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literature

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Jewish-American Literature  
 
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Such seriousness is not the intent of S. Steinberg's A Fairy Tale (1980). The novel plays on many American Jewish stereotypes, especially the overbearing female who is a consummate matchmaker; it is always outrageously funny. Once Aunt Sylvia, the narrator's busybody aunt, accepts her nephew as a gay man, she uses all of her talents to find him the right mate. Instead of being alienated from family and ethnic culture, the hero of this lightweight romance wins his family's wholehearted approval along with the man of his dreams.

Years from Now (1987), Gary Glickman's first novel, is also indebted to the tradition of Jewish family sagas. Interestingly, David, the main character, decides both to be a father and to assert his gay identity. For him, the continuity of the tribe is as important as gay self-realization. The novel emphasizes the possibility of reconciliation between David and his family and its religious traditions.

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With his 1978 novel Faggots, Larry Kramer introduced a distinctly moralistic voice into American Jewish gay writing. In contrast to other novelists at the time who were celebrating a newly emerging gay sensibility, Kramer depicts a group of men whose use of drugs, sadomasochism, and lack of serious or lasting relationships he greatly opposes.

Although many of the novel's characters are Jewish, the novel's Jewish content rests less in these individual characters than in Kramer's relentless jeremiad, predicting doom for gay men if they do not mend their promiscuous ways and bring a moral content back into their lives. Largely attacked at the time of publication for its extreme position, the novel is a precursor of Kramer's subsequent career as an enraged moralist.

Some of the finest American Jewish gay male literature so far has been produced by Lev Raphael, who--along with Judith Katz--is at the forefront of exploring what it means to be Jewish and queer. Raphael articulates this dilemma for the gay Jewish male in his short story collection Dancing on Tisha B'Av (1990).

In the title story, Nat and Mark, devout Orthodox Jews, fall in love, establishing an ideal relationship as they share the same devotion to both Judaism and their gay selves. Yet Raphael also convincingly conveys the paradox for the observant Jew: the devotion to a faith that will deny him a place in its sanctuary.

Nevertheless, Raphael examines how one can walk the fine line between personal devotion and ethnic exclusion. He arrives at a tentative but loving reconciliation of the conflict of sexual orientation and religious affiliation.

Winter Eyes (1992), Raphael's first novel, intertwines the account of a sensitive boy's coming to terms with his sexuality with the story of his Holocaust survivor parents who have tried to erase the past completely from their lives. Yet no matter how much the parents attempt to shield their son from the events of the past, the Holocaust is the all-pervading subtext of the family's problems. The novel's subject significantly broadens the focus of gay male writing.

Sacred Lips of the Bronx (1994), Douglas Sadownick's first novel, combines questions of Jewish identity with the subject of AIDS. His protagonist, Michael Kaplan, a Los Angeles-based journalist covering AIDS issues, experiences anxiety about his deteriorating relationship with his lover of ten years. This volatile situation forces him, through a reexamination of unresolved issues of his adolescence, to confront his present life.

While the AIDS crisis permeates the fabric of the book, so does Michael's long-dead grandmother who has begun to appear to him as she did right after her death. These elements of the fantastic, which are indebted to a long tradition of such writing in Jewish literature (and has also influenced Tony Kushner and Judith Katz but has otherwise been ignored so far in American Jewish gay and lesbian writing), open up new vistas for Jewish gay writing. Finally, the grandmother's unequivocal approval of Michael's life signifies not only personal but also tribal acceptance.

Of course, incorporating Jewish subject matter into their works is not a concern for all Jewish gay writers. David Leavitt's characters are devoid of a particular ethnicity. One can read his novel The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) as a Jewish family saga, but such a reading is strained.

David Feinberg's two AIDS novels, Eighty-Sixed (1989) and Spontaneous Combustion (1991), have a Jewish protagonist, Benjamin Rosenthal, whose Jewishness has little relevance in his life, with the possible exception of visits to his mother's upstate New York home, which he characterizes as being full of Jewish guilt-trips.

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