- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

AMHERST, Mass. From the dairyman named Tevye to the down-and-out salesman Willie Loman, characters living in Jewish books, plays and poems have fought to define their place in society.
For the past two years, they have been caught in a different type of struggle: Where do they fit in the scope of Jewish writing?
Fans of Tevye and Willie can rest easy knowing "Tevye the Dairyman" and "Death of a Salesman" made it onto a new list of the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish literature.
But the seven scholars and writers who compiled the list don't want readers to take their word for what's best.
In fact, they hope their picks will generate debate over the books. And debate, they say, will inspire interest.
"No one will ever completely agree on what the 100 best books are," said Aaron Lansky, president of the National Yiddish Book Center, which brought the judges together. The center has posted the list on its Web site www.yiddishbookcenter.org and will publish it in Pakn Treger, its triennial magazine.
"But if we get people to at least start arguing, we've accomplished something," Mr. Lansky said. "That will keep these works alive."
Simmering thousands of titles to a top 100 was no easy task for the judges from Massachusetts, New York, California, England and Israel. They started about two years ago and met twice to defend their personal choices and attack others. The rest of their wrangling happened through e-mail.
At stake was not only a judge's favorite work written since the late 18th century, but also a definition of "Jewish literature."
In the end, they settled on two criteria. First, the author must be Jewish. Second, the works must explore Jewish themes or experiences.
"From 100 different points of view, the list addresses Jewish experiences," Mr. Lansky said.
That means a play like Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," where main character Willie Loman isn't specifically identified as a Jew, was an eligible choice.
"Willie Loman was someone with an outsider's perspective," Mr. Lansky said. "That has resonance with the Jewish community."
Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye the Dairyman," a collection of short stories that laid the groundwork for "Fiddler on the Roof," was one of two works on which the judges had no trouble agreeing.
"That work speaks to the past, the present and the future about a Jew's place in society," said Ilan Stavans, a professor of Jewish Studies at Amherst College. "I adore that book."
The other easy choice was Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep," about a Jewish immigrant child's coming of age in New York's East Side.
But the other 98 works as diverse as Philip Roth's 1991 novel, "Patrimony," about a father dying from a brain tumor, Anne Frank's account of the Holocaust in "The Diary of a Young Girl," and a 1919 poetic drama called "The Golem," about a creature made out of clay to protect a Jewish community were hotly contested.
"Everyone was just exhausted at the end of the get-togethers," Mr. Lansky said. "Agitation wasn't the intention; it was the only inevitable result."
After the judges' first face-to-face meeting at the National Yiddish Book Center in September 2000, the panel agreed on the first 36 titles for the list. Their second meeting last February brought the tally to 98. It would be three months before the 99th title was added. The final work wasn't agreed on until November.
"It doesn't stand to reason that seven people would all concur," said Ruth Wisse, a Harvard University professor of Yiddish literature who was one of the judges. "The problem that some of us were facing is that many modern works of Yiddish literature are unknown. In that case, you have to argue for works you know are superb, but aren't known by a wider audience."
What may be a hidden gem to Miss Wisse, however, is a well-forgotten dud to another judge.
"My critique is that the list is way too obscure," Mr. Stavans, the Amherst professor, said. "There were several judges who despise popular culture and any writer who may have played with popular culture. That was sometimes disappointing."
Mr. Stavans concedingly goes on to contradict himself when he calls the list "fascinating."
"The list may not be giving people what they want with the most popular titles," he said. "It's telling people that you don't just read to satisfy yourself. You read to be challenged."

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