Chapter 5 The Sabra within the Schlemiel: Diverging Modes of American Jewish and Israeli Masculinity in Jewish American Literature

In: Imagined Israel(s): Representations of the Jewish State in the Arts
Samantha Pickette
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This chapter considers the representation of Israel in Jewish American literature, specifically focusing on the ways in which Jewish American authors often invoke Israeli Jewish masculinity—aggressive, physical, cunning—as a mirror image of Jewish American masculinity—passive, intellectual, cautious. Looking at relevant works from Saul Bellow (Mr. Sammler’s Planet), Philip Roth (The Counterlife and Operation Shylock), and Jonathan Safran Foer (Here I Am), this chapter examines the various literary imaginings of Israeli culture in American literature. Israel functions as a point of comparison; as an alternate reality; as a projection of hopes and fears; and, most importantly, as a distinctive “other.” The Israeli “other” is almost more of a threat to the Jewish American male psyche than the all-American, non-Jewish man; while the latter’s position in the Christian American ruling class places him above the Jewish American man for reasons that are both inwardly and outwardly indelible (especially in these examples, all of which carry out the idea of the distinctly Jewish body/mind), the Israeli’s overt masculinity contradicts the Jewish American man’s conception of himself as weak (whether physically or spiritually) because of his Jewish identity. In other words, the figure of the Israeli man in Jewish American literature often forces the Jewish American male protagonist to confront the consequences of diasporic Jewish life and the possibilities, both aspirational and foreboding, that Israeli Jewish life evokes. In the case of Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Here I Am, both Sammler and Jacob are simultaneously in awe of and repulsed by the actions of their Israeli mirror-images, Eisen and Tamir. For Roth, Israel serves both as a site of Jewish American emasculation and, more importantly, as a confirmation of Jewish American moral superiority. Ultimately, in considering the diverging modes of Jewish masculinity depicted in representations of Israel/Israelis in American Jewish literature, this chapter explores how post-1967 Jewish American literature increasingly employs Israel as a lens through which to analyze, criticize, and magnify the complexities of American Jewish male identity.

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