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  • Derac(e)inated Jews
  • Julian Levinson
Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race In America. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1998.

During the summer of 1986, when Hip-Hop music was just becoming a fixture in the panorama of American pop culture, I sat down to compose my first rap. For my intro, I drew from the lessons I had absorbed at Sherith Israel Sunday School on Bush Street in San Francisco: “Five thousand years ago Moses took command / He led my people to the promised land / Pharaoh was outsmarted, the Red Sea parted / And that is how my religion got started...” This rap initiated my truncated career as a Jewish rapper, a vocation—or, if you will, “subject position”—that seemed to offer itself as a viable one for me even though all the rappers who populated the music scene were, at that point, African Americans.

The immediate stimulus for my rhymed outpouring of Jewish pride had been a rap by the highly popular and by then mainstream group Run DMC, an inspiring rant entitled “Proud to be Black.” Moved by the lyrics, I couldn’t bring myself to sing them without feeling like an impostor, and rather than donning black face (like my illustrious predecessor, Al Jolson), I ventured a Jewish version, inserting the Biblical liberation story where Run DMC had spoken of heroic black figures like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In retrospect I wonder at the legitimacy of my Jewish rap. Was it a case of unwarranted borrowing or, worse, cultural hijacking, to insert my own lyrics in place of Run DMC’s? For a WASP in my position, it would have been a stretch to contrive an “ethnic” identity comparable to blackness. Was it different for me as a Jew, and a largely assimilated one at that? Historically, Blacks and Jews have both played the role of the scapegoat, the hated and maligned Other. We have both suffered brutal violence and struggled to maintain our cultural heritage and personal dignity in the face of institutionalized hostility. Does this shared historical experience make my Jewish rap somehow more legitimate than, say, my neighbor’s hypothetical WASP rap?

At issue here, clearly, is the question: Are Jews white? In a 1993 Village Voice article, “Jews Are Not White” (18 May 1993), Michael Lerner flatly asserts that they are not. He begins with the premise that in America, “to be ‘white’ means to be the beneficiary of the past 500 years of European exploration and exploitation of the rest of the world” (33). He then argues that only somebody with a severe case of amnesia, unable to remember the recent history of anti-Semitism, could put the Jews into this category. In her recent book, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America, anthropologist Karen Brodkin takes a more equivocal (and more sophisticated) approach to the question, arguing that at times Jews have been white and at other times they have been “not-quite-white.” Her premise is that whiteness is and has always been a shifting designation, one that has much more to do with social class than with skin color. In an analysis that is at once speculative and grounded in concrete data, she argues that the entitlements of whiteness are extended to specific groups at specific moments, and that the historical experiences of these groups cannot erase such undeniable social facts.

Brodkin begins by making an analytical distinction between “ethnoracial assignment” and “ethnoracial identity.” Ethnoracial assignments are imposed upon us by the outside world, articulated by the public culture and instituted by social policies. They are slots in a three-dimensional graph containing axes for race, class, and gender. Brodkin asserts that at least since the beginnings of slavery, this field of possible ethnoracial assignments in America has been inexorably divided by a central line separating “whiteness” from “nonwhiteness.” Ethnoracial identities, by contrast, are what we shape for ourselves once we’ve been assigned to one slot or another. They register our idiosyncratic reactions to the station we’re fated to inhabit.

Jews make for an illuminating case study of race in America because, according...

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