Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” with its comic shtetl romanticism, is the prime mover, but “History of Love,” Horn’s “The World to Come,” and “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” also look to a lost, Jewish Europe for inspiration. The Judaism of American strivers has been replaced, literarily speaking, by the Judaism of immigrants and Yiddish speakers. Chabon imagines a Yiddish-centric Jewish state on the brink of collapse in Alaska, and Horn and Krauss, along with Safran Foer, juxtapose the American Jewish present with its Eastern European antecedents for effect. Europe and America, the Jewish past and present, are re-linked in these works--the damage of the Holocaust in some small part undone by their symbolic labor.

The coincidence of Chabon and Englander publishing long-awaited new novels in the same month, earlier this year, highlighted their shared concern with Judaism growing in strange ground, whether it is the alternative-world Alaska to which the remnants of Eastern European Jewish culture has been transplanted in “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” or the real-world Argentina under its repressive 1970s military dictatorship in Englander’s “The Ministry of Special Cases.” Jewish history, no longer merely a nightmare from which American Jewish writers struggle to awake, is now a fruitful source for new material. Whether this is a positive development, the undoing of years of regressive ignorance of Jewish roots, or a final nail in the coffin of genuine Jewish experience, replaced by a novelist’s simulacrum of an all-too-painful history, is a matter for debate.

This historical bent marches arm in arm with a taste for a unique brand of literary endeavor. The new Jewish magical realists have selected an alternative batch of Jewish predecessors as inspiration, replacing Roth and Bellow with more approachable figures like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and Mark Helprin.

To some critics, the combination of magical realism and Jewish history is the epitome of sacrilege; the cutesification of horror. The Holocaust, to the dismay of literary critics like Lee Siegel, has become another opportunity for schmaltz and false uplift--European Jewish culture’s descent into madness and terror as rendered by Roberto Benigni, not Claude Lanzmann. The Jewish past, rhinestoned with kitsch, becomes a merit badge of politically acceptable ethnic suffering, suffocated of all life, shaped into a single, ever-falling teardrop. There is undoubtedly an element of unnecessary romanticization in their recurrent use of the Holocaust as exclamation mark, as an undeniable indicator of moral seriousness, but the seeming omnipresence of the Holocaust is also a reflection of the impossibility of fully grasping its enormity. The Holocaust, in their work, is the ending to a fairytale gone terribly wrong.

In their straining toward authentic Americanness, Roth and Bellow rarely, if ever, acknowledged that Judaism was a religion and culture with its roots elsewhere. The newer generation of Jewish writers, children of Roth and Bellow in their disinclination to follow in their masters’ footsteps, have rendered Judaism three-dimensional once more.
They have sought to link Europe and America, and the Judaism that once was with the Judaism that is. In so doing, Jewish culture has regained (for better or worse) a touch of magic.