2018-08-15 / Voice at the Shore

America’s many Jewish authors have made huge impact, said Rodgers

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Meryl Rodgers, on left, BJE presenter and docent for the Museum of Jewish American History, with program attendee Myra Greenberg. Meryl Rodgers, on left, BJE presenter and docent for the Museum of Jewish American History, with program attendee Myra Greenberg. Jewish authors have had a tremendous influence on American life and thought, said Meryl Rodgers, a docent for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Rodgers recently led the Board of Jewish Education’s “BJE University” program, “Jewish American Writers,” at the Margate JCC, which sparked a conversation of which books Jewish community members would like to read for a BJE book group starting later this month. Roughly 50 people attended the July 24 program.

While Jewish writers of the early 19th Century, like Rebecca Gratz, identified strongly with their Jewish identity and often wrote about Judaism and Jewish issues, later writers saw themselves more as American writers who were Jewish, according to Rodgers.

Some notable later 19th Century American- Jewish writers discussed included: Emma Lazarus, an accomplished young poet who penned the words on the Statue of Liberty and also raised money for it; and Abe Cohan, who founded The Forward as a Yiddish Language Newspaper in 1890.

Rodgers also covered a wide range of early 20th Century authors, including: Anzia Yezierska, who wrote fiction about the immigrant experience as well as Hollywood screenplays; American-Jewish songwriters

Irving Berlin, known as the writer of the American Songbook, and Jerome Kern, who wrote many popular quintessentially American tunes such as Yankee Doodle Dandy and God Bless America; Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who sold Superman to DC Comics and helped to create the superhero genre; Laura Zametkin Hobson, who wrote the book “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which depicted the polite anti-Semitism of the time and became the basis for an Academy-Award winning film starring Gregory Peck; and best-selling authors Leon Uris and Herman Wouk.

Many American-Jewish writers of the late 20th Century powerfully affected American culture, said Rodgers. These included Alan Ginsburg, who led the Beat Generation, and Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” and a founder of the National Organization for Women, whom Rodgers called “the mother of the second wave of modern feminism.”

Rodgers also discussed several American-Jewish fiction writers who achieved widespread fame and popularity in the late 20th Century, including Philip Roth, who “catalogued the experience of the second generation” of Jewish Americans, short-story writer Bernard Malamud, and Nobel prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow.

“The Jewish experience made them into wonderful and unique writers,” said Rodgers in conclusion. She also noted that while Jews represent two percent of the American population, studies have shown that they buy 20 percent of books sold.

Following the talk, BJE Executive Director Susan Weis asked for suggestions on a book to kick off BJE’s new book group, which will start later this month. For more information on the book group, please call BJE at 609-822-1854. s

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