From Oy to Joy: American Jewish Writers Finding Comfort in Literature

Throughout American Jewish history, Jewish literature has meant different things to its readers. Mass immigration of European Jews to America occurred between 1880 and the early 1920s, with over two million Jews now able to call America home. A large American literary presence began with Yiddish newspapers, circulating primarily in New York City, and many of them focused on Jewish issues as well as American issues. This helped immigrants with the Americanization process, allowing readers access to new ideas in this new country, but in Yiddish, their mother tongue.

Abe Cahan, founder of The Forward, one of the most popular Yiddish newspapers which is still in circulation today, suggested that immigrants should not raise their “children to grow up foreigners in their own birthplace.” While the aim of publications like The Forward was to help assimilate Jews to their new American home, the general written Jewish voice of the 20th century described feeling foreign. Well-known Jewish American authors of the 20th century have written complex stories that tend to focus on mournful aspects of Judaism—facing tough transitions in immigration, and dealing with repercussions of mass Jewish tragedies, most notably the Holocaust.

Latter-day Jewish authors are placing themselves in a different realm altogether, examining the joys of Judaism. They are able to celebrate distinctly Jewish characters who are pleased to be so. This exhibit will look into an array of written work by American Jewish authors, from Singer to Spiegelman to Sendak and beyond, tracking their movement from “Oy to Joy” within the Jewish self.