Jew. The word possesses an uncanny power to provoke and unsettle. For millennia, Jew has signified the consummate Other, a persistent fly in the ointment of Western civilization’s grand narratives and cultural projects. Only very recently, however, has Jew been reclaimed as a term of self-identification and pride.
With these insights as a point of departure, this book offers a wide-ranging exploration of the key word Jew—a term that lies not only at the heart of Jewish experience, but indeed at the core of Western civilization. Examining scholarly debates about the origins and early meanings of Jew, Cynthia M. Baker interrogates categories like “ethnicity,” “race,” and “religion” that inevitably feature in attempts to define the word. Tracing the term’s evolution, she also illuminates its many contradictions, revealing how Jew has served as a marker of materialism and intellectualism, socialism and capitalism, worldly cosmopolitanism and clannish parochialism, chosen status, and accursed stigma.
Baker proceeds to explore the complex challenges that attend the modern appropriation of Jew as a term of self-identification, with forays into Yiddish language and culture, as well as meditations on Jew-as-identity by contemporary public intellectuals. Finally, by tracing the phrase new Jews through a range of contexts—including the early Zionist movement, current debates about Muslim immigration to Europe, and recent sociological studies in the United States—the book provides a glimpse of what the word Jew is coming to mean in an era of Internet cultures, genetic sequencing, precarious nationalisms, and proliferating identities.