In Search of Identity and Spirituality in the Fiction of American Jewish Female Authors at the Turn of the 21st Century

by Dorota Mihułka (Author)
©2020 Monographs 314 Pages


The book discusses the issue of religiosity in the context of American Jewish literature, emphasizing the significance of Judaism as an indispensable element in the formation of American Jewish female identity. The empirical part of the book is devoted to a critical comprehensive analysis of selected fiction by contemporary American Jewish female writers, representatives of the third generation, whose works were published between 1980–2005. The literary analyses of the selected narratives reveal a strong connection between the identity of American Jewish women and Judaism, and the simultaneous need to modify it in the face of socio-political transformations occurring in the American society at the turn of the twenty-first century

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Jewish Women in American Society
  • 1.1 Jewish Immigration into the United States
  • 1.2 Religious Dimensions of American Jewish Community
  • 1.2.1 Women in Reform Judaism
  • 1.2.2 Women in Conservative Judaism
  • 1.2.3 Women in Reconstructionist Judaism
  • 1.2.4 Women in Orthodox Judaism
  • ‘Ultra-Orthodox’ Judaism19
  • ‘Modern Orthodox’ Judaism
  • Problematic Position of Women in Orthodox Judaism
  • 1.2.5 Women in Humanistic Judaism and Jewish Renewal
  • 1.3 Impact of Jewish Feminism on the American Jewish Community
  • 1.3.1 Jewish Feminist Movement versus American Feminism
  • 1.3.2 Feminist Critique of Judaism
  • 1.3.3 Achievements of Jewish Feminism
  • 1.4 Position of Jewish Women in the American Community – Concluding Remarks
  • Chapter 2 American Jewish Women’s Writing
  • 2.1 Defining American Jewish Literature
  • 2.2 Three Generations of American Jewish Female Writers
  • 2.2.1 The First Generation – Jewish Immigrant Experience
  • 2.2.2 The Second Generation – Immersion in the American Mainstream
  • 2.2.3 The Third Generation – Return to Jewish Roots/Orthodoxy
  • 2.3 American Jewish Women’s Literature in the Twentieth Century – Concluding Remarks
  • Chapter 3 American Jewish Women’s Quest for Identity and Spirituality in the Contemporary Writings of American Jewish Female Authors
  • 3.1 Orthodoxy as Patriarchy – Maintenance of the Status Quo75
  • 3.2 Revivification of Orthodoxy – Development of Feminist Orthodoxy81
  • 3.3 Diversity within Orthodoxy – Amelioration of Intra-Orthodox Friction Through Feminism
  • 3.4 Return to Jewish Roots, Tradition and Religion
  • 3.4.1 Ba’alot Teshuvah Searching for Spirituality and the Roots within Orthodoxy
  • 3.4.2 Ba’alot Teshuvah Searching for Post-Modern Piety and Post-Ethnic Identity
  • 3.5 Judaism and Intermarriage – Jettisoning Orthodoxy for the Secular World
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index


The twentieth century is believed to have been the time when philosophers, artists, and writers were preoccupied with the issue of identity. However, we could argue that Jews, living as marginal, separate people throughout most of their Diasporic history, have always been obsessed with the question of personal and collective identity. Identity has been an especially vital and contentious issue for American Jews whose life has been marked by the interaction with Gentiles since the beginning of their settlement on the American continent. In general, Jews raised within the Jewish tradition in the Old World were forced to challenge, evaluate, and confirm their ethnic/religious identities, their links to the Jewish past, as well as their connections to American culture after emigrating to America. On the other hand, secular Jews or those with only nominal Jewish upbringing seemed to have more freedom in forging their identities in heterogeneous America, feeling unencumbered by their religious beliefs.

