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Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to The Goldbergs (review)

From: American Jewish History
Volume 92, Number 3, September 2004
pp. 395-396 | 10.1353/ajh.2006.0034

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American Jewish History 92.3 (2004) 395-396

Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to The Goldbergs. By Donald Weber. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 250 pp.

In Haunted in the New World, literary scholar Donald Weber takes readers along on an intellectual inquiry that is, for him, both scholarly and personal. As he states most clearly in the book's engaging epilogue, Weber is compelled in part by (quoting Leon Wieseltier) a nostalgia "for the nostalgia of Jewish fathers"—a longing for the Jewish Bronx of his baby-boomer childhood and the rich, complex engagement with Jewishness of his parents' generation, as well as by a desire to push beyond most earlier scholars' and critics' low regard (epitomized by Irving Howe) for such sentimentality (174). Through a series of chapters that offer careful, informed, and thought-provoking close readings of works of American Jewish culture from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1960s, Weber seeks to trace the dynamics of "the genealogy of Jewish affect" among immigrants from Eastern Europe arriving here a century ago and their children (4). Through his analyses of works of literature, film, theater, broadcasting, and sound recordings, Weber tracks what Raymond Williams termed a "structure of feeling" that dominates much of American Jewish culture in the immigrant and early post-immigrant period.

The works Weber analyzes include fixtures of the American Jewish literary canon (in English, that is; a quite different genealogy of affect would, I think inevitably, emerge from American Yiddish literature)—Abe Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, and the fiction of Anzia Yezierska, Arthur Miller, and Saul Bellow. To these, Weber adds texts that receive less frequent attention from literary scholars, as well as works of popular culture, both widely familiar (the 1927 film The Jazz Singer) and less renowned (e.g., Frank Capra's 1929 film, The Younger Generation). The selection is driven by Weber's interest in making sense of Jewish expressive culture during the period that it emerges as a distinctive voice in the American public sphere. At the center of this culture, Weber argues, is a shared affective experience, responsive to the challenges of immigration and integration into an American way of life that was itself being transformed by immigration, urbanization, and modernization.

Weber characterizes this affective experience as centered on shame and self-hatred. He tracks the cultural responses to these powerful emotions through key moments in cultural works, especially the range of anxieties provoked by etiquette and language. The anguish triggered by table manners and foodways in one example after another that Weber cites is striking, and he deftly follows how these moments resonate with one another and change over time. Similarly, Haunted in the New World tracks American Jewish anxieties about language—specifically, the shame associated with Yiddish and the struggle to master the language of America, a complex of semiotic systems that extends well beyond English to include gesture, dress, and other elements of the performance of self.

While these are issues (and examples) with which historians of American Jewry may well be familiar, Weber's readings prove a valuable resource through their insightful demonstration of the interrelation of public culture with emotions that are deeply felt personally and, at the same time, shared experiences that proved definitional for many American Jews. Indeed, as this once widely familiar American Jewish sensibility retreats ever further into the past, superceded by new emotional dynamics, Haunted in the New World provides the scholar of American Jewish life a valuable guide to issues of affect that can now seem mystifying to younger generations. Informed by very different notions of identity and its relation to culture, they now often engage the emotions that are at the center of Weber's study through the act of reading about them rather than through their own experience.

Moreover, the genealogy of affect that Weber traces raises key questions for further consideration. What are the implications of American Jews' redefining Jewishness in terms of histrionics (what Saul Bellow called the "Jewish opera")—a radical departure not only from a traditional halakic foundation for understanding Jewish life...

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