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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 553-562

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Making Jews, Making Culture:
The Poetics and Politics of Identity

Andrew Hoberek
University of Missouri, Columbia

A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song. By Jeffrey Melnick. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 277 pages. $29.95 (cloth). $16.95 (paper).
The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America. By Jonathan Freedman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 264 pages. $45.00 (cloth).

In his 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew, the sociologist of religion Will Herberg commented on the post-World War II rise in synagogue membership, particularly "In the smaller towns and in the suburbs." He noted that:

In the city, living in a "Jewish" neighborhood, one may unconsciously continue to accept one's Jewishness in residual terms of ethnic "belonging"; in the suburbs and in most smaller towns this is no longer possible: one must begin to think "seriously" of his Jewishness, and the only possible outcome of such thinking in present-day America is identification with the Jewish religious community, frequently leading to affiliation with the synagogue. 1

Contrary to standard narratives of postwar assimilation-as-deracination, Herberg proposes that third-generation Jews actually became, in some respects, more Jewish than their parents as a result of their move to the suburbs. "Jewishness," in this account, emerges as a particular thing--as an identity--in the absence of the quotidian framework provided by the urban Jewish neighborhood. [End Page 553]

Jeffrey Melnick tells a related story in A Right to Sing the Blues, his new book about the relationship between Jews and African Americans in the music industry of the early twentieth century. Melnick presents his account as a prehistory of "Black-Jewish relations," which he contends "needs to be approached--not exclusively, but still significantly--as a story told by Jews about interracial relations." 2 This discourse emerges as a recognizable phenomenon, Melnick argues, in the late 1960s, just as relationships between the two groups were breaking down under pressure of increasing "economic disparity" and "different levels of cultural power." 3 In the face of this widening gap--which Karen Brodkin and George Lipsitz have related to suburbanization and other material events in the postwar United States 4 --"Black-Jewish relations" emerged as a "romantic tale about the relative unimportance of class status in melting pot America." 5 With its "basic plot . . . about the comparative suffering of Jews and Blacks," 6 the discourse of black-Jewish relations mobilized another potent identity formation--this one grounded in canons of "authentic" suffering--in order to "argue[ ] for the utopian (post-class or trans-class) possibilities of liberal democracy." 7

Thinking about these issues usefully refines our conception of identity politics. This seems particularly necessary at the current moment because the project of identity politics has recently taken a number of hits--not, as it happens, from the right, but from other factions of the left. From the liberal left, scholars such as Walter Benn Michaels and Ross Posnock have argued that identity politics, like the early twentieth-century cultural pluralism it grew out of, reproduces the logic of the "racialist, nativist thinking" it sets out to repudiate. 8 From the Marxist left, meanwhile, Rosemary Hennessy has repeated the longstanding assertion that political movements grounded in identity categories like race, gender, and sexuality fail to recognize the "determining force" of class and thus run the risk of commodified complicity with neo-liberal capitalism. 9

Both these lines of argument make key points about the project of identity politics that dominated the American left roughly from the late 1960s through the late 1990s, in particular taking to task identity politics' problematic tendencies towards either rigid essentialism or the facile celebration of diversity. It may be, though, that the critique of identity politics has become reflexive enough in the contemporary academy to itself raise suspicions. At the very least, we need to press [End Page 554] critics of identity politics to complicate their object of study in ways that they have not done. Certainly Michaels...


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