"Who's Jewish?" Some Asian-American Writers and the Jewish-American Literary Canon

By Freedman, Jonathan | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

"Who's Jewish?" Some Asian-American Writers and the Jewish-American Literary Canon


Freedman, Jonathan, Michigan Quarterly Review


While conversation becomes increasingly global and one's sense of space . . . unstable and fluid, we do not automatically all get delivered into the same world by the processes that globalize and hybridize us. Conversing across differences is the art we have to learn.

-Dipesh Chakrabarty

A few years ago, I started writing about Jewishness. This turn in my work was not due to a quest for a lost, more authentic identity, nor was it a sign of a midlife religious conversion. And, given the prevailing winds in the American academy, it was hardly a canny career move. Indeed, it was barely a turn at all-more of a sidelight in what I thought of as the real project, a study of the interplay between middlebrow and academic cultures. But as I began that work, I also started thinking about how oddly obsessed so much of fin-de-siecle American writing is with the figure of the Jew, and how odder still that critics, many of them Jewish, glossed over that fact. I started to give talks on these phenomena and received surprisingly positive responses, responses, in fact, more positive than any garnered by the work I was supposed to be doing. And so, being no fool, I dropped the middlebrow and started writing about Jews (which turned out to be more or less the same thing.)

The result was a book, The Temple of Culture, and along with it a newfound respect for the ability of Jewishness to unsettle my received ideas about everything, including, I found, me. For I discovered myself in the weird position of having an identity for the first time, at least as far as the '90s academy was concerned. Up until then, that is to say, I felt myself to be a fairly typical academic of the balding, bearded white-male variety. But I noticed gentile colleagues treating me with a slightly different attitude when I started to do this work, an attitude which one of them clarified one day as he was lamenting, in a fairly good-natured way, the problems his own sense of white privilege posed him in writing about matters of race. When I responded sympathetically, he looked at me and exclaimed "but ... you're Jewish!!" (I am still trying to figure out what this meant, but guess it must be something like, "you're OK-authentic, ethnic, 'real'-and, darn it, I'm still not.") And I found myself in an even more complicated position with fellow Jews. Whenever I give a talk now, for example, I anticipate hostile questions not from gentiles but from my co-religionists (fellow ethnics?), some of whom attack my understanding of Jewishness as an endlessly complicated, and constitutively complicating, muddle from the Right (what about the Holocaust? Anti-Semitism? Israel?) or the Left (what about Jewish racism? Jewish whiteness? Israel?).

None of this should be surprising to anyone except this Candide-like critic. But it does pose the question of what might logically follow from my interests and positions. For like many critics of my generation-regrettably, given the importance of the subject, too many of them being Jewish-I found that invoking the example of Jewishness enabled me to ask better questions about the issues that stand in the center of our professional, cultural, and social lives. After a generation of simply remarkable work in a number of fields-that, for example, of Sander Gilman, Daniel Boyarin, Jonathan Boyarin, David Biale, Bryan Cheyette, Paul Gilroy-it is or at least ought to be indisputable that Jewishness is inseparable from the ways we think about such crucial issues as sex, gender, race, populations, nations, otherness, cosmopolitanism, Diaspora. The logical next step is to extend this rich discursive matrix to a consideration of contemporary America. For the issues of our moment-how to negotiate an identity for yourself in the midst of social and cultural pressures to define you; what it is like to be ethnic (whatever that means) in a culture that is obsessed with race; how to think about an identity in terms that transcend the lineaments of the nation in which you live; what the relative claims of religion, culture, and community of origin might prove to be in a relentlessly individualistic society-these and more would seem to have deep and even renewed complexity when they are brought into explicit context with the theoretical, historical, and cultural conundrums raised by Jewishness. …

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