- People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity
In Jews in the Academy 1900–1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (Yale, 1991), Susanne Klingenstein tracks how Jews “passed” into American academia. People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity” demonstrates how, fifty years later, the trend has been thoroughly reversed. Its editors, Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, offer this ample collection as a corrective to those who would read the prospect of a vital Jewish American community as irreversibly damaged by the emphasis on self, which is “modernism’s enduring legacy.” Paradoxically, however, the “community” constituted by these essays puts a premium on highly individuated difference rather than homogeneous unity. In soliciting these essays, the editors offered their contributors the opportunity of “coming out” as Jewish academics, asking them to explore not only their own understanding of cultural, ethnic, or religious difference, but also how that which is typically construed as “private” shaped their relation to their own particular field of study. Indeed, some effort is made to represent a range of academic disciplines, including anthropology, history, and art history, although most of the essayists work in English, American literature, or Comparative Studies.
The emphasis on the autobiographical coincides, of course, with what has emerged as a strong trend in literary studies. The development itself is a curious one, especially in light of modernism’s thorough problematizing of subjectivity—a recognition clearly held by some of the essayists whose self-disclosures are clearly meant to implicate (as a critique of) the mode altogether. These theoretical conundrums aside, the emphasis on the autobiographical serves, in the particular instance of this volume, two important functions. First, it dramatizes the wide range of experiences that characterize contemporary American Jewish academic life, discouraging any critical impulse to read Jewishness as a monolithic construct. Second, the autobiographical mode works to correct the trend in prior accounts of Jewishness in America which frequently made claims of, or gestures toward, universalism. [End Page 208]
The collection is divided into four sections: “Transformations,” “Negotiations,” “Explorations,” and “Meditations.” The organizational value of these sections is not readily apparent, since any number of the essays may profitably be read as examples of all the critical activities specified above. The categories are primarily useful inasmuch as they suggest how Jewishness may function as a subject of intellectual inquiry. Indeed, some of the most striking juxtapositions are to be had by reading across categories, rather than within them. Take for example Lawrence Mordekhai Thomas’s provocative, but not unproblematic, account of the discontinuities he feels as an African-American Jew. In an odd recapitulation of the tensions that sometimes characterize the relations between these two groups, Thomas reads blackness against Jewishness, determining that since Jews possess an “isomorphic nature” they have access to a more enduring sense of communal identity. The question that this argument begs, of course, is whether or not Jews do indeed have a coherent, continuous narrative onto which to project a stable identity. It is a question that is at the very center of Ruth Behar’s moving account of her “failed” effort to recover her Cuban/Turkish/Jewish heritage, in part because as a woman, she is invisible to the Jewish liturgical community at large. Nor, on the other side of the ethnic ledger, does she discover anything like an easy sense of belonging, for as a Jewish Latina she often feels less than “totally authentic.” Forced, for example, to choose between a Passover Seder and a Latino/Latina potluck, Behar writes: “the limits of my Latina identity curl up around the edges and shrink a little.”
In a few instances, the analytical or critical integrity of a given position is either eclipsed or compromised by the autobiographical. But this is the exception, not the rule. And in the case of Herbert Lindenberger’s contribution, the sub-genre of the “confessional” essay is itself the subject of witty interrogation. In a...