The post-war period, in particular, the 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, the second wave of feminism, and multiculturalism contributed significantly to the development of the general interest in identity, ethnic pride and alternative lifestyles. The United States is undoubtedly the finest example of a multicultural society in which racial, religious and ethnic boundaries seem to be blurred as a consequence of the constant contact, interdependence and confrontation between one’s native culture and foreign culture. The search for identity by people living on the borderland between ‘two worlds’ is an issue that concerns members of all ethnic groups in America, that is, Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, or Americans of Asian or European descent. Influenced by the revolutionary politics of the 1960s and 1970s, previously marginalized groups, including women from ethnic/religious minorities – who had borne the double or triple burden of race, gender and ethnicity/religion for centuries – began to demand the greater political inclusion, representation and recognition of their ‘true’ selves. In the light of this fact, it is unsurprising that the efforts and struggles made by the representatives of these ethnic groups to negotiate their identity/(ies) were reflected in the American ethnic literature of the second half of the twentieth century. Similarly, many American Jews who had once embraced the dominant cultural model of assimilation began to seek alternative strategies, allowing them to express their Jewishness and make their voices finally be heard as particularly ‘Jewish.’ In fact, contemporary American Jewish literature is characterized by a diversity of voices, and seems to be dealing with a fluid post-ethnic concept of identity which gravitates towards the ethnic and racial hybridity, rejecting previously fixed categories of identification.

A proliferation of texts written predominantly by American Jewish women writers, which emerged over the next two decades, especially in the 1990s and beyond, tended to eschew the theme of integration into the American mainstream ←9 | 10→culture, turning inward to address particularly Jewish themes. As a consequence, contemporary American Jewish women’s fiction touches upon issues related to Jewish women but barely discussed before, such as the position of a woman in the patriarchal Jewish tradition and the ensuing demand for changes in her status in Judaism, as well as a Jewish woman’s desire for self-definition and self-realization within (Orthodox) Judaism. I would like to emphasize that the focus of my book on American Jewish women writers rather than on both male and female American Jewish writers mainly stems from the fact that it was women’s voices generally, and ethnic/religious minority women’s voices in particular, that have been neglected and marginalized in American literature for a very long time. I strongly believe that American Jewish women writers deserve to occupy an equally important place in the canon of multicultural, multi-ethnic and multiracial American literature as their male counterparts.

Moreover, giving voice to American Jewish women writers also provides an excellent opportunity for them to “critique the male dominance of post-World War II Jewishness, and from there, to rethink Jewish identity more generally” (Brodkin qtd. in Gasztold, 2015: 9). Simultaneously, American Jewish women writers are given an opportunity to define themselves and negotiate their own identity, which is comprised of several components, that is being Jewish, being American, and being a woman. Sifting through their personal experiences, philosophical views, and religious beliefs, contemporary American female writers of Jewish origin struggle to determine which aspect of their being (or perhaps all of them) will be highlighted in their fiction. Thus, the various outcomes of their fictional heroines’ negotiations to find a viable identity, often reflecting the writers’ own struggles and dilemmas, are directly dependent on the level of their immersion in Judaism, and indirectly on their attitudes towards the social movements of the outside world, such as secularism and feminism. Indeed, American feminism in general and Jewish feminist movement in particular have had a profound impact on the lives of ordinary American Jewish women across the denominational lines as well as on the American Jewish female literature, which since the late 1970s has begun to be treated as a separate locus of attention and interest in literary and critical analysis. Similarly to ethnic women’s writing, American Jewish female literature has begun to identify women’s oppression predicated upon not only gender and ethnicity, but also upon religion. Employing a literary lens, American female authors of Jewish origin have begun to discuss openly the marginalization of Jewish women both in the mainstream American culture and in patriarchal Orthodox Judaism where women, because of gender, are also subordinated to Jewish men. In a nutshell, the impact of feminism on women’s writing can be best summarized by Rita Felski who observes that:

