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.

As for Rachel herself, many reviews have characterized her merely as a rebel, courageously battling the cruel limitations imposed on her by Chasidism. But this is far from the whole story. Yes, she reads forbidden romance novels in English, in defiance of her father, who wants her to read only Yiddish books; yes, she insists on wearing sheer pantyhose instead of modest opaque tights, and an uncovered bathing suit while she works as a lifeguard; and yes, at novel's end, she escapes an arranged marriage and faces an unknown future. At the same time, though, there are many occasions in which Rachel seeks acceptance within the boundaries of her community. She feels acutely ashamed after eating pretzels on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when she ought to have been fasting; and, after initially refusing to let her mother shave her head the day after her wedding, she gives in and does the job herself.

In truth, Rachel is an intelligent questioner rather than a rebel, struggling to find her position on the long ladder of faith. She feels the full sting of her father's rebuke when, after one of their arguments about bathing suits, he starts to recite "Aishes Chayil," the poem from Proverbs enumerating the virtues of a woman of valor. And she mourns her departure from her family, her community, and its way of life at the novel's end: "I watch Ma light candles, and a spreading glowing pain is in my chest. Father's kiddish hurts. I love them and I don't. I know this is what Ill miss when I go: the children at the table, Ma lighting candles, Father's kiddish." It's this painful litany, this nostalgia (literal meaning: "pain for home"), this bitter knowledge that religious return, or teshuyah, has at this moment become impossible for her, that lingers, far longer than any of Rachel's acts of defiance.

Rebecca Goldstein's Mazel (Viking, 357 pages, $ 23.95) wrestles more with nostalgia than with belief, and the outcome is not a happy one. While Goldstein has written effectively about questions of Jewish faith in the past (most notably in her short story "Rabbinical Eyes"), in her novels one has the impression that she is delicately evading her true subject. 1983's The Mind-Body Problem, her best-known book, obscured ideas about belief and doubt in a cloud of tiresome philosophical debates between a Princeton graduate student raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and her husband, a famous mathematical genius. Mazel buries the same issues under an avalanche of sentimentality, as the author attempts a portrait of shtetl and city life in Galicia and Warsaw among Jews in the early part of the century.

The shtetl of Goldstein's imagination, called Shluftchev on the Puddle, is a dear little place, full of gypsies and dybbuks and folk songs sung by simple, God-fearing folk, all of it as prettily sterile and inert as a snow globe. Goldstein, an unreconstructed academic (she once taught philosophy at Barnard), includes here an extended lecture on the Jewish calendar year and a thorough description of each holiday's ritual observances. And she gives us, through the eyes of her girl-heroine Sorel Sonnenberg, a mawkishly tragic drowning-suicide of Sorel's ethereal sister, Fraydel. Sorel, herself possessed of an unearthly beauty (all heroines in a Goldstein novel are brilliantly good-looking), is haunted by Fraydel's death long after she leaves Shluftchev, with its "atmosphere made unbreathable by piety and ritual, " for glittering Warsaw, where "there were so many ideas in the air you could get an education simply by breathing deeply." In Warsaw Sorel discovers a prodigious talent for acting, joins an avant-garde Yiddish theater troupe, and enjoys a reincarnation as the glamorous Sasha, with a dish of blintzes named after her at the intellectual Cafe Pripetshok.

Propping up both ends of this mountain of marzipan, at the beginning and at the end of the novel, is an abbreviated but much more interesting story. Sasha's granddaughter Phoebe, a Princeton mathematician who studies the geometry of soap bubbles, has decided after an atheistic American upbringing - - her mother, Sasha's daughter Chloe, is a professor of classics at Columbia - - to become a religious Jew. Blissfully married and pregnant, Phoebe lives in an Orthodox enclave in suburban New Jersey, to the great consternation of her grandmother, the shtetl-fteeing Sasha.

Here, in the conflict between Sasha's abhorrence of what she calls the " reshtetlization of America" and Phoebe's grateful return to a community devoted to traditional belief and ritual, is a story worth telling, though we only get a little piece of it. The novel ends with a vignette from Phoebe's wedding at the Sheraton Meadowlands, as Sasha is pulled into a wild circle dance among the women on their side of the mechitzah, or partition, while from the other side she hears the men's voices reciting "Aishes Chayil" (the same song in praise of the woman of valor that Rachel Benjamin's father used to scold her in The Romance Reader). Goldstein makes disappointing use of this provocative scene, reducing the significance of Phoebe's teshuvah, her joyous return to a welcoming group of like-minded Orthodox believers, to mazel, or mere chance. In the author's mind, faith is not a ladder but a flagpole; one is compelled either to sit atop it or to jump off, the compulsion springing not from introspection, study, or ideology but from pure whimsy.

