- You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture
In 1993 Samuel C. Heilman, the chair of Jewish Studies at Queen's College of the City University of New York, pointed out that "there are those who argue that . . . a real desire remains to maintain a Jewish identity and continuity. . . . [I]t is not a very strong desire, however, and it adapts itself to the needs of integration in the United States." More than a decade later, it seems as if there is a real desire to "maintain" Jewish identity and culture, but in the plural not the singular. Jewish American artistic and cultural production has expanded so much that the National Foundation for Jewish Culture has recently proclaimed that: "We are in the midst of a Jewish cultural renaissance in America . . . a Golden Age of Jewish Culture unlike any in the 4,000 year history of the Jewish people" (http://www2.jewishculture.org/about/). Out of this Renaissance, Jewish identity and culture have taken on many new forms that have simply never been seen before in Jewish history.
You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture, edited by Vincent Brook, is a timely collection of essays. The essayists in this book approach several new hybrid representations of Jewish-American identity from a diversity of viewpoints. The spaces of Jewish identity they address, delimited by nine different sections in the book, include literature, theater, music, dance, painting, photography, film, stand-up comedy, and television. By and large, the essayists deal with the question of what Jewishness means in a "postmodern" American culture which thrives on the endless creation and recreation of new cultural identities. In addition, these essays are interested in how Jewish culture lives on in the arts and entertainment. What types of Jewish identity have been created in film, photography, dance, music, literature and theater, and what do these identities retain or reject from previous representations of Jewishness in America? These questions are prominent throughout this collection. [End Page 203]
In his introduction to this collection, Vincent Brook points out that since Jewish American identity, representation, and culture have radically changed over the last two decades, the traditional approach of Jewish Studies to Jewish culture and identity must follow. For it is the "fundamental, if not obligatory, task of the postmodern age" (p. 4) to challenge previous, "monocausal," notions of Jewish culture and representation which include "Irving Howe's late 1970s immigrant based criterion" and a "religious based criterion" (p. 4). By challenging such criteria, through the introduction of many other forms of Jewish identity and affirming them as Jewish, an "anti-essentialist" approach to Jewish identity can be augmented.
To be sure, Brook and many of the essayists in this volume belong to a new group of Jewish Studies scholars whose work echoes the notion of Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, that new Jews claim their Jewishness by dissent rather than descent. Nonetheless, the issue of where Jewish identity descends from is central to the novelty of this claim. The essayists in this volume are acutely aware of this.
Indeed, the creation of an anti-essentialist interpretation of Jewish culture may be a concern for most of these essays, but it is certainly not the only concern; the question of how Jewish-American identity lives on, or, as Hommi Bhabha says, translates into a plurality of Jewish identities, is also of great interest. Of these essays, there are several that stand out in their analysis of how Jewish representation creates new identities and/or maintains some form of continuity between past and the present notions of Jewish identity.
By way of analyzing Jewish comic book representations, Andrea Most's essay points out that one of the crucial points of continuity between the past and present forms of Jewish identity is the representation of the Jewish body. Most makes the case, through her reading of Aline Kominsky, Art Spiegelman, and Ben Katchor's comic book representations of the Jewish body, that the Jewish body has become the site for...