When Diversity Begins At Home

By Erika Dreifus on December 16, 2014

“We need diverse books.” This worthy claim grows ever louder, sparking hashtags and crowdfunding campaigns. Let us leave aside for the moment the dispiriting observation that Jewish literature, broadly speaking, is too frequently under-emphasized in “diversity” discussions. What I want to focus on—with energy and enthusiasm—is the diversity within American Jewish literature itself, a rich variety of experience set on the page that becomes more apparent to me all the time.

Take the latest addition to our freelance review project: Julie R. Enszer’s piece on two novels by Judith Katz. I’ll admit that until just a few years ago, I’d read virtually no Jewish fiction that depicted experiences of LGBTQ characters, as these novels do.

In truth, there are multiple strands of Jewish experience that have been under-emphasized in my own reading (stories that feature Jewish characters from backgrounds other than Ashkenazic ones are another prime example; I’ve also become increasingly interested, lately, in fiction set in Israel, and in tales that take place in American history and locations beyond 20th/21st-century Brooklyn). If I’m going to attend to “diversity” in my reading habits more broadly, why not begin at home, so to speak: within the realm of Jewish literature? This was, in fact, one of the principles that inspired me to assemble a panel for the 2011 conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. The session was titled “Beyond Bagels & Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st-Century,” and you can take a look at the handout my co-panelists and I assembled for that occasion here.

I’m inspired, too, by a remark that author Sari Botton made in a recent radio interview. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially, Botton cited two central motivations that drive her reading: identification and mind-expansion. I thought that Botton captured my own reading proclivities perfectly. And I thought, too, how both motivations infuse my reading preferences and experiences within the “Jewish literature” category itself. That is to say, there is something profoundly resonant for me in the particulars of some “Jewish books” that I read. And as other titles remind me, over and over again, “American Jewish Experience” is itself richly diverse, and the source of so many varied stories.