Dan Moskovitz believes in God

When is a book "Jewish"? What if the main characters are Stern, Kohn and Moskovitz? Or the authors? What if it tells of the Shoah? From Israel? Or from neuroses? Or is it about something else?

Not many Jews born after 1975 in the US and Europe grew up with strong religious identities. There may be traumatic stories of embarrassing Bnei Mitzvot and overcompensating Hanukkah celebrations. But who considers it an essential part of their own identity not to eat shellfish and not answer the phone on Saturdays? And who believes in God? Or even God? This is reflected in our heroes: Not a single evening goes by without Jon Stewart, the acclaimed presenter of the US comedy show "The Daily Show", joking about being Jewish - about eating a ham bagel on Yom Kippur or about his fear that the foreskin could grow back at night because he lives so unritually.

On the other hand, there are more and more voices complaining about the loss of tradition - not only from the Chabad corner, but also from liberal Judaism. Your attitude: We have pushed secularization to the edge of the possible, if we continue like this, we will soon no longer be Jews.

messiaskind In 2010 two great novels were published in the USA that deal with this conflict - almost megalomaniac books that struggle for the essence, soul and spirit of the Jews. On the one hand, there is Adam Levin's debut The Instructions. Over 1,000 pages, four days of the life of Gurion ben-Judah Macabee, a ten-year-old student from Chicago, are retold. Gurion is possibly the Messiah, the tzaddik hador, the redeemer of the Jewish people.

His classmates call him a rabbi, his teachers hate him and are afraid because he is prone to know-it-all and violence. Gurion feels oppressed and imprisoned - he wants to spend his time reading the Torah and the girl Eliza June Westmark (a Christian). But his enemies, the teachers, educators and beaters, prevent him from doing so. So the ten-year-old gathers a following, equips them with twins and takes up the fight. The "Gurion War" begins.

The Instructions presents itself as modern scriptures and has all the characteristics of an almost too ambitious debut novel. Levin makes use of postmodernism in his toolbox: narrated passages alternate with emails and school files, the author adorns his work with allusions to Joyce, Cervantes and the book Jonah from the Torah. In the end, even Philip Roth has a little side appearance as Moses.

While The Instructions is a hopeful book, albeit in a weird way, Joshua Cohen's joke isn't very funny despite the title - unless you think Kafka and the end of the world are weird. Cohen's main character, Benjamin Israelia, is no ordinary Jew either. He is "the last jew on earth" after all the other children of Israel suddenly died shortly before the millennium. Without annoying representatives, Judaism becomes an extremely popular religion.

The Goyan world population can hardly wait to get the Giur behind them. And thats just the beginning. The 30-year-old Cohen creates a phantasmagoria of the end of culture, a delirious feverish dream with breaking taboos and dark humor: Isaac Bashevis Singer on speed. Cohen's language is frayed, Yiddish, New York slang and Hebrew flow together in a Babylonian jumble of languages. Cohen is the Jewish Celine.

As different as the books are: In their own way, both refuse to see being Jewish as just the punch line for their own existence. They are united by an interest in the philosophy and tradition of Judaism, beyond the cliché of the self-hating three-day Jew. Levin and Cohen ask how one can be Orthodox in the modern world without isolating oneself in Hasidic isolation.

nonseller All of this is extremely exciting - and incompatible with the German book market. Despite enthusiastic reviews, including in the New York Times, no German publisher has even tried to obtain the translation rights for the books. On the one hand, because the transmission would take several years and the broadcast of the originals could only be guessed at.

On the other hand: Who should buy these books? Who in Germany is interested in the philosophical struggles that young Jews fight with themselves, and in which the memory of the Shoah, if at all, only emerges in the background? If it has nothing to do with German history and identity, or as Woody Allen can be gently smiled at, Jewish literature is a nonseller in this country. However, world literature awaits the Jewish seekers to whom these books want to speak. Jewish world literature.

Adam Levin: "The Instructions". McSweeney’s, San Francisco 2010, 1,030 pp., US $ 29

Joshua Cohen: "Witz", Dalkey, Champaign 2010, 800 p., US $ 18.95