same things that make Anne Bradstreet different from, say, Sylvia Plath. But there’s more. Broadly conceived, Jewish American history is comprised of distinct waves of immigration: first, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, trills of Sephardic Jews from Holland and then Britain; second, during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a swell of German Jews; third, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an East European tsunami; fourth, after World War II, waves of refugees from the Holocaust, and then immigrants from the former Soviet Union, from Iran, from elsewhere in the Middle East. And so on. Each wave brought with it different sets of cultural assumptions, different approaches to religious practice, different understandings of what Judaism was, different political expectations, different literary conventions, different languages. Each wave had its own encounter with America—indeed each with a different America—and with the communities of Jews that preceded them. Generational differences also play a role: immigrant writing is different from their children’s and grandchildren’s. To approach early Jewish American writing, one must be alert to the cultural matrix, or matrices, out of which it emerges, to come to terms with its distinct Jewishness and Americanness.

3. For readers who are more familiar with early American literature by Protestant and Catholics, what do you think would surprise them the most about early Jewish American texts?

First of all, the very fact that a literature exists, that Jews in America were writing letters, memoirs, poems, plays, histories, sermons, essays, and fiction for as long as Christians in America were writing them. It surprised me, and I was looking for it. So I imagine it would surprise others. Beyond this, I think surprises might come from two very different directions. On one hand, if readers expect Jewish writing to be palpably Jewish, I think they might be surprised at the body of secular writing written by Jews in early America—the plays of Isaac Harby, Jonas Phillips, and Mordecai Noah, or much of the poetry of Penina Moise and Emma Lazarus—which are not overtly Jewish at all, which seem much like the secular writing of their Christian contemporaries. On the other hand, I think readers who are used to the Christian vision of America we get in so much early American literature—in the spirit of, say, Samuel Sherwoods’s 1776 sermon The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness or Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—would be surprised to find that a Jewish American typology developed alongside, and in competition with, the Christian American typology that Bercovitch made familiar, that a parallel, assertively Jewish vision of America developed in, say, Mordecai Noah’s Ararat address, or in Isaac Mayer Wise’s histories, or Kaufmann Kohler’s sermons, or in some of Emma Lazarus’s later poems—a counter-vision that laid claim to Columbus, to the Pilgrims, to the American Republic itself, as fruits of Jewish history and the Jewish spirit.

4. What are some of the most important contributions this issue of Studies in Jewish American Literature makes to the study of early American Jews either in terms of content and/or methods?

When the field is so uncultivated, every pull of the plough is bound to break new ground. Broadly speaking, that’s what the issue does, and it’s no small matter. Both separately and together, the essays demonstrate that early Jewish American literature demands considerable erudition and can sustain nuanced, sophisticated readings. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I learned something new and important from each of the essays in the issue. But if I had to distill some generalizations, I think the essays contribute significantly to the conceptualization of the arc of Jewish American literary history in three ways, and not just by pushing its origins backward. First, the issue reminds us—I’m referring here to the essays by Ronnie Perelis and Laura Leibman—that the story of the Jewish encounter with America doesn’t begin magically when two dozen waylaid Jews from Recife, Brazil landed in New Amsterdam in 1654, that these people were part of the larger world of the Jewish Caribbean and their story begins (indeed, their stories begin) earlier and elsewhere, that the earliest writers viewed the New World with wonder and articulated their experiences in messianic and apocalyptic ways. Second, the essays by Michael Hoberman, Eve Bannet and Yael Shapira demonstrate, each in a markedly different way, that even later, after the Revolution, when Jews in the United States by and large embraced the American ideology and began to see the world through its cisatlantic lenses, they nevertheless remained economically and culturally part of a larger, vibrant Jewish Atlantic, that the context of American Jewish writing (including writing about Jews) is broader than the New Republic, that understanding how Jews were depicted and how they were expressing themselves as Jews in the United States requires attending to what was going on in Europe, especially in England. Third, as we move into the nineteenth century—here I’m talking about the essays by Shira Wolosky and Julian Levinson—we witness the crafting of an idiosyncratic American Judaism and a literary fabric whose woof and warp is drawn from the diverse strands of American culture, Christian as well as Jewish, liberal and conservative, sentimental and bohemian. In each case, the contributors ask us to rephrase the questions we ask about Jewish American literature: they don’t ask how Jewish or how American the texts are, but how the texts are Jewish and how they are American. That’s where the scholarship comes in; that’s how the creativity of the early texts are revealed.

5. Why should scholars of American religion care about early Jewish American texts?

I think I’ve answered this question already, at least by implication. But let me add a few more sentences just to sum up. In the famous letter that Moses Seixas wrote to the newly-elected President George Washington on behalf of the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, he praised the government for giving “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.” Seixas was talking about religious freedom, about the great wall of separation between church and state, the praiseworthy political innovation that allowed Jews to be both Jews and Americans at the same time. But we all know—and scholars of American religion know this better than anyone—that the wall of separation is irreparably permeable. We see this in obvious ways—in the politics of abortion, gay marriage, school prayer—but also in more subtle ways, in the deep structures of American culture, as Bercovitch demonstrated. Jewish American texts—and early texts in particular—provide fascinating case studies of how religion works in America, how it struggles, how it adapts, how it creates new forms, all the more fascinating because these texts are not Christian. A scholar once wrote that the arrival of the Jews in America complicated the metaphor that made America the Promised Land. The complications operate in both directions. What happens to the Judaism of those Caribbean Jews when they come north? What happens to the Judaisms of those who came after? I think scholars of American religion have a lot to learn from America’s Jews, especially from those ostensibly vulnerable, impressionable Jews who arrived before the flood.

BEFORE THE FLOOD: EARLY JEWISH AMERICAN WRITING Studies in American Jewish Literature 33:1 (2014) Edited by Michael P. Kramer

Special thanks to Michael Kramer for his time and thoughtfulness, and to the tech wizards at Blogger who invented the technology for scheduling posts so this could go live during yom tov.


Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks for this great interview, and for bringing the special issue to our attention.

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