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11:00 PM, Dec 17, 1995 • By DONNA RIFKIND
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It seems quaint now, but there was a time, during the middle 1950s and after, when critics spent a lot of their energy arguing over what was specifically "Jewish" about the Jewish writers who were beginning to dominate the American literary scene. That decade witnessed an explosion of fiction by these writers, heralded by the appearance of Saul Bellow's translation from the Yiddish of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool" in Partisan Review in 1953. That same year, Bellow's novel The Adventures of Augie March was published, followed by Bernard Malamud's novel The Assistant (1957) and story collection The Magic Barrel (1958); Philip Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, both in 1959; and scores of books by other writers of the period, fiction and non-fiction alike.

From that time onward, the magic barrel of works by American Jewish writers was inexhaustible, it seemed, as was its wide and growing audience. So why did the critic Philip Rahv call their Jewishness "a very elusive quality and rather difficult to define" in his introduction to A Malamud Reader? The answer: because for the most part the books, whose subjects varied widely- from coming of age to poverty and success, sex, politics, belonging, and alienation -- had almost nothing at all to do with Judaism as a religion. There are exceptions, of course, notably the sentimental novels of Chaim Potok; but generally speaking, in four lively decades of Jewish-American literature, one would have to look hard to find a significant body of fictional worl that bothers with the question of religious faith in any serious way.

How interesting, then, to discover during the current publishing season three novels by Jewish women, all preoccupied in different ways with those very religious questions that have gone more or less unexplored by American Jewish writers over the past 40 years. Each book wrestles with ideas about belief, and -- because Jews tend to apprehend their religion less through individual revelations of faith than through the mutual commitment of a likeminded group -- each presents those ideas within the framework of three very different religious communities.

Pearl Abraham's first novel, The Romance Reader (Riverhead Books, 296 pages, $ 21.95), offers a look at Chasidic life through the eyes of a young girl, Rachel Benjamin, the oldest of a rabbi's seven children growing up in a bungalow colony in upstate New York. This book has been getting a good deal of attention, with most reviewers succumbing to a nearly irresistible urge to see it as a peep show, a theme-park tour, the movie Witness set among Chasidic Jews. This gawking approach unjustly telescopes a novel full of subtle complexities.

While there is plenty of material in The Romance Reader emphasizing the insularity and strangeness of Chasidic life ("Ma shaves her head every month. . . . I once saw her bald head on a pillow; her kerchief had slipped off. It was a ball, round and white, something you kick around on a playground"), there are as many ways in which it resembles other contemporary young-women- coming-of-age novels: The daughter's clear-eyed perspective as she describes her family during a period of crisis brings to mind Susan Minot's Monkeys, for example, or, more recently, Lisa Shea's Hula. The difference is that the source of the family crisis is not alcoholism or Vietnam, as it was in those books, but a father's religious idealism -- Rabbi Benjamin, Rachel's father, harbors far-fetched dreams of building a synagogue and learning center in their dwindling little community -- at odds with a mother's practical anxieties about money and isolation:

Ma goes to her room and the house becomes quiet, so quiet I hear her screams over and over in my head. Everyone walks around on tiptoe, whispering, as if to make up for the screaming. I help Sarah lay out her clothes for school tomorrow, listen to her read a page in her reader. . . . No one says anything, but we're all thinking what if Father doesn't keep his promise. We've heard this before, Ma threatening to leave, to take only the baby and go live in Israel. But what if this time it's for real, if this time she means it and Father doesn't know, if this time we'll come home and find her swinging, her mouth open and her tongue hanging out.