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Jewishness and Masculinity from the Modern to the Postmodern by Neil R. Davison (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 379-382 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0022

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“‘What is a Jew in the first place?’” the protagonist of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife ponders: “the sound ‘Jew’ was not made like a rock in the world—some human voice once said ‘Djoo,’ pointed to somebody, and that was the beginning.”1 Roth’s Joycean “Djoo” suggests the questions that Neil R. Davison raises in his perceptive and stimulating Jewishness and Masculinity from the Modern to the Postmodern. Taking the “Djoo” as the male Jew, Davison asks: who is the Jew as a historically constituted, objectified, and racialized subject making the transition into modernity? How does the hint of mockery in Roth’s phonetic spelling translate into a gendering of the Jew, whose internalized position departs from the hyper-masculine Euro-American ideal?

Davison pursues these questions through the confluence of racial, gendered, and religious constructions of Jewish masculinity appearing in the work of male writers, both Jewish and gentile, from the modern to the postmodern eras. Chapters focused on George Du Maurier, Theodor Herzl, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Roth probe how the discourses of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have feminized the male Jew, and, in turn, how this construction of the Jew’s racial and gendered subjectivity affects his encounter with the modern world in each writer’s political and ethical imaginations. Drawing on an impressive array of materials—from cultural history, psychoanalysis, Judaic sources, philosophy, journalism, and letters, and citing such scholars as Sander Gilman, Daniel Boyarin, David Biale, and Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as influential turn-of-the-century work by Sigmund Freud and Otto Weininger—Davison paints a complex portrait of fin de siècle, modern, and postmodern Jewish masculinity.2 To do so, he explores intersecting binaries—Rabbinic/Reform (Halachic/Haskalah) Judaism, as well as “authentic/inauthentic, racial difference/humanity, hyper-male/feminized-male, colonial/postcolonial, and Diaspora/Zionist” oppositions (2). Indeed, each chapter is built around a dense interweaving of sources and conceptions of Jewishness, so that my summaries below can scarcely capture the nuances of Davison’s analyses. On balance, however, he argues that “gentile and Jewish male writers renegotiated masculinity by engaging the feminized Jew in their works” and finds that the culturally assimilated Jewish writers forged their identities “through a hybrid Jewish masculinity combining the essence of Rabbinic edelkayt [the gentle, bookish, Talmudic masculine ideal] with strains of the politically active, liberal or leftist Western male” (14, 19).

Davison’s thesis is illuminating and affords some fascinating stories. Chapter 1 reads George Du Maurier’s bestselling novel of 1894, Trilby, alongside the Dreyfus Affair, which began the same year.3 The cultural anxieties stoked by the rhetoric of race and gender link Trilby’s depiction of the sinister Jew, Svengali, with the threat the French perceived in Captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongfully convicted of spying for Germany. Davison names a new category for the Jew, the “homme/femme fatale,” who is “malignantly feminine in [his] perverse sexual powers and creative genius for disguise and imitation” (27). He attributes Svengali’s dirty, money-grubbing, sexually ambiguous, predatory depiction, like the Dreyfus Affair, to the developing hysterical belief that “degenerate” Jews were fostering a world conspiracy to feminize European culture.

As a complementary narrative of fin de siècle Europe, chapter 2 explores the work of Herzl, who is credited with founding Zionism. Herzl, known largely for his nonliterary writing, enables Davison to stake out the polar terms of male Jewish representation. Although Herzl struggled with an internalized image of his own Jewish racial effeminacy, Davison finds that he also engaged with the role of the Judaic religious tradition in his vision for a re-masculinized Jew and a nationalist cause. Davison argues that Herzl’s messianic vision, derived from the Judaic doctrine guiding Jews to “help other nations toward a spiritual enlightenment” and a “rational reconciliation of humanity,” forecast a Jewish state to “replace racial, gendered, and other exclusions with a more idealized liberalism” (71, 20). Davison supports his gendered reading by exploring the influence of Max Nordau’s Muskeljüden (“muscle-Jew”) on Herzl’s Zionist vision,4 which, far from expressing Jewish self-hatred in rewriting the image of the physically weak Jewish...


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