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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 156-159



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How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says About Race in America. By Karen Brodkin. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998. xi + 241 pp.

This is an excellent book in many ways. It makes an extremely important contribution to the study of American Jewish history and beyond. Brodkin offers a highly developed analysis of how the category [End Page 156] of Jews came to be equated with the category of "White" in the United States since World War II. To do so, she also explains how racial categorization worked prior to that time, so that previously Jews were not considered properly within the boundaries of Whiteness and its privileges. As the subtitle suggests, Brodkin engages in this examination not only by drawing on the literature of critical race theory more broadly, but so that she can also say something about racial formation and racialization in the U.S. beyond the case study of Jews.

Brodkin's work is part of an interdisciplinary effort to conceptualize identity politically. In particular, the work is situated within a discourse and political movement which understands that not only do we all have multiple identities, but that these multiple identities are mutually constitutive of one another. First, this means that one is not simply a man, or a Jew, or working class, or bisexual: one is all of these. Second, the framework within which Brodkin is working and developing is one in which these multiple signifiers of identity are interrogated for the ways that each aspect actually constitutes the others. In this view, the gender of Jewish men and Jewish women, for example, becomes explicitly "Jewed." The ethnoracial construction of Jewishness is gendered; it is sexed; and it is classed. Brodkin's work would have benefitted greatly if she had held sexuality and sexual orientation in the complex more fully with her integrative critique of the race/ethnicity, class, and gender of a shifting Jewish identity in the U.S. Nevertheless, she makes an important contribution to the race/gender/class literature for Jewish studies and from within the historical experience of Jews to the broader race, class, gender discussion. This book will become a significant resource for those able to push (and therefore in many ways probably redefine) the analysis with the insights of queer studies.

Brodkin provides a helpful tool by distinguishing between what she calls ethnoracial assignment and ethnoracial identity. Assignment refers to "the ways in which the dominant culture and popular understandings construct different categories of social and political beings," whereas identity, used in a political sense, refers "to a system of values and meaning shared within a community by which we measure ourselves as social actors" (p. 21). Brodkin critically examines the interplay between assignment and identity as it transformed over time and in relation to larger political phenomena in the U.S. The story she tells of this interplay provides valuable insight into the changing nature of Jewish identity in its ever mutating raced/gendered/classed formulations. Simultaneously, the story she tells provides valuable insight into the changing nature of the ethnoracial construction of off-Whites (those not quite White and not African) in U.S. history and how that (re)created the very (and [End Page 157] continually binary) categories of White and Black in this country over time.

In that move from the Jewish particular to the ethnoracial universal, Brodkin does at times conflate the two. For example, her history and therefore her theoretical structure remains primarily an East coast version. She would have enhanced her argument if she had been more self-conscious of how she was using the Jewish, also meaning predominantly East coast, case study to tease out a theory of racial formation. In a strange way, that I am certain the author did not intend, I wonder if Brodkin is replaying the Jews as the model minority myth which so disturbs her. To the degree that this might be so, it is not Brodkin's problem only. It...

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