If we are to come to some conclusion about whether it is useful to think of Stanley Elkin as an “American Jewish writer,” we should make a distinction between those Jewish writers—Singer, Malamud, Steve Stern—who habitually write about Jewish characters and customs, often in a recognizably Jewish milieu, and those who happen to be Jewish but whose identity as a Jewish American plays no more or no less role in their work than does the ethnic or cultural background of any other writer. Elkin seemed to place himself in the latter group when he told an interviewer in 1976 that he was “a writer who happens to be Jewish, happens to be an American, and happens to be a writer.”
Yet Elkin may not fit so comfortably among writers who “happen to be Jewish” after all. It is certainly true, as most critics who have addressed this question about Elkin’s work have admitted, that, as Maurice Charney put it in “Stanley Elkin and Jewish Black Humor,” Elkin “avoids any sentimental identification with Jewish characters and most of his protagonists are not specifically Jewish at all.” But the lack of a “sentimental” identification does not mean the absence of any identification, nor does the fact that many of Elkin’s characters are not “specifically” Jewish establish that they exhibit no characteristics associated with Jewish habits of thought and behavior or that clearly enough arise from a Jewish background. Many of Elkin’s characters do in fact carry Jewish surnames—Feldman, Perlmutter, Finsberg—and many of these characters are identifiably Jewish, whether in speech, outlook, or even occupation. In regard to the latter in particular, one of Elkin’s novels, The Rabbi of Lud, emphatically features a “specifically Jewish” protagonist and is perhaps Elkin’s most intensely Jewish novel in general, for reasons that go beyond “sentimental” attachment or the surface characteristics of the protagonist.
Not only is the protagonist of The Rabbi of Lud obviously Jewish by religion and profession, as the narrator of the novel he is also perhaps the most direct embodiment of a sensibility informing all of Elkin’s fiction, one that seems to me decidedly “Jewish.” Elkin’s work is not merely notable for its fundamentally comic outlook—a quality Elkin shares with many of the “postmodern” writers of the 1960s and 1970s—but is actively “comedic” in the more specific tradition of American vaudeville or Borscht Belt comedy. Elkin’s fiction is full of sketches and routines, monologues and patter. The reader who in effect reads past these comic turns for the sake of the “story” they presumably advance is really missing the point of Elkin’s narratives, which are structured not by “plot” as such but by the accumulation of these bits from a comedy act, bits that might end in a grand finale of sorts (the “love night” Travel Inn episode in The Franchiser, for example) but rarely conclude in a resolution of conflict that casts the preceding scenes as points in an orderly procession toward narrative closure. The picaresque structure of Elkin’s narratives allow an emphasis on the comedy routines for their own sake, each helping to build a network of correspondences—of tone, trope, and joke—that gives Elkin’s novels their distinctive shape.
As the narrator of The Rabbi of Lud, Rabbi Jerry Goldkorn as often adopts the persona of the tummler, the Catskills comic, as he does that of the religious leader. But, as Albert Goldman once wrote, “‘Jewish’ and ‘comic’ are words that slot together like ‘Irish’ and ‘cop,’ ‘Chinese’ and ‘laundry,’ ‘Italian’ and ‘tenor’” (“Laughtermakers,” Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen). Only a few paragraphs into his account, Rabbi Goldkorn is already telling a joke, and his narrative voice often mimics the delivery of the stand-up comic:
Anyway, when the sickness—we’ll call it New World fever—broke out and made its way under the pales and pickets and over the posts of their little Jewish stockade, and the Angel of Death took off with most of his family, the founding Jew guy was probably caught short. . . .
. . . So this is the thing. Buckskin or no buckskin, pales and pickets or no pales and pickets, they had some incredible artisans back in those days. You think they couldn't build a monument? They could build a monument. And when they wanted to they could build a monument like nobody’s business! . . .
. . . I'll be frank with you. If I don't sound to you like the Rabbi of even Lud, maybe it’s because I never had a true calling in the conventional sense. Sue me. The fact is our Christian friends have the music and that’s half the battle right there. I’m not even thinking about plainsong, Gregorian chants, the hard-core liturgical stuff. I discount madrigals, chimes, ding-dongs from the carillon. I’m not even thinking of the dirges, dead marches, oratorios and canticles. Just ordinary hymns! Forget the “Hallelujah Chorus.” . . .We don't even have good chants. There are saffron-robed kids in the airports with better. What do we have, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon”? . . .
