- The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity
In his interesting and important book, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, Eric Goldstein grapples with the question of how members of the American Jewish community have attempted to answer the question, what is a Jew? At times, Jews have considered themselves to be a religion, a people, a nation, and a race. The question of Jewish identity is a topic considered by many scholars, who have puzzled over the alternatives but who have yet to arrive at a clear resolution. Providing far more insight into the question than Karen Brodkin's How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), the Goldstein book also does not provide the answer to the puzzle. Nonetheless, the Goldstein book, thoughtful, interesting, and well written, provides important insights that help to inform the debate over self-definition that has remained a popular Jewish concern and may be seen even in recent times, as in such books as Stephen G. Bloom's Postville, A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2000).
Goldstein's analysis begins with the view that throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, Americans have viewed American Jews as "racial outsiders" (p. 2). The transition from outsider to acceptance by mainstream America was gradual and often painful. But the difficulty was compounded by the Jewish effort at self-definition, at determining what American Jews believed themselves to be. The identification of the Jew by both the white American community and by the Jews themselves was complicated by the racial categories of "white" and "black," by which 19th- and early 20th-century mainstream Americans characterized Americans. Curiously, during the period [End Page 200] covered by the book, a period of profound racism and bigotry in the United States, American Jews very often chose to identify themselves as members of a race, in order to express pride in their distinctiveness. Yet another ingredient in the question of what is a Jew involved a profound ethical dilemma. While Jews wished to avoid the bigotry of the American mainstream and, thereby, sought to be classified as "white," many Jews were deeply troubled by white discrimination against African Americans. This was a long-lasting and painful complication for the Jewish community that extended throughout the period 1875 to 1950, the dates encompassed by Goldstein's book. Throughout this time span, Jews wanted to be a part of mainstream American culture, to be unique and distinctive, and often, also, to support improvement in the lives of African Americans (pp. 3–5).
The book is divided into four chronological periods: 1875 to 1895, 1896 to 1918, 1919 to 1935, and 1936 to 1950. During his description of each of these particular periods, Goldstein explored the how American Jews perceived themselves. Thus, Goldstein, in discussing Rabbi Solomon Schindler's 1887 sermon, "Why Am I a Jew?" said that the Rabbi supported the 19th-century popular Jewish view that:
Their conception of Jewish distinctiveness was one rooted not in cultural particularity but in biology, shared ancestry, and blood. Such overt racial discourse has usually been treated by modern Jewish historians as the province of antisemites, yet racial language also served as an attractive form of self-expression for Jews.(p. 11)
Goldstein indicates that this was the case because racial language enhanced the perception of "peoplehood" and "allowed Jews to maintain their self-image as a persecuted people as they rose on the economic ladder . . ." (p. 19). This, in itself, created a dilemma, as Jews sought simultaneously to be a part of white American society and also to remain distinct from that society. Clearly, by the end of the nineteenth century Jews were very comfortable with a racial designation. One deficiency of the Goldstein account that may help to explain the popularity of a racial designation is the absence of a discussion of the importance of the American eugenics movement as a factor in...