ENGL 357 A: Jewish American Literature and Culture

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm
SMI 407
Joint Sections: 
JEW ST 357 A
Joseph Butwin
Joseph Butwin

Syllabus Description:

Instructor: Joseph Butwin    joeyb@uw.edu

Padelford A 419 206 543 2173 MW 12-1 & by Appt.

Class Schedule:  MW  1:30 - 3:20  SMI 407 

Syllabus:  Jewish-American Literature and Culture

In January 1938 Benny Goodman brought jazz to Carnegie Hall; later that summer the great Hank Greenberg hit 58 homeruns for the Detroit Tigers, just two behind Babe Ruth. On November 11 the popular radio star Kate Smith opened her weekly program with a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”—a secular prayer that would often replace the National Anthem at athletic events and political rallies thereafter. Goodman, Greenberg, Berlin were all Jews—immigrants and children of immigrants. It would appear that after the rigors of immigration American Jews had finally—in the metaphoric sense—“arrived” in the new world.  

Not quite. Anti-Semitism in the old world and the new were infused with fresh energy in 1938. The “radio priest” Father Coughlin generated an audience of millions for anti-Jewish diatribes from his post in Hank Greenberg’s Detroit. A day before Kate Smith inspired her audience with the patriotism of Irving Berlin in November of 1938, Berlin itself and all of Germany exploded in what was called “Kristallnacht”, a nationwide assault on Jews. The American hero Charles A. Lindbergh had just  returned from Germany with the Cross of the Order of the German Eagle conferred on him by Hermann Göring on behalf of Adolph Hitler. He would become the figurehead of the movement that called itself “America First” in the years immediately before World War II. Before and after Kristallnacht around 2/3 of Americans refused to consider enlarging the rigorous restrictions on immigration that had been installed in the 1920s. 70% said no, even when the query included “refugee children, most of them Jewish” from Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia.  The numbers are no better after the War. In 1945 Bess Myerson, a Jewish girl from the Bronx, became Miss America, but in the summer of 1946 (during the War Crimes trials in Nuremberg) 72% of Americans rejected President Truman’s proposal to relax restrictions on immigration from Eastern Europe to permit the entry of what were mostly Holocaust survivors.

All of this is to render more complex the status of the hyphen that sits between “Jewish” and “American” in the title of the course. We will begin with a focus on Philip Roth’s fantasy of a Fascist America in 1940—The Plot Against America (written in 2004)—and conclude with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Our attention will radiate across radio, television, fiction, film and music produced from1938 to 2018 in an effort to penetrate the superficial facts of paragraphs 1 and 2 and to achieve what I hope will be a subtle and sensitive reading of Jewish accommodation to the American condition or, if you prefer, the reverse. 


Texts (All at the University Book Store):

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America  (Vintage International

Saul Bellow, Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales (Penguin Books)

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Theatre Communications Group)

Other texts on CANVAS.


Class Schedule:

Week I

26 Sept. Introduction and Retrospection: Some Old Jokes and a Word about Grandparents


Week II

1 Oct. The Immigration Debate and its Consequences: 1900-1940

3 Oct. Yiddish-in-English: Sholom Aleichem, “On Account of a Hat”; I. L. Peretz, “Bontsha the Silent”; I. B. Singer, “Gimpel the Fool” [All on CANVAS]


Week III

8 Oct. Philip Roth (1933-2018), The Plot Against America (2004), Chapters 1 and 2

10 Oct. Roth, The Plot, Chapters 3 and 4


Week IV

15 Oct. Roth, The Plot, Chapter 5

17 Oct. Roth, The Plot, Chapters 6 and 7


Week V

22 Oct. Roth, The Plot, Chapters 8 and 9 [ESSAYS DUE ON ROTH]

24 Oct.  At the Movies: Crosland/D. Zanuck/Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer (1927); E. Kazan/D. Zanuck/Moss Hart, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); Joan Micklin Silver, Hester Street (1975); Woody Allen, Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), Coen Brothers, A Serious Man , Joseph Cedar, Norman:…A New York Fixer (2017)


Week VI

29 Oct. Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), “The Jewbird”, “The Magic Barrel” (CANVAS)

31 Oct. Grace Paley(1922-2007), “Faith in the Afternoon,” “Goodbye and Good Luck” (CANVAS)


Week VII

5 Nov. Saul Bellow (1915-2005), “The Bellarosa Connection” (1989)

7 Nov.  Bellow, “Something to Remember Me By” (1990)



12 Nov.  Armistice/Veterans Day NO CLASS

14 Nov.  Music Makers: G. & I. Gershwin; A. Copland, B. Goodman; R. Rogers & O. Hammerstein; J. Bock, S. Harnick, J. Stein; B. Dylan; L. Cohen; Kinky Friedman et cetera…


Week IX

19 Nov. Tony Kushner (1956-), Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches (1991)

21 Nov. Kushner, Angels, Part One


Week X

26 Nov. Kushner, Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (1991)

28 Nov. Kushner, Angels, Part II


Week XI

3 Dec. [ESSAYS ON KUSHNER & OTHERS DUE: Discussion and Conclusions]

5 Dec. Three Generations and Personal History: More conclusions


Tasks: Do the reading, come to class and be ready to discuss the texts. There will be two three page essays (roughly 1200-1500 words) due on October 17 and December 3. The first will focus on Roth; in the second you will use Kushner’s play as a point of departure for a reassessment of the material we will have studied together. Apart from these essays written outside of class, there will be brief responses written in class—ten or fifteen minutes each. They will initiate discussion and thus qualify as part of class participation. They will be unannounced and cannot be made up.

Final Grades: 40 % class participation (discussion and in-class written responses)

                60% the longer essays written outside class

Course Policies

Absence/Presence: University policy quite reasonably prevents fixing grades on absence or presence in the classroom. That’s reasonable because it is entirely possible to exist in the room without participating in the class. You have to do more than simply show up. It is also true that absence from the room automatically prevents discussion and writing in class which account for ½ of your grade.

Disability Accommodation: To request academic accommodations due to a disability, please contact Disabled Student Services, 448 Schmitz, 543-8924 (voice / TTY).  If you have a letter from Disabled Student Services indicating that you have a disability which requires academic accommodations, please present the letter to me so we can discuss any accommodations you might need.

Deadlines: For written assignments deadlines fall at the beginning of class on the assigned day.  Assignments turned in after the deadline will receive an automatic two tenths deduction (on a 4.0 scale).  They will lose a further two tenths off for each additional day late and will not be accepted more than a week overdue. Any necessary extensions must be cleared with me in advance to avoid a penalty. 

Incompletes:  Incompletes will only be granted in truly exceptional cases, and only if you have been making substantial progress up until the last two weeks of the quarter. 

Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a very serious kind of academic misconduct.  You should know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.  If you haven’t done so already, please read “Academic Honesty:  Cheating and Plagiarism,” a statement prepared by the Committee on Academic Conduct in the College of Arts and Sciences that can be found at http://depts.washington.edu/grading/issue1/honesty.htm.  If after consulting this statement you still have any questions on the subject, please ask me. 



Catalog Description: 
Examines the literary and cultural production of American Jews from the colonial period to the present time. Considers ways in which American Jews assimilate and resist assimilation while Jewish writers, filmmakers, playwrights, and graphic novelists imitate and alter American life and literature. Offered: jointly with JEW ST 357; AWSp.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 11:00pm