Let me interrupt myself here a minute. You know what’s largely responsible for the increased popularity of Judaism in America? In America. Not closing the camps, not the new state of Israel. What’s largely responsible for the increased popularity of Judaism in America was the development of the printed invitation. I mean things like when raised lettering came within the price range of the middle classes. I mean when they perfected that transparent tissue paper. . . .
Rabbi Goldkorn exemplifies the extent to which the religious impulse in Judaism and the impulse to laughter in Jewish culture may stem from the same existential condition. Sarah Blacher Cohen finds the source of Jewish humor precisely in the relationship to God:
. . . The butt of a cruel joke, [the Jews of Eastern Europe] found that God had singled them out to be a light unto the nations, but had given them a benighted existence. Powerful in interpreting the vast complexities of sacred texts, they were powerless in their dealings with brainless peasants. Priding themselves on the cohesiveness of their private world, they felt isolated from the world at large. To cope with the anxiety produced by these incongruities, they created a humor in which laughter and trembling were inextricably mixed (Jewish Wry).
If Goldkorn never quite reaches the level of “trembling,” he is nevertheless constantly in the presence of death, as Lud, New Jersey, is essentially a town that exists to support its cemeteries, at which it is Goldkorn’s duty to officiate during funeral services. That Elkin in such a setting would portray his rabbi as a stand-up comedian is surely incongruous enough.
Rabbi Goldkorn and the role he plays in The Rabbi of Lud make more directly visible Elkin’s invocation of the devices of popular joke-telling and slapstick comedy, but these devices are also always at work in his other fiction, even those works in which the characters and situations are indeed not identifiably Jewish, such as The Dick Gibson Show or George Mills. A character like Dick Gibson finally shares most of the qualities we find in Leo Feldman (A Bad Man) or Ben Flesh (The Franchiser) or Jerry Goldkorn. They are all obsessive figures preoccupied with the incongruities and reversals they experience, which are most suitably represented through comedy routines. (In Dick Gibson’s case, his radio broadcasts often provide him the “stage” for his own tummler act.) One could perhaps argue that the style of comedy associated with the vaudeville or burlesque comic became, through its modifications on the television variety show and in the performance of nightclub comedians, so thoroughly associated with the conventions of American “comedy” in general that it would be available to any writer attracted by the possibility of integrating the “low” and the literary, but The Rabbi of Lud at least suggests that Elkin remained aware of the source of this comedy in a specifically Jewish practice.
In his essay on “The Nature of Jewish Laughter,” Irving Howe maintains that “strictly speaking, Jewish humor is not humorous. It does not make you laugh uproariously nor does it provoke a carefree guffaw.” He further contends that the sort of Jewish humor that “percolated into American life” was a “sad substitute” for the real thing, consisting, for example, of "the Broadway clowns who can only vulgarize Jewish humor.” That Jewish humor isn’t merely “humorous” is a cogent enough point, and certainly Stanley Elkin’s “humor” isn’t frivolous in the manner that word sometimes implies. While Elkin’s comedy certainly does “make you laugh uproariously” and often does indeed provoke “guffaws,” it accomplishes this not by providing an escape from reality but by forcing a confrontation with reality, a confrontation that reveals human experience to be “uproarious” in its senselessness and absurdity. It is possible Howe would have regarded Elkin’s use of the showbiz antics of the “Broadway clowns” to be “vulgar,” but Elkin’s humor is also free of the weight of the “social relevance” and the reformist impulse Howe attributes to Jewish humor that “mocks pomp and wealth” and “upholds the poor and suffering.”
If Howe is correct that Jewish laughter is primarily a meliorating force, then perhaps this is a way in which Stanley Elkin’s comedy is finally not so “specifically” Jewish but instead participates in the larger phenomenon of the 1960s by which many writers attempted to incorporate broadly comic elements into otherwise “serious” fiction. Elkin’s comedy does not direct us to seek our solace in laughter or to enlist it in the cause of social criticism. It does reimagine the world as a hilarious vaudeville show that never closes. This reimagined world is thoroughly shaped by Elkin’s ability to elicit a “guffaw” at all the preposterous circumstances of human existence. Such an achievement may or may not rise to the moral requirements proposed by Irving Howe, but it certainly does rise to the challenge of creating satisfying art.