February 9, 2011
Jews have done a pretty good job holding up our end of the “People of the Book” deal, especially over the last hundred years. Jewish writers from all over the globe have contributed fiction in a number of different languages, influencing the form in ways immeasurable, in turn helping to document the Jewish experience better than most history books.
Our criteria for this list was any work that could be considered “Jewish fiction”: written by a Jewish author or dealing heavily with Jewish topics and themes, all written in the last 100 years. Short story collections, plays, graphic novels and novellas were all taken into consideration. All publication dates reflect the American publication.
Think we missed something? Think something deserved a higher ranking than it got? We’re open to comments below.
1. The Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka
It’s really impossible to rate anything– especially the ultimate “Kafkaesque” work—any higher. The Prague-born writer’s ultimate work about poor Gregor Samsa is one of the most seminal works of Jewish fiction in the last century.
2. In Search of Lost Time (1913) by Marcel Proust
Jews are naturally nostalgic folks, so simply replace the Madeleine with a rugelach and you might have one of the most Jewish works in literature. And yes, Proust was a Jew.
3. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth
Trying to pick one book as the ultimate Philip Roth work isn’t as hard as you think. Portnoy is the book you see every new title compared to, even to this day. Goodbye, Columbus made him famous, but Portnoy made him a creepy god.
4. Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller
Miller’s play tells the tale of Willy Loman, but also works as the perfect parable of the death of the American Dream.
5. The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger
No list dealing with best fiction of the last century would be complete without Salinger’s ode to teenage angst, and the limited knowledge we have of the late writer tells us that this book was indeed the product of Jewish neurosis.
6. The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka
We recognize that we should have just said “Everything Kafka did” at the #1 position, but that wouldn’t have been fair, now would it?
7. Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow
It’s hard to pick Bellow’s masterwork, but we really have to go with the book that made mid-life crisis into an art form.
8. The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971) by Cynthia Ozick
Same as the Herzog: It’s nearly impossible to pick the greatest work from the Ozick canon, but for the sake of argument, we’re going to pick The Pagan Rabbi as the must read collection by this brilliant writer.
9. A Contract With God (1978) by Will Eisner
Some call it the first graphic novel. Others dispute that. Nobody denies this work’s greatness. Eisner’s semi-autobiographical short stories of Jewish life in The Bronx was called “something momentous,” by the LA Times.
10. Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth
This is the quintessential Jewish experience of the ghetto known Lower East Side of the early 20th Century. They should issue it to students in Hebrew school.