- Borrowed Voices: Writing & Racial Ventriloquism in the Jewish American Imagination by Jennifer Glaser
What does it mean for American Jewish writers to perform non-Jewish identities on the literary stage? In Borrowed Voices: Writing and Racial Ventriloquism in the Jewish American Imagination, Jennifer Glaser provides powerful close readings of post-1967 American Jewish literature, film, and other media, with careful attunement to voice and how writers imagine themselves into otherness. The book is a valuable contribution to Jewish studies, particularly for anyone interested in thinking through race, class, and gender as they are co-constituted across different minority groups in America. This nuanced work addresses the complex ethical valences of speaking "for" the other, with all of the attendant fraught politics that entails.
Glaser traverses this terrain in five thematic chapters that are loosely chronological, but also very clearly thematic. Chapter One, "The Politics [End Page 444] and Poetics of Speaking the Other," includes an extended analysis of Bernard Malamud's The Tenants. Glaser pivots from this to an examination of Jewish American women writing race—and, in particular, the complexities of interracial marriage—in Chapter Two. "The Perils of Loving in America"—with vivid analysis of works by Hettie Jones, Lore Segal, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz—is one of the strongest chapters in the work, providing fresh readings that challenge the reader to take into account not only race and ethnicity, but also gender, class, and a host of other intersections, as Glaser deftly unpacks the ways that discussions of intermarriage become signposts for a host of other tensions. To wit, her observation on literary depictions of intermarriage: "If . . . the figure of the Jewish converso is the ultimate trope of modernity, Jewish intermarriage, intimately related to conversion in its subtle undermining of fixed identity categories, might be called its postmodern grandchild. It is also, for the writers I have discussed, a means of claiming a voice through acts of racial ventriloquism and intimacy" (61). Glaser is a deft interpreter of these sorts of displacements.
In Chapter 3, "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Holocaust," she considers the stakes of 1970s literature via Cynthia Ozick's "The Mercenary" and Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. Glaser then moves into the 1980s and 1990s in "The Jew in the Canon and the Culture Wars," with particular attention to Roth's The Human Stain, and then crosses over into the new millennium in "Race, Indigeneity, and the Topography of Diaspora," which includes a particularly compelling analysis of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's Munich (2005), along with readings of Ben Katchor's graphic novel The Jew of New York and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007). Part of the tremendous utility of Glaser's rich work is the inclusion of a diverse range of media, including literature, film, and graphic novels. She builds a compelling case for her claim that speaking the self through the other is a vital thread shot through over half a century of Jewish American cultural productions.
Glaser is at her strongest when reading "multidirectionally," a mode that builds upon and extends earlier work by Michael Rothberg in his Multidirectional Memory (2009). One of the best things about Borrowed Voices is the myriad directions in which it bends, encompassing not just the well-trod territory of reading across Ashkenazi Jewish and black Christian experiences, but also examining works that fold in attention to East and South Asia, to Native Americans, and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other examples.
In a striking coda, Glaser reminds us that "race doesn't have to exist for it to matter greatly to those who claim or reject their racial identities [End Page 445] . . . Jewish writers' urge to speak the self through the other—to ventriloquize—functions as a powerful reminder that we become who we are only in relation to others." (147). Although scholarship obviously exists on many of the texts examined in Borrowed Voices, Glaser's work provides a fresh, original contribution through...