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48 SHOFAR Summer 1996 Vol. 14, No.4 IMAG(IN)ING EACH OTHER: BlACKS AND JEWS IN RECENT LITERATURE by Ethan Gofl"man Ethan Goffman is a graduate student in English specializing in contemporaryAmerican literature at Indiana University. He has previously edited and written for Dissent and Contact II magazines. Portions of this article will appear in his dissertation. In a time of media excess and strained rhetoric, it's aU too easy to reduce relations between Jews and Mrican-Americans to a ruthless narrative of confrontation. The reality is far more complex; the two peoples envision and interpret each other in an intricate array offormatswritten , spoken, visual, and· musical-and, of course, through individual encounters. Much gOQdwill remains from the distant-seeming days of the 1960s, when the Black-Jewish alliance created a new legal dispensation toward minorities. One genre which exhibits the multidimensional nature ofJewish-Black relations, in an admittedly fragmented and unrepresentative fashion, is recent literature. The three works discussed here,1 published during a heated period in which Jewish support of Affirmative Action has faltered while anti-Jewish rhetoric from the Nation of Islam materializes on the evening news, demonstrate the complexity of BlackJewish dialogue. BothJewish and Mrican-American authors cultivate-while altering-a humanistic literary tradition using techniques designed to probe a variety of consciousnesses. ~riginatingin a White, male-centered Europe that used notions of "liberal humanism," of the "Great Tradition," in a myopic, exclusionary fashion, these techniques in the hands of women, of a widening national, ethnic and racial spectrum, tend toward the contrary. 'Lore Segal, Her First Americarl (New York: Knopf, 1985); John Edgar Wideman, "Valaida," in Fever (New York: Penguin, 1989), pp. 27-40; and Gloria Naylor, Bailey's Cafe (New York: Vintage, 1992, 1993). Blacks andJews in Recent Literature 49 The individual consciousness, which Western literary tradition emphasizes, becomes a tool of liberation. Intense explorations of the Self, of various selves, counteract ethnocentrism, breaking down suppositions and stereotypes, generating a widening sympathy as their use extends. literature gives voice to a Babe1lbabble, a disarray of voices, becoming a tool for understanding, building a network of mutuality. Racial and ethnic movements, to avoid a breakdown into warring entities defined by narrow boundaries, call for some common language which acknowledges also particular cultural worth. A primal symbol of the historical failure of liberal humanism to provide such a voice-to escape its Eurocentric origins-is the Nazi Holocaust. The ur-site of European "civilization" bred the most intense, mechanized slaughter-the greatest number of victims in the shortest timespan-in history. The Holocaust looms surprisingly large in these three works, a crucial yet contested symbol, ambiguous and often contradictory in the way it shapes BlackJewish relations. Huge and incomprehensible, the Holocaust is endowed with meaning by Jewish and Mrican-American thinkers to suit their own ideologies. It may be a touchstone of similarity, of the common miseries which Blacks and Jews have suffered; ·as James Baldwin argues in 1962: If one is pennitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used! Biddwin articulates the unity of racialist ideology; to him the Holocaust is simply the ultimate version of what Blacks, among other peoples, have already undergone. This argument remains open to the charge of trivializing the Holocaust, of simplifying hatred into a single phenomenon. The converse argument, that the Holocaust is beyond compare to any other historical event, essentializes it. What meaning has the phrase "never again" if the Holocaust is an unreplicable event? And what application has study and remembrance of the Holocaust to non-Jews if only Jews may suffer such a crime? Between Jews and Blacks, this approach leads to a game of comparative suffering, in which each group attempts to define itself as history's ultimate victim. The two peoples may be bound so much by their own belief-systems...


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