restricted access 16. After the Melting Pot: Jewish Women Writers and the Man in the Wrong Clothes
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16 After the Melting Pot: Jewish Women Writers and the Man in the Wrong Clothes MIRIYAM GLAZER At an informal gathering in Los Angeles, a group of Jewish academics was discussing anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks' essay, "How Did Jews Become White Folks?"1 The more we spoke, the more the air grew palpably tense, as if, whether we were admitting it or not, the narratives of our personal and professional lives were at stake. Did we see ourselves as "white"? Who among us did? Who didn't? In what specific projects and desires, inclusions and exclusions were we implicated, if we were or were not "white"? Like the gens de couleur of Louisiana, Jews of the nineteenth century had occupied an "in-between zone"; they were regarded as members of the "Oriental" or "Semitic" race. A court ruling had turned the gens de couleur into blacks.2 Was it, as Sacks argues, the economic benefits of the G.I. bill that had catapulted thousands of Jewish men (and presumably their wives and children) into education, home ownership , and thus into the "whiteness" of the middle class? Or, rather, was it primarily white Protestant America's determination to see things in black and white—to simplify, stabilize, institutionalize the racial divide —that meshed with the Jews' eagerly embraced dissolution of difference and upward mobility in order to turn the Jewish members of the "Semitic race"— the "Israelites," the "Orientals" — into "whites"? Are Ethiopian Jews, or, for that matter, African American Jews, by virtue of their Jewishness, "white"? Amid that afternoon's melange of opinions, anxieties, positions, a colleague of mine—an olive-skinned, traditionally bearded professor of Talmud — posed a question. "Maybe," he said, "most of the people in this room are white. But what are the boundaries of 'whiteness'? Is an ultraorthodox European-born Jew with payes and a streimel 'white'?" 223 224 MIRIYAM GLAZER Discomforting if momentary silence in the group. In the thick air, I heard in my inner ear the anxious Eli of Philip Roth's upper-middle-class 1959 suburban Woodenton pleading with the immigrant Orthodox yeshiva head newly arrived in town: "The world is the world, Mr. Tzuref. As you would say, what is, is. All we say to this man is change your clothes."3 The uncertainty we Jewish intellectuals felt about our own "whiteness " and the boundaries of whiteness — and the question of what we were if we weren't "white" — had, of course, complex autobiographical, political, socio-ideological, economic, and, in the end, gender and religious underpinnings . What we were really dealing with was how at "home" each of us experienced ourselves as being, or willed ourselves into being, on what Brownsville-born Alfred Kazin (presumably with an unintentional tongue in cheek) called "native" ground and what, indeed, we comprehended as our Jewishness. Did a proudly borne Jewish identity nourish our spiritual, intellectual, creative, and/or cultural life? Or did "Jewish identity" serve as a residual remembrance of brisket and bagels, an annoying ache, a rejected awareness, a rooted sorrow? Did it enrich our lives, and/or make us feel inevitably set apart, "split or contradictory" (in the terms of Donna Haraway), a sort of "half-breed" who understands "everyone because [belonging] completely to no one" (in those of Albert Memmi), or perhaps, in Homi Bhabha's phrase, "almost the same but different"?4 At what point do Jews cease to be what Bhabha, theorizing postcolonial writing, calls a "reformed, recognizable Other," who embodies an "authorized version of Otherness"? (129). What, crucially, are the qualities, content, dynamics, of that specifically "Jewish" voice that Sarah Horowitz has eloquently described as having been "silenced" except insofar as the voice "mimics or reproduces the voice of normative culture and modulates itself in timbres pleasing and non-threatening to the larger society"?5 If in various complex ways Jewish men and Jewish women have both seen themselves and been seen as Others within androcentric gentile American culture, Jewish women, as I have contended elsewhere, have been the "Other of the Other." Jewish women are the embodied presence made invisible by their absence from Eurocentric masculinist cultural critiques. Jewish women have been excluded from male-centered religious life until recent years, when, within liberal denominations, we/they are permitted to imitate the ritual practice of men.6 But in ways "almost the same" as postcolonial writers, that double remove also freed Jewish American women writers to explore and inscribe the knotted issues of Jewish positionality itself. Looking...


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Subject Headings

  • Judaism and literature -- United States.
  • Jews -- United States -- Intellectual life.
  • Holocaust survivors in literature.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945), in literature.
  • Postmodernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • American literature y20th century xHistory and criticism
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- United States -- Literature and the war.
  • American literature -- Jewish authors -- History and criticism.
  • Judaism in literature.
  • Jews in literature.
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