Sometime in the mid-1990s, Steve Bernstein was asked by John Zorn to make a record for Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series. Bernstein is a downtown New York avant-garde jazz trumpeter and bandleader—a member of John Lurie's Lounge Lizard's and leader of his own Sex Mob—a group that specializes in free jazz versions of James Bond theme songs and covers of Abba and Prince. Bernstein explains that he was initially puzzled by Zorn's invitation. He writes in the liner notes to Diaspora Soul, the record he finally made for Zorn: "I was left with an enigmatic question. How does a Jewish musician who has spent his life studying 'other' musical cultures make a 'Jewish' record, when, by nature, all of one's music is already 'Jewish'?" Bernstein, by his own account, struggled for three years with this question, and then finally had what he calls his "Gulf Coast epiphany":"I had been doing a lot of reading and listening for the past few months to the music of New Orleans, and had been developing a theory about the evolution of New Orleans marching band music not into what we call jazz, but into rhythm and blues."1
Those of us familiar with the discourses of Black-Jewish likeness see now where this is going, and forgive us if we are cringing: somehow Bernstein will punctuate this musicological genealogy with some definitive proof that the diasporic souls of Black folk and Jewish folk are linked and that these links take musical forms which, if not identical, exist at least in some kind of natural harmony. This is a line of thought that's been promoted for almost a century now: Alexander Woollcott said it about Irving Berlin, stride pianist Willie the Lion Smith said it about himself, Harvard professor Isaac Goldberg said it about George Gershwin, Mezz Mezzrow said it about himself . . . and the list goes on and on. In academic discourse this position was staked out most influentially by Irving Howe, in his World of Our Fathers, where he described Jews in blackface as sympathetic actors who used the Black mask as a vehicle to articulate their own woe. Amazingly, Michael Alexander, in his recent book Jazz Age Jews,2 pushes this insensitive argument even further: according to Alexander, [End Page 13] Jolson was so sympathetic to African Americans that he was willing to compromise his own upward mobility by donning blackface.
Michael Alexander's Jazz Age Jews is only the most egregious and relatively recent expression of an ahistorical and politically dangerous axiom undergirding much of what passes for "Jewish Studies." The axiom is "We all know what 'Jew' signifies and we all know it is kind of a synonym for 'Black' anyway." Even the newer Jewish studies tends to make indefensible claims about the meaning of Jewishness—while these claims vary from place to place there are consistent assumptions being made that there is an audience out there in agreement that "Jew" still marks off some recognizable territory or activity. The purpose of my paper is to argue against unanimity, against consensus. My primary motivation is political: in an era when "Jew" too often signifies an "us" putatively opposed to "them" (Arabs) I want to suggest we take a break from imagining "Jew" as any kind of stable or singular identity.
And as a cultural historian I want to take note of a new generation of cultural actors and activists—Jewish one way or another—who are busy inventing heretofore unknown ways of being, sounding, looking, and "acting" Jewish. These new Jews range from the immensely talented Jonathan Safran Foer, whose first novel3 offers a Ukrainian descendant of Nazi collaborators as its hero, thereby purposely denying the easy comforts of an us vs. them orientation, to the Jewish two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, the all-woman band that redefined punk rock as a woman-centered activity in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the Jewish two-thirds of Northern State, who seem poised to do the same for hip hop.
My standards are loose here: this is a Jewish "generation" only insofar as I say so...