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Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness by Helene Meyers (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Volume 6, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 82-84 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0004

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As American Jewish leaders continue to worry about assimilation and dwindling commitments to Jewish communities, Helene Meyers, professor of English at Southwestern University, explores the potential of American Jewish literature to serve as source material for imagining Jewish identity in ways that are not predicated on hegemonic notions of gender, sexuality, and race, suggesting that embracing non-normative ways of being will lead to a thriving Jewish future. Meyers engages in a close reading of novels, films, and plays from the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries to unearth how subversion, transgression, and alterity can lead to new and fruitful ways of being Jewish. The bulk of her work is divided into three sections: “feminism and orthodoxy,” “queering the Jewish family,” and the racial off-whiteness of American Jewry. She also includes a brief epilogue arguing for a reconceptualization of intermarriage as a site of Jewish growth rather than dissolution. Ultimately, Meyers offers not only nuanced readings of many texts, but also a cogent argument about the generative possibilities for American Jewish futurity through an undoing of what constitutes normative understandings of Jewish bodies, families, and relationships.

The title of the book’s first section, “Feminism and Orthodoxy: Not an Oxy-moron,” reveals that Meyers is acutely aware that she is entering territory where progressive and Orthodox readers could take issue with her positions. To assuage the concerns of some liberals, Meyers explicitly disavows herself of Orthodox apologetics, dressed as feminism, that suggest Jewish women have a superior spirituality to men, as if to explain why women are not included in many time-bound mitzvot. For Meyers, such an approach to examining women and gender within Orthodoxy does nothing to disrupt patriarchal privileges. On the other hand, Meyers also argues that labeling feminism and Orthodoxy as oxymoronic obfuscates that multivocality within Orthodoxies, erroneously presenting Orthodox Judaism as an unchanging, ahistorical monolith. Turning to novels such as Anne Rophie’s Lovingkindness, Rebecca Goldstein’s Mazel, and Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxillary, Meyers explores how feminist dialogues have been imagined within Orthodox communities. She contends that these narratives expose the ongoing shaping and reconfiguration of Orthodoxy. They do not offer utopian visions, but they do illuminate ways in which gender is and has been constructed, strategic moves for renegotiating the role of both women and men within halakha, and possibilities for feminist interventions to serve as meeting points and places of dialogue for Jews of all affiliations. These texts and others, Meyers asserts, show that as some Orthodox communities continue to move to the right and prescribe stricter gender roles, feminist innovations in Orthodoxy may become the primary means for many Jews to determine if they are comfortable remaining Orthodox.

In the book’s next section, “Queering the Jewish family,” Meyers convincingly argues that homophobia, not homosexuality, is the abomination that threatens the continuity of Judaism. The Jewish preoccupation with heterosexual marriage and reproduction occludes other forms of kinship, ways of being Jewish, and contributions to Jewish communities. Narratives featuring queer Jewish protagonists, Meyers suggests, offer creative visions for remaining committed to Judaism in ways that are not predicated on compulsory heterosexuality. Indeed, as Meyers asserts, to insist on or privilege heterosexuality is to alienate and cast out Jews who might otherwise remain invested in Judaism if not for the pervasive heterosexism and homophobia within many American Jewish spheres. Offering a broad historical sketch of Jewish homophobia, Meyers proffers that the recurrent anti-semitic trope of Jews as sexual perverts contributed to the reluctance of many Jewish leaders to advocate for the inclusion of queers, writing that, “investments in heterosexuality, with its requisite gendering effects, have become a way for Jews to move from outsiders to insiders.” (76) In other words, as an assimilatory strategy, compulsory heterosexuality has been a vehicle for Jews to achieve bourgeois respectability. Meyers additionally contends that, in the post-Shoah world, heterosexual reproduction has been esteemed as a way of preventing Hitler a posthumous victory, and queers, in turn, have been rendered as unable to perpetuate Jewish families. Through a close reading of texts such as Lev Raphael’s Dancing on Tisha B’Av, Harvey Firestein’s Torch Song Trilogy, and Lesléa Newman’s...



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