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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 419-420
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In The Jewish Self-Image in the West, Michael Berkowitz sets out to explore the "internal Jewish visual discourse" which European, British, and American Jews employed to produce a "'core' of ethnicity" (pp. 14, 22). To this end, Berkowitz turns to some of the most famous images of Jews produced by Jews in the fifty years that bracketed the turn of the twentieth century. In the process, he seeks to offset the overemphasis on images of Jews produced by non-Jews--and, in particular, anti-Semitic literature--that has marked the study of modern Jewries.
At the heart of this work is a consideration of how images narrated and shaped the development of Jewish party politics between the crucial years of 1881 and 1939. Centered further still is the self-presentation of Zionism--what Berkowitz calls the "most international and cohesive of late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century Jewish movements" (p. 94). Of the 105 images reproduced in The Jewish Self-Image in the West, the vast majority depict Zionist thinkers: twenty feature Theodore Herzl, Zionism's favorite poster-child.
The vast majority of images Berkowitz relies on are photographic portraits. More often than not, these are treated as one dimensional representations of the (mostly) men they depict. As a result, much of this work reads as a stream of biographical information. In the process, questions of genre are left aside: why was Herzl so often depicted in profile? Why did the Jewish left rely on photography less heavily than the Zionist movement? To what extent do the images produced by Jews echo and interact with those produced by non-Jews of the same era, city, region, artistic or political school? These looming questions are, perhaps, indicative of a larger problematic; in The Jewish Self- Image in the West, Berkowitz's prose often seems strangely alienated from the images printed alongside. Indeed, the images he employs often feel more like illustrations than archival matter. Thus both canonical and curious features are neglected, while the means by which these images were produced, distributed, and consumed are little referenced. Even the year, city, or studio in which particular images were produced is noted only rarely.
Berkowitz often exhibits creativity in the selection of his images. While the vast majority of images reproduced in The Jewish Self-Image in the West are photographic portraits, Berkowitz also turns to postcards and New Year's cards, wrappers from commercial packages, reproductions [End Page 419] of etchings and oils, newspaper covers, and photo montages. And in addition to observing political thinkers, Berkowitz turns to photographs of prominent Jewish athletes, scenes from rallies, protests, and party congresses.
All this notwithstanding, the Jewish self, and, for that matter, the West, are for Berkowitz narrow categories indeed. Of the many faces depicted in The Jewish Self- Image in the West, only five are female: and one of these is Eleanor Roosevelt (Lillian Wald, Rebecca D. Sieff, Henrietta Szold, and Jeanette Herzl round out the category). An additional handful of images depict observant Jews: of these, two appear in nostalgic paintings by Hermann Struck and the remaining three are introduced because of their support or hostility to Zionism. Only one Sephardic Jew, Rabbi Moses Gaster, is included, because he was "one of the impressive, cultured rabbis at the early Zionist Congresses" (p. 45). Meanwhile, Berkowitz presents us with no images of children, families, homes, places of work or worship: indeed, no more than a few images that do not return to Jewish party politics in one way or another. These limitations are, perhaps, the subject of another volume altogether. But they also suggest that Berkowitz's theoretical reach may be more ambitious than warranted. A more modest articulation of goals might have permitted his expertise to shine more brightly.
Perhaps Berkowitz's most provocative suggestion is that late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jews of Western and Eastern European, Britain, and the United...