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  • A Response from BRYAN CHEYETTE
  • Bryan Cheyette

There is a sports mantra in Britain that football coaches often use to describe their team's inconsistent performance during a soccer match. Invariably they speak of a "game of two halves" when what they mean is that the match was hopelessly disjointed. I was reminded of this mantra when reading Michael Kramer's "Race, Literary History, and the 'Jewish' Question," which is par excellence an "essay of two halves." On the one hand, he contributes to an understanding of Jewish literary history with particular regard to the racial definition of Jewish culture as conceived by the proponents of Wissenschaft Judaism. Kramer's observation that in formulating Jewish literature beyond Rabbinical texts the Wissenschaft scholars "re-discovered the Jewish race" is important, although we still need a more nuanced consideration of what is meant by "race" in these terms. But what I find genuinely puzzling about the essay is that, rather than focus on the historical reading of Wissenschaft Judaism (which would surely bear further study), Kramer instead wishes to suggest that nineteenth-century race-thinking is an "essential precondition" for a reading of modern Jewish literature. This precondition, it seems to me, is entirely dubious and is a false universalization of a founding moment in Jewish historiography.

One of the strengths of much postwar Jewish literary and historical research, in line with much related work in other disciplines, is precisely its rootedness in time and place. At its best, this minimalist approach offers a nuanced and culturally specific reading of literature and history that enables the reader to reconsider the grand narratives of the past. I much prefer such minimalism to an earlier maximalism that, as Kramer shows with regard to Wissenschaft Judaism, aimed to encompass "the world." Kramer's insistence that "the force of Wissenschaft thought is felt" today does not just refer to the centrality of race-thinking, although this is problematic enough, but it also assumes a return to nineteenth-century maximalist modes of thought. The question of race is not, of course, unrelated to such maximalism even though Kramer disingenuously reduces his definition of race to mere genealogy or "biological descent." Together with such careful circumscription, however, is an oft-sounded note of triumphalism that assumes that race has remained unchanged for the past two centuries and has influenced everyone from [End Page 322] Leopold Zunz to Saul Bellow. The result is an argument that is both too narrow and too generalized.

The rather grandiose contention about the primacy of race is seen to be especially fragile when we are told that "we cannot escape race, not if we insist on a category called 'Jewish literature.' " Quite who is doing the insistence at this point is not clear. What is clear is that a timeless notion of race is inherent in the maximalist question "What is Jewish Literature?" and that, in these reductive terms, race and Jewish literature become tautologous. But the point is that Wissenschaft maximalism is not a model that should be emulated as it results in two forms of abstraction that still bear the trace of German romantic idealism. Firstly, by detaching race from its foundation-stone, the nation-state, it becomes a dangerously free-floating category removed from any real context. Nowhere is the link between race and actual nation-states made in the essay but rather we have references throughout to an imaginary "Jewish people." This seems a rather odd lacuna, given the fact that race in the nineteenth century functioned above all within the structures of newly formed nation-states. The second related abstraction is the refusal to qualify the term "Jewish literature" in any way. There are figures cited, such as Dan Miron, who rightly resist the false unification inherent in the term "Jewish literature" as opposed to, say, French-Jewish or American-Jewish literature. I agree with Miron and would argue further that a more fruitful discussion would explore the ways in which these double-voiced literatures have always been uncategorizable and irreducible to a single Jewish or national voice.

In the end Kramer's essay highlights a fundamental split, which looks likely to continue, between totalizing and monolithic versions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3311
Print ISSN
0272-9601
Pages
pp. 324-327
Launched on MUSE
2001-09-01
Open Access
No
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