- Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought by Ken Koltun-Fromm
In June of this year, Orthodox women in both Israel and the U.S. were effectively ordained as clergy; however, these female clerics will not necessarily be called “rabbi.” Some will be called “Rabbah” or “Maharat,” although Yeshivat Har’el actually uses the term rabbi or rabbah, which strongly suggests that Israeli Orthodoxy may have surpassed American Orthodoxy in its commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism. That a Jewish religious leader could be a woman—that the body of the rabbi could be female—appears to require more than the establishment of halakhic precedent. Merely envisioning the rabbinic body as female presents a formidable challenge.
This September, a MaNishtana article entitled, “High Holiday Safety for Jews of Color in NYC,” appeared in Tablet magazine. The author asked his fellow Jews to “remember that there are Jews of color—Jews who are a part of your community—who have to walk to synagogue shrouded in a feeling of worry over what might happen on the way to, or inside of, their own shul . . . rather than focusing on prayer and family.” MaNishtana reports that the heightened police presence around synagogues intended to protect American Jews during the High Holidays is in fact a source of profound anxiety for Jews of color, who “can find themselves followed into synagogues by police or at the wrong end of several cops’ guns just for being the “wrong” color of Jewish.” MaNishtana is not referring to the Hebrew Israelites, who in fact practice a form of Christianity developed in nineteenth-century America. He is recounting the experiences of Jews of color—Jews who read Torah and Talmud and are Shomer Shabbat, and whose families of origin were also observant Jews.
We need only recall the controversy surrounding the discovery of a potential “Cohenim Y chromosome marker” which appeared with similar frequency in both Jewish males of the Lemba tribe in Southern Africa and Jewish men of European descent, to verify MaNishtana’s assertion that, in the American imagination at least, [End Page 103] “real” Jewish people are “white people.” The image of the authentic, inherited, “unassimilated” yet decidedly “American” Jew (i.e., religiously observant but not “too” observant) is rarely openly acknowledged in these terms and yet nonetheless dominates American Jewish texts and imagery. While we may have only a rough outline of this Jew’s qualities and characteristics, we will most likely presuppose that the quintessential American Jew is white and male. He is also culturally and religiously Ashkenazi; and the success of Jewish life and practice in the U.S.—a country not without anti-Semitism, but in any case historically more amenable to religious observance in general—has created its own conundrums for these “white” Jews as well.
As its title suggests, Ken Koltun-Fromm’s latest offering, Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought, explores the ways in which American Jewish anxieties about authenticity are revealed through close reading of the interplay between texts and images in American Jewish texts, and how American Jewish discourses “materialize” or attempt to concretize authenticity in Jewish, gendered, and racial terms. The first half of this study uses Bernard Rosenblatt’s Social Zionism, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, Susie Fishbein’s Kosher By Design, and Betty Greenberg’s and Althea Silverman’s The Jewish Home Beautiful, to expose a deeply embedded anxiety regarding authenticity in American Jewish thought and practice. The latter half explores how various thinkers embody, or give visual form to Jewish authenticity, and here Koltun-Fromm turns to Michael Wyschogrod’s The Body of Faith, Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism, and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s The Colors of Jews, as representative of the ways in which American Jewish thought visualizes authentically Jewish bodies. He concludes his study with a brief analysis of American Haggadoth, including Nathan Englander’s recent innovative effort.
Koltun-Fromm’s methodological and theoretical approaches to assessing and defining “authenticity” with regard to American Judaism and...