The emergence of a second wave of feminism in the late 1960s justifies the analysis of women’s literature as a separate category, not because of automatic and unambiguous differences between the writings of women and men, but because of the recent cultural phenomenon of women’s explicit self-identification as an oppressed group, ←10 | 11→which is in turn articulated in literary texts in the exploration of gender-specific concerns centered around the problem of female identity. (1989: 1)

My book consists of three chapters, the first two of which constitute a theoretical framework for the empirical considerations included in Chapter 3. I begin Chapter 1 with a historical introduction to the subject of Jewish emigration to America, discussing it in a diachronic manner, that is from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Special attention is paid to the emigration of Jewish women from Central and Eastern Europe to America as well as the dilemmas encountered by the immigrant Jewish women in the New World, such as the preservation or rejection of the Old-World culture, tradition and religion, and conversely, the enthusiastic embrace of, or bitter hostility to the mores of the new culture. Apart from discussing the problems of assimilation and acculturation as experienced by the Jewish immigrant women, I also examine the situation of women in the particular branches of contemporary American Judaism, that is Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Jewish Renewal movements in this chapter. I focus mainly on the role that Jewish women have played in the development of these denominations in the United States as well as on their evolving position in the particular varieties of Judaism in the twentieth century. At this point I want to emphasize that my primary interest, however, lies in the area of Orthodox Judaism because the majority of the female protagonists from the narratives selected for a literary analysis in Chapter 3 hail precisely from this conservative branch of American Judaism. This chapter ends with a discussion of the influence of feminism on the current status of women in Judaism, which was criticized by Jewish feminists in the 1970s. The socio-historical-cultural background presented in Chapter 1 constitutes the starting point for the review of the American Jewish female literature, which is presented in the next chapter.

Divided into three sections, Chapter 2 provides an overview of the chronological and thematic developments in American Jewish women’s writing in the United States in the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. First, however, I attempt to define American Jewish literature referring to various approaches offered by such American Jewish scholars as, for example, Tresa Grauer, Michael P. Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher. The analysis of all those various approaches, however, indicates that the definition of American Jewish literature seems to be rather vague and equally difficult to arrive at as the definition of American Jewish identity, which is in Stuart Hall’s words, “never finished or completed, but keeps on moving to encompass other, additional or supplementary meanings […]” (1990: 229). Then I move on to the presentation and discussion of the three generations of American Jewish female writers who differ greatly in their attitudes towards the role of Judaism in their lives, their Jewish identity, and assimilation into the mainstream American culture. The immigrant Jewish women writers of the first generation, such as Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska focused in their fiction mainly on the Jewish immigrant experience in the early twentieth century America, whereas American-born Jewish writers of the first ←11 | 12→generation, for example, Gertrude Stein, Edna Ferber, and Fannie Hurst tended to avoid overtly Jewish themes and direct focus on Judaism. These acculturated Jewish female writers (as well as their fictional heroines) along with such Jewish female writers of the second generation as, for example Hortense Calisher, Tillie Olsen or Grace Paley, perceived their ethnicity, their Jewishness, to a greater or lesser extent, as a narrowing and limiting experience, as an obstacle to their full Americanization. This assimilationist point of view, as Werner Sollors explains, was typical of all ethnic Americans prior to the 1960s (1986: 20). Apart from the theme of acculturation to the American mainstream, the literature produced by other female representatives of the second generation, for example Cynthia Ozick, Marge Piercy, E. M. Broner, Erica Jong, Tova Reich, and Anne Roiphe, also discusses the Holocaust and early feminist issues. Finally, the literature produced by the representatives of the third-generation American Jewish female authors marks a clear departure from the themes and literary preoccupations of the previous two generations of writers. The younger female writers of the third generation, for example Rebecca Goldstein, Nessa Rapoport, Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, Dara Horn, Myla Goldberg together with their male counterparts including Melvin Jules Bukiet, Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Rosen, belong to the ‘new wave’ of Jewish writing who have contributed, according to numerous literary critics, to a renaissance in American Jewish literature in the closing decades of the twentieth century. This new fiction is marked by what critic Morris Dickstein calls “the return, or the homecoming” of American Jewish writers to the ethnic origins of their ancestors (“Never Goodbye, Columbus,” 2001: 30), which is in fact grounded in Marcus Lee Hansen’s Law of “third-generation interest or return” (see Chapter 2, Section 2.1). A variety of striking themes comes to the fore in this new wave of American Jewish literary creativity. Dominant subjects include an unprecedented attention to religion (especially Orthodox Jewish life); a persistent search for Jewish roots, identity and spirituality; an exploration of such themes as Jewish history and heritage; and a fascination with Jewish women’s lives and with questions of gender. Chapter 2 ends with a brief presentation and discussion of the profiles and major works of the selected American Jewish women writers representing the youngest generation, who have already succeeded in achieving both a relatively secure position in American literature and immense popularity among the readers.

