AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts emeritus English professor Jules Chametzky is one of four co-editors currently compiling the first Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Literature. The anthology, which is expected to be released in 1999, is part of the prestigious Norton series used in college and high school classrooms nationwide. "This will establish to some extent what works of Jewish-American literature will become part of the canon," says Chametzky. "It’s a great honor, and yet also a great responsibility, to be involved."
Chametzky says that the anthology will include a wide range of Jewish-American writing and will attempt to tell the story of the Jewish experience in America. Beginning in the colonial era with sermons delivered by some of the first Jewish immigrants to this country, and moving gradually up to the modern day, it will show how Jews not only found a previously unheard-of degree of freedom in America, but also how they helped shape what we today see as typically American. "In addition to strictly literary selections from authors such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, a number of entries in the anthology will come from popular songwriters such as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin," Chametzky says. "In fact, it’s a bit ironic to think that everything from an all-American musical like ‘Oklahoma’ to the ultimate holiday song ‘White Christmas’ would never have existed without Jews."
Chametzky further adds that the anthology illustrates the degree to which both Jews and blacks played a role in shaping the popular culture of America. He says: "In the twentieth century one might say that without blacks and Jews, there would almost be no popular culture in America." In fact, he says, interest in his own project began after the recent publication of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. "The publishers of the series saw that there was a market for literature by minority groups," he says. "This is becoming increasingly the case in academia, so there is a financial as well as an intellectual motive."
Still, Chametzky stresses that the intellectual motive is by far predominant and that, with the anthology, students and teachers will be able to explore not only the Jewish-American experience, but the experience by which all Americans come to define themselves. "If we study how Jews came to this country and gradually moved from the role of immigrant outsiders to assimilated Americans, we can explore parallels with other groups such as the Irish," Chametzky says. "In doing so, we learn something about the ways in which cultures interact, and how in a uniquely modern sense, this mixing defines what it means to be American."