Tova Reich's third novel, on the other hand, plunges directly into the philosophical depths that Goldstein's book so gingerly sidesteps. Set among Israel's occupied territories, near the holy Jewish tombs in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron -- a stone's throw from the place where Jacob dreamed of the ladder from heaven with its angels ascending and descending -- The Jewish War (Pantheon, 270 pages, $ 22) has the same antic energy of Reich's last novel, Master of the Return, and a few of the same characters. Yet more here than in the previous book, under the veneer of its slapstick pace and often hilarious satire there is dead seriousness.

Reich's theme is the misuse of religious conviction, the "totalitarianism of holiness," as practiced by a messianic group of mostly American-born Israeli settlers in the hotly contested West Bank territory of Hebron. The group's leader, Yehudi HaGoel (born Jerry Goldberg in New York), takes a morning off of work as a tour guide to anoint himself King of Judea and Samaria. Emunah HaLevi (previously Faith Fleischman from Flatbush) gives birth to her ninth child on a morning visit to her Arab herbalist, then leaves with the swaddled baby "like a well-wrapped package that she had purchased that day on a shopping spree in the marketplace." Elkanah Ben- Canaan, from Galveston, Texas, "Eddie Cohen he had been called in those days," found his life's meaning "when he picked up the novel Exodus in an airport lounge." Malkie Seltzer leaves her husband and five children to become the third wife and loyal follower of Yehudi HaGoel.

It's not hard to see these creatures as Reich wants us to see them: first as rather lovable kooks and then, increasingly, as serious subversives whose crimes include kidnapping, grave-robbing, polygamy, terrorism, illegal squatting on disputed land, transmitting stolen explosives, and attempted murder. Yehudi, who sneaked aboard an airplane in the hijacked coffin of a dead rabbi in order to make aliyah to Israel during the Six-Day War, sees himself as "God's pet" and will stop at nothing to carry out his perceived mission "to settle, to wage war, to conquer, to intervene actively to further the redemption and bring about the fullness of the messianic era."

I won't give away the novel's ending, except to say that the zealots' regular invocations of the Holocaust, Jonestown, and Masada throughout the book are far from accidental.

Set in "the last half of the final decade of the second millennium of the common era," The Jewish War has been released at a particularly eerie moment. Much of the novel seems prescient, from the unrepentant intolerance and "lethal mixture . . . of messianic religious zeal and rabid nationalism" of its zealots to the ripped-from-the-editorial-page thoughts of General Uri Lapidot, the army commander summoned to face down HaGoel's fanatics. He muses:

While he believed in principle that Jews should be free to dwell openly in any portion of the biblical homeland, Lapidot nevertheless supported the government's decision to call a halt to further intrusions into the territories. . . . The State of Israel could not survive alone in a hostile world, bereft of the support and goodwill of its mighty American patron, and peace, after all, was not a prize to be spurned, even the cold, niggardly, ungenerous peace that was being held out like a miserable stick for a well- trained, well-beaten old dog to fetch.

Lapidot goes on to express revulsion at the sight of the ultra-Orthodox, " when one of their unhealthy-looking, black-suited, black-hatted, fringe- garmented young men with rosy blotches on their doughy-white cheeks . . . passed him by on the street." This point of view is creepily reminiscent of a review of The Romance Reader, by Lore Dickstein, in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review, where she declared that the sight of the Chasidic world represented in the novel is "both voyeuristically intriguing and, to this feminist's sensibility, repellent."

Repellent? The ways in which the world's oldest faith is surviving in an age of assimilation is one of the great stories of our time. It was not an issue for the older cohort of American Jewish writers, who must have imagined that the Jewish future would be a wide, smooth sea of assimilation in which Jewishness could be equated with the language of Yiddish and the embarrassingly backward habits of parents and grandparents.

For these mostly male writers, the religion of their fathers was fast becoming a memory, and was being replaced by the religions of art, socialism, Americanism, anti-Americanism. So it is, apparently, left to Jewish women to keep the faith in the secular literature of American Judaism. ,

Donna Rifkind is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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