Chapter 3 is devoted to a critical comprehensive analysis of selected fiction by contemporary American Jewish women writers, representatives of the third generation, namely Anne Roiphe, Nessa Rapoport, Rebecca Goldstein, Pearl Abraham, Allegra Goodman and Tova Mirvis. It is this group of the younger American Jewish female writers and their works published between 1980 and 2005 that are of particular interest in my book. Apart from Roiphe – who, although born in 1935, is regarded as a representative of the third generation (see Chapter 2, Section 2.2.3) – all of the female writers, whose works are discussed in Chapter 3, were born between 1950 and 1980, and are thus the ‘rightful’ representatives of the third generation of American female writers of Jewish origin. Another characteristic ←12 | 13→feature of the above-mentioned Jewish women writers (except for Roiphe) is the fact that they were born and raised in Orthodox families, and continue to adhere, to a greater or lesser extent, to the principles of Orthodox Judaism.

My selection of contemporary narratives of American Jewish female imagination for a literary analysis is based on the following works of fiction: Nessa Rapoport’s Preparing for Sabbath (1981), Anne Roiphe’s Lovingkindness (1987), Rebecca Goldstein’s “Rabbinical Eyes” (1993), Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader (1995), Rebecca Goldstein’s Mazel (1995), Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls (1998), Tova Mirvis’ The Ladies Auxiliary (1999), Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park (2001), and Tova Mirvis’ The Outside World (2004). On the whole, the fiction produced by the third-generation American Jewish female writers can be described as realistic, non-experimental fiction which largely sets itself the goal of sociological analysis (a mirror) of the Jewish community in the United States, narrowed down to the role of women. In fact, contemporary fictional narratives have been employed successfully by numerous American Jewish sociologists, including Marshall Sklare (1964), Sylvia Barack Fishman (1992, 1995, 2000) and Nora Rubel (2010), as a way of unearthing and analyzing a variety of cultural changes occurring in the American (Jewish) community in the second half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. Fishman and Rubel, in particular, have used literary fiction and cinematic motifs in order to shed light upon the problematic position of women in (Orthodox) Judaism as well as to discuss the impact of feminism, intermarriage and education on the whole American Jewish community. In general, then, it may be claimed that American Jewish literature functions in one way like a lens, that not only reflects, but also comments on contemporary cultural life in the United States, and clarifies the sense of identity, wishes, desires and fears of its individuals.

The selection of texts for this study is directly connected to the issue of religiosity in the context of American Jewish literature and highlights the importance of Judaism as an indispensable element in the formation of American Jewish female identity. Additionally, this choice of narrative texts also illustrates how the American Jewish women’s approach to Judaism was undergoing a transformation between the years 1980 and 2005, laying emphasis on its post-modern, fluid and dynamic nature. Generally, the literary explorations of attitudes toward Judaism in post-modern and largely secularized United States range from indifference or total rejection to its wholehearted pious embrace, with the attempts at its (feminist) reconstruction situated halfway between these two opposing approaches. In her study of the Ultra-Orthodox in the American Jewish imagination, this is how Nora Rubel explains the extent of this transformation:

