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  • Looking Beyond Borders: Performative Approaches to Jewish Historiography
  • Klaus Hödl (bio)

The central notion underlying the historiography of Central European Jews’ relationship to non-Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is influence. It is thought to have been exerted largely, yet not exclusively or unilaterally, by the society at large on the Jews, and to have lead to their partial adaptation to their social environment.1 The term to denote this process is acculturation.

The corresponding narrative starts out from the assumption that until the period of enlightenment Jews represented a social entity not only distinguishable in terms of religious practices and other peculiarities but also standing apart from their social environment. Upon the abolition of anti-Jewish restrictions and the decrease in relevance of religion for the peoples’ lives, Jews were striving to become a part of society. This process of social and cultural integration was interrupted only at times of aggravated anti-Semitism, when Jews tended to keep to themselves and strengthen the cohesion of their communities. The notion that Jews were never “outside society” at large but represented a constitutive part of it—and that they were always interacting with their social environment and had their share in the constitution of its culture—is hardly part of this concept.2

This article argues that the so-called “narrative of acculturation,” as the approach at Jewish history delineated above may be called, is based on a static model of culture, frequently called culture as a text.3 It served as a paradigm in the humanities and social sciences until the early 1990s.4 Since then a shift to the more dynamic concept of culture as a performance has happened.5 According to the latter, the self-image and self-representation of a society are not dominated by textual manifestations of culture, such as literary products or monuments, but rather articulated by practices, rituals, events, and so on.6 Culture is understood as a process,7 making it impossible to determine standards or norms. The fluidity of culture has implications for the notion of identity, in that it cannot be considered to be of steady character either; it must be perceived as being in flux as well.8

So far, culture as a performance has found entrance in Jewish historiography only gradually,9 even though focusing upon interactive processes instead of departing from the notion of unilateral influence promises a new understanding [End Page 51] of the complexity of Jewish life as well as of Jewish identity.10 The “performative approach” is predicated on the notion that both Jews and non-Jews represent an integral part of society, and that achieving knowledge of any of them is impossible without taking the relations between the two into account.11 This interdependency between Jews and non-Jews does not ignore or deny the existence of borders between them. Yet, such borders are understood as boundaries, as realms within which Jews and non-Jews encounter and negotiate the meanings of their respective cultures, instead of sharp demarcation lines that separate the two entities.12 On account of their interaction in the liminal field, Jews have a share in the configuration of non-Jewish cultures, and vice versa. All cultural realms are an inextricable aspect of the society’s culture.13

Two dimensions of performance

The term “performance,” as it is understood in this article, shows two different dimensions.14 First, it serves as a methodological approach in cultural studies to examine the constitution of cultural meaning. It deals with the complexity of social life as well as the shaping and expressions of “identity.” Second, it refers to a culture whose self-understanding is articulated primarily through performative acts.

The performative approach is based on the assumption that cultural meaning is not set in advance, but rather is constituted by ritualised practices.15 Since the place, the time, and the participants of such practices change, cultural meaning is permanently re-constituted and solely of transient, temporary nature.16 Its delineation must always include the reference to when and where it was constituted, and for whom it was valid.17

The conception that an understanding of culture can be achieved by analysing...


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