Yiddish isn’t what it used to be, and showing how that statement was as true in its own way a century ago as it is now helped Emory University associate professor Miriam Udel win a National Jewish Book Award with her first book, “Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque.”

Emory University's Miriam Udel

Emory University’s Miriam Udel (Photo by Yael Katz)

Udel, who was in New York studying in a program leading to rabbinic ordination when the Jewish Book Council notified her Wednesday, Jan. 11, that she had won the Dorot Foundation Award in modern Jewish thought and experience, drew gratification, relief and vindication from the unexpected win.

“I had an incredibly difficult time finding a publisher” in the ever-shrinking realm of academic publishing, Udel said, explaining that a couple of deals fell in the expectation that the book wouldn’t see or because of disagreements over changes to the text. She’s grateful that the University of Michigan Press took a chance on a new writer.

She beat out more experienced finalist Zev Eleff’s “Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History” for the award.

Udel didn’t follow the route of many young academics and try to turn her doctoral thesis from Harvard University into her first book. She said she wanted a new project, one that grew out of a course she taught on the nonheroic hero of Jewish literature, a character she calls a “slacker hero.”

A heroic main character serves as a model for readers. But if you don’t want your hero to serve as a model, Udel said, “you can write about all kinds of losers.”

She said the argument of “Never Better!” is that the rise of the slacker hero in 20th century Yiddish fiction marks the genres move into modernity. Earlier Jewish literature, influenced by the Enlightenment, was trying to effect social change by shaming Jews and showing how they could and should be better.

The modern approach instead presented the Jews just as they were, Udel said, citing authors such as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

"Never Better!" by Miriam Udel

Never Better! by Miriam Udel

“Jewish literature enters full-blown modernity when authors give up on the idea of fixing the Jews and decide to describe them in vivid terms without a program of repairs,” Udel said.

She said she wrote most of the book between 2010 and 2012.

She will be honored at a gala March 7 in New York, along with the other 19 National Jewish Book Award winners, including Book of the Year honoree Daniel Gordis for “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” and Modern Literary Achievement Award recipient Michael Chabon for his overall contributions to Jewish literature.

“Miriam Udel is part of a cohort of impressive young professors at the Tam Institute of Jewish Studies who are becoming national leaders in their respective fields,” said Eric Goldstein, the Tam Institute’s director. “Her work on the picaresque genre is particularly important because it not only has implications for studying the Jewish literary tradition, but also for understanding modernist literature more broadly. It’s a great example of how scholarship in Jewish studies can help us grapple with larger questions of human experience.”

Students are benefiting from Udel’s scholarship on “Never Better!” this semester: She’s teaching a freshman seminar on two of the authors she wrote about.

Udel said she’s proud of the cover, even though she had nothing to do with it other than picking the image, a cartoon Zuni Maud drew for the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute’s Kinder-Journal. “Please judge the book by the cover.”