Some Jews welcomed the freedom from religious obligation, choosing to secularize completely. Others chose to adapt their religious practices to their host culture rather than abandon them completely. And some chose to fiercely resist the seductions of modernity as best they could, resisting secularism and retaining a semblance of Jewish continuity. (2010: 3)

←13 | 14→

The literary analyses of the narratives by the above-mentioned American Jewish female authors reveal that essentially the same attitudes towards Judaism are demonstrated by their fictional female protagonists whose negotiations of the intersection between Judaism, secularism and feminism lead to various outcomes in their lives. They include embracing Orthodox Judaism as a patriarchal tradition (Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls (1998)); staying within Orthodox Judaism but trying to transform it internally, employing feminist ideals (Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader (1995), Tova Mirvis’ The Ladies Auxiliary (1999), and Nessa Rapoport’s Preparing for Sabbath (1981)); living on the border between the sacred and secular worlds and trying to ameliorate the friction inside the world of Orthodox Judaism with the help of feminist ideals from the outside world of secularism (Tova Mirvis’ The Outside World (2004)); returning to Judaism – very often Orthodox Judaism – as ba’alot teshuvah, rejecting the ideals of feminism (Anne Roiphe’s Lovingkindness (1987), Rebecca Goldstein’s Mazel (1995), and Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park (2001)); and lastly the female protagonists’ partial or total rejection of the Jewish faith and their eager embrace of the secular world through intermarriage (Rebecca Goldstein’s “Rabbinical Eyes” (1993)).

In my study, I put forward a thesis that there is a strong connection between the identity of American Jewish women and Judaism, and the simultaneous need to modify it in the face of socio-political transformations occurring in the American society at the end of the twentieth century, in particular feminist movements, which in the United States were predominantly initiated by American women of Jewish descent. In order to prove that, I concentrate on those works of fiction produced by the third-generation American Jewish female writers that by exploring complex fates of their characters, attempt to reveal what it means to be an American Jewish heroine in post-modern and largely secularized America at the turn of the twenty-first century. Such analysis is, of course, accompanied by references to the works by the first and second generations of American female writers of Jewish origin in Chapter 2, which provide both context and contrast to the future characterizations of the American Jewish heroines. In addition to discussing problems related to spirituality, Jewish identity and religion from the perspective of American Jewish women, and depicted in the socio-cultural context, the secondary aim of Chapter 3 is to take a cursory glance at these works of fiction from the perspective of literary studies, usually revealing rather limited use of experimental or post-modern narrative and stylistic solutions by the American Jewish female writers of the third generation.

This book’s methodological basis lies in feminist literary criticism, and the work itself relies on feminist close reading, to be more specific. This feminist approach to literature is needed because it questions and defies the hegemony of male-centered master narratives of American Jewish identity, which were prevalent in the American Jewish literature until the 1970s. I believe that addressing the issue of American Jewish identity and spirituality from a female perspective will only complement and enrich the research on the construction of post-modern Jewish ←14 | 15→identity in America. By looking at different realizations of femininity and spirituality which permeate the formation of American Jewish female identity at the turn of the twenty-first century, my study demonstrates that female protagonists have finally found a permanent place in the literary imagination of American Jewish writers.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
Jewish Identity Jewish Spirituality Judaism Jewish Feminism Feminist Criticism American Jewish Literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 314 pp.

Biographical notes

Dorota Mihułka (Author)

Dorota Mihułka is a lecturer at Department of English at Krosno State College (Poland), where she teaches American history and culture as well as practical English courses. Her academic interests include American ethnic female literature, American Jewish female literature as well as intercultural education and communication.


Title: In Search of Identity and Spirituality in the Fiction of American Jewish Female Authors at the Turn of the 21st Century
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316 pages