- Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron Hahn Tapper
With its challenging title, this book asks us to deal with the construction and deconstruction of Jewish identity in the light of feminism, queer theory, pluralism and other fairly recent developments in Jewish and general history. The author is an academic in the San Francisco Bay area, and the book is intended to serve as a college textbook for introductory university courses. There are references to the Internet, where the lengthy notes appear. This is clearly a textbook for the digital age.
Glossy and full of color pictures, the book is quite readable. It presents a multi-disciplinary approach to the material and a "postmodern, deconstructionist approach to human identities" (p. 7). The chapter titles are non-conventional and rather creative: Narratives, Sinais, Zions, Genocides, Powers, Borders and Futures, and so forth.
Both in the written text and in the pictures (including the photo of the late Dr. Bonna Haberman on the cover), Hahn Tapper stresses the changes that have revolutionized the status of Jewish women and the impact they have had in various settings, as well as "gendered, sexed and sexualized Jewish identities" (p. x). He is interested in debunking lots of commonly held ideas and stories we might have been taught, and he spends almost seven pages clarifying what is meant by "narrative" before introducing some Jewish narratives. Each chapter is introduced by a personal anecdote of his own. Hahn Tapper feels that the teaching of Jewish history has been dominated by one central Ashkenazi narrative, and he therefore spends a great deal of time on more exotic, even tiny Jewish communities throughout the world. He appears to be a good teacher, explaining difficult concepts and providing lots of examples—although a total beginner might need a knowledgeable teacher like the author to make adequate use of this book, with all of its detail and complexity.
As a teacher myself, who often gives introductory courses on Judaism to groups of non-Jews and who shares Hahn Tapper's penchant for text study, I really wanted to like this book. But I couldn't. To explain why, I will go, as we say in Hebrew, "from the light to the weighty." [End Page 184]
First, the book is full of typos (e.g., "Caucuses" for "Caucasus"—p. 48) and other mistakes (John is not one of the Synoptic Gospels—p. 144). It is not correct to characterize Glückel of Hamelin as a "female leader and scholar" (p. 89); she was a diarist and a businesswoman. Nor can the nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine be called a "contemporary" of the eighteenth-century German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (p. 145), who died eleven years before Heine was born. Similarly, Wissenschaft des Judentums is a nineteenth, not an eighteenth-century phenomenon (ibid.). Once in the text and twice in the notes, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler is called "Fielder."
Notwithstanding its international aspirations, the book is very focused not only on the contemporary U.S., but, indeed, on the San Francisco Bay area (see the note in the box on p. 10 and the story on p. 218). Some readers may find it jarring that, immediately after a fairly lengthy discussion of mysticisms, ending with a quotation on the centrality of the Kabbalah in Judaism by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (identified only as a "scholar," a term equally applied to Roman Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly), the next chapter, on cultures, opens with the song "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" (by Jewish composer Irving Berlin) and a Hanukkah bush.
Hahn Tapper's mission to correct the problem of Ashkenazi bias leads him to ignore as important a part of Jewish culture as Yiddish language and literature—probably more relevant to American college students than the Jews of Kaifeng—notwithstanding the significance of Yiddish to the expression of non-religious and non-Zionist Jewish identities in both North America and Europe. This same anti-Ashkenazi counter-bias...