Magical American Jew: The enigma of difference in contemporary Jewish American short fiction and film

Aaron Tillman, University of Rhode Island


Efforts to define contemporary Jewish American identity often reveal more questions than concrete articulations, more statements about what Jewish Americans are not than what they are. Such ambiguities pervade many works of Jewish American literature. Magical American Jew explores how certain writers and filmmakers have used magical realist techniques to portray the enigma of Jewish American difference. ^ What I am characterizing as enigmatic is the indefinite yet undeniable difference that informs how many Jewish Americans envision themselves. In a felicitous way, magical realism also resists categorization. Marked by a "co-presence" of the natural and supernatural, magical realism allows past and present figures and traditions to converge in a narrative realm that is neither fantasy, science fiction, nor conventional realism. ^ Following an Introduction that establishes the conceptual framework of the study, Chapter 1 opens with a discussion of Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, examining how magical realist techniques are used to illustrate a behavioral excess associated with Jewish American difference. Through analysis of Cynthia Ozick's short story "Levitation," Chapter 2 challenges the common association between Jews and guilt and posits shame as a more discerning lens through which to view Jewish American difference—a difference influenced by a history in which the Holocaust is a principal concern. Chapter 3 focuses on memory and the masochistic extreme that can be imagined when the Holocaust is marked as the center of Jewish identity. Continuing with the prominence of history, Chapter 4 analyzes Aimee Bender's short story "Dreaming in Polish" along with Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, revealing antinomies and anomalous positions indicative of an enigmatic difference. Returning to the influence of media, the final chapter analyzes Sarah Silverman's film Jesus Is Magic, addressing how Silverman mobilizes her ethnic identity to magnify a narcissistic persona and satirize twenty-first century American media culture. ^ By examining the magical elements within these varied works of short fiction and film, Magical American Jew sheds light on the tensions that have contributed to the creation and (mis)understanding of contemporary Jewish American identities. ^

Subject Area

Literature, American|Jewish Studies

Recommended Citation

Aaron Tillman, "Magical American Jew: The enigma of difference in contemporary Jewish American short fiction and film" (2009). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3368007.