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  • Gertrude Stein’s Jewishness, Jewish Social Scientists, and the “Jewish Question”

Two framing anecdotes can serve as case-historemes exemplifying the thicket of static buzzing around the estranged-twin subjects of Jewish social science and Gertrude Stein’s Jewishness. The first is a passage from anthropologist Melville Herskovits’s tribute to Franz Boas, containing a remarkable typographical error that reveals, I believe, the degree of anxiety provoked in Jewish social scientists when faced with the social scientific discourse addressing the “Jewish question.” In the second, I recount an incident that highlights the ongoing critical controversies about Stein’s conduct during World War II, which render her politics suspect. Here is Herksovitz:

. . . as a scientist, the anthropologist studies his problem and publishes his results. With other scientists, he seeks the answer to this basic ethical problem, as yet unsolved, of how to ensure that his findings are used by those who would direct them toward ends inimical to the canons of morality of the scientific tradition within which he works.

(Franz Boas 104; emphasis added)

And here is my encounter with the party line on Stein’s politics: [End Page 489]

In October 1995, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poet Charles Bernstein and I participated by telephone in a Gertrude Stein hour on WBAI-radio’s “Beyond the Pale,” organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (the gay and lesbian activist wing of the group had requested Stein as subject of their designated special show, which fact itself was extremely interesting to me). We were the “Jews” on the panel; the other two panelists, who were present in the studio along with the JFREJ moderator, were poet Eileen Myles, who had recently co-edited The New Fuck You Anthology of Lesbian Writing, and Buffy Johnson, a New York painter who had known Gertrude and Alice in Paris. Charles and I came in on the second half of the hour-long show and discussed first how we did or didn’t see questions of identity arising in Stein’s work and how Stein’s interrogation of identity through language play (as well as thematically) could itself be seen as a strong current in the Jewish intellectual tradition. Then came the question of her politics, her survival of World War II under the auspices of Bernard Faÿ in the Vichy government. The moderator challenged any designation of Stein and Toklas as “radical” since they owed their survival to friendship with an anti-Semite whom they refused to repudiate even after Faÿ’s disgrace in the wake of Allied victory. Charles and I bristled. Would it have been better that she not survive? She didn’t betray anybody. People did what they had to. The whole village knew they were Jewish and protected them. I’d seen their wartime I. D. photos at the Beinecke, and they were terrified little old Jewish ladies, not callous race-traitors living it up à la Nero, fiddling and diddling while their people perished. And so forth. Our vehement defense was cut off by the hour’s expiration. “Thank you for being with us, but that’s all the time we have.” Our disembodied, miscreant Jewish voices snipped, our absence doubled. The non-Jewish artists and the political Jew wrapped it up in person.

In an earlier essay I explored Gertrude Stein’s writing as “minority discourse” in the sense expressed by Deleuze and Guattari in their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. 1 I had thought, before I began writing [End Page 490] that piece, that I’d be most compelled in this direction by Stein’s status as a sexual minority and as a woman. However, her Jewishness emerged as an at least equal site of creative contestation, not in opposition to those other elements of social difference, but implicated, of a piece, with them. In the present essay I want to continue that inquiry by situating work produced during Stein’s middle period (roughly, from World War I to just before the emergence of the Final Solution—primarily the works collected as Painted Lace and Other Pieces 1914–1937) in the discourse of Jewish social science. I will refer primarily...

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