- Guest Editors’ Introduction
The hyphenated phrase in our title, “Jewish-Muslim Crossings,” might seem surprising given that, according to institutional perspectives in U.S. and international politics, Jews and Muslims bear constitutively antagonistic religions and incommensurable identities. Certainly Jews and Muslims have crossed in the Americas, but the hyphen suggests something a little different, a crossing that is simultaneously a combining, or perhaps an encounter that is overdetermined by some prior encounter and mutual constitution. This special issue considers a literary and cultural history in the Americas of Jews and Muslims, two identities originating in Spain, Portugal, and the Middle East and North Africa, with complex stories of cohabitation and cultural overlaps. The post-1492, post-exilic reformations of Jewish communities in the Muslim world as well as the Iberian and other European conceptions of Jewish-Muslim identities and crossings have all been exported, displaced, and re-signified in the Americas, with considerable literary, cultural, and political consequences, all of which have been largely ignored in U.S. Jewish Studies. The issue seeks to remedy this gap and change the terms through which Jewishness and Jewish-Muslim identities are typically discussed.
JEWS AND MUSLIMS, CROSSING
For most of Jewish history, being Jewish involved some kind of engagement with other ethnicities, religions, or cultures, while maintaining an often difficult coexistence with a dominant sovereign, imperial, or national identity. And for nearly half of the world’s Jews, that remains true. This fact alone poses a challenge to the periodic attempts by Jewish Studies scholars to consolidate histories, cultural biographies, or literary canons of “the Jews,” and, indeed, scholars are increasingly [End Page 2] identifying Jewish synchronic relations—lateral relations of Jews with others in the place and time wherein they live—as the more salient or at least documentable way to understand Jewishness, in contrast to the constrained diachronic accounts that seek to chart some consistently Jewish subject persistent over a long period of time. Still, for all the increase in a salutary refraction of the identity “Jewish,” the study of Jewish American literature has only just begun to explore the “interethnic imagination” involved in being Jewish, while the plurality of national origins remains significantly understudied.1
Specifically, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish literatures and cultures are considerably and consistently disregarded or relegated to discussions of early American Jewish writing from the period when the preponderance of Jewish settlers to the continent had Sephardic origins. The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, for instance, largely confines Sephardic writing to its opening section, “The Literature of Arrival, 1654–1880,” and the story it tells about Sephardim in its prefatory materials suggests Sephardic literature all but disappeared after what it calls “The Great Tide.”2 Similarly, the otherwise diverse and eclectic volume Jewish in America answers its opening question—what does it mean to be Jewish in America?—with almost no consideration for the experiences, not to mention the art and culture of, Sephardim and other Middle Eastern and North African Jews.3 The sole exception is Richard Kostelanetz’s essay “Sephardic Culture and Me,” which laments the paucity of representation of Sephardi authors in Jewish anthologies, but which follows up with the simple suggestion that “Sephardic Jews” place “lesser value … on advanced education,” and the anecdotal observation that “many American Sephardim grew up in houses devoid of books.”4 No New York Intellectuals, Kostelanetz’s Sephardim have no place in the oft-told, celebratory story of Jewish American assimilation and achievement or its literature and culture.5
At a moment when prevailing accounts of Jewishness are gravitationally absorbed by the black hole that is the Zionism/BDS debate, now more than ever we need to track those understudied Jewish identities and experiences heretofore beyond notice but illuminating upon observation. Taking up that task in her critique of Zionism, Parting Ways (2012), Judith Butler makes a series of salutary claims about the diversity of Jewish geographies, undermined only by her failure to play them out across the course of her argument.6 Celebrating Said’s observation in Freud and the Non-European that “Moses, an Egyptian, is the founder of the Jewish people,” Butler posits, “Judaism is...