Author Archives: Kathryn Ruth Bloom

The Lilith Blog

October 30, 2018 by

Rediscovering “Peony,” a Novel About Jews in China

peonyWriter Pearl Buck came by her in-depth knowledge of China from first-hand experience. Born in the United States, she was brought to China as an infant by her Protestant missionary parents. The author of more than 40 novels and numerous short stories and works of non-fiction, Buck is best-remembered for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth (1931), a moving portrayal of the struggles of a Chinese family. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Less known is the fact that Buck wrote fiction about Jews in China, too. Because I’m always interested in narratives about Jewish life in other times and places, I approached her 1948 novel Peony with particular interest. At the time of publication, Peony was hailed as an insightful study of the decline of a small Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, in the mid-1800s. But although Buck’s historical facts may be accurate—and the dangers of communal disappearance through assimilation resonate in our own time—I was struck by her reliance on ethnic stereotypes. What I found was an ambiguous underlying attitude toward Jews and Judaism. What is disturbing about it is the vague sense of pleasure in the disappearance of Jewish life that forms an unstated subtext to her narrative.

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The Lilith Blog

August 17, 2018 by

Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst and Their Cult Classic Jewish Novels

In their heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst enjoyed tremendous popularity but fell into relative obscurity soon after their deaths in 1968. With a decidedly Jewish sensibility, both of these women tell stories to inspire compassion and empathy about social issues–from body image to opioid abuse, from women’s roles to racism and the treatment of immigrants–startlingly relevant today.

Ferber and Hurst were very different kinds of writers, but their lives overlapped in surprising ways. Both were born in 1885 and grew up in assimilated Jewish families in the American Midwest. Both moved to Manhattan in their twenties to pursue their writing careers. Each was one of two daughters; ironically––or oddly, given their other coincidental pairings––Ferber’s older sister was named Fannie and Hurst’s little sister, who died as a child, was named Edna. Ferber didn’t marry and Hurst and her husband famously maintained separate residences throughout their marriage, giving rise to the expression “a Fannie Hurst marriage.” Neither had children. Both published dozens of well-received novels, short stories, memoirs, plays, and magazine articles that brought important social and cultural issues to the attention of their readers. But in light of today’s excellent fiction by American Jewish women that serves a similar purpose, why am I convinced that people will continue to enjoy and identify with their narratives?

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