Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century

Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century

Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century

Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century

Synopsis

European Jews, argues Iris Idelson-Shein, occupied a particular place in the development of modern racial discourse during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Simultaneously inhabitants and outsiders in Europe, considered both foreign and familiar, Jews adopted a complex perspective on otherness and race. Often themselves the objects of anthropological scrutiny, they internalized, adapted, and revised the emerging discourse of racial difference to meet their own ends.

Difference of a Different Kind explores Jewish perceptions and representations of otherness during the formative period in the history of racial thought. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including philosophical and scientific works, halakhic literature, and folktales, Idelson-Shein unfolds the myriad ways in which eighteenth-century Jews imagined the "exotic Other" and how the evolving discourse of racial difference played into the construction of their own identities. Difference of a Different Kind offers an invaluable view into the ways new religious, cultural, and racial identities were imagined and formed at the outset of modernity.

Excerpt

There is an amusing scene in V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, in which Ralph Singh, a Caribbean immigrant in London, describes his impression of his English landlord, Mr. Shylock: “For Mr. Shylock … I had nothing but admiration. I was not used to the social modes of London or to the physiognomy and complexions of the North, and I thought Mr. Shylock looked distinguished…. He had the habit of stroking the lobe of his ear and inclining his head to listen. I thought the gesture was attractive; I copied it. I knew of recent events in Europe; they tormented me; and … I offered Mr. Shylock my fullest, silent compassion.”

Naipaul’s portrayal of the enthusiastic young immigrant, who has his heart set on becoming a true Englishman, is, of course, ripe with irony. But there is also something unsettling in this description; as we, the readers, cannot help but notice that Singh’s object of admiration is not a true Englishman at all, one graced with “the physiognomy and complexions of the North.” Rather, Singh’s landlord is a Jew, and not just any Jew at that, but one named after the archetypical “ugly Jew” of English literature—Shakespeare’s Shylock. Indeed, the man Singh is trying to mimic in order to become an authentic Englishman is in himself a “mimic man.” the irony inherent in the situation reaches its climax toward the end of the paragraph, with Singh’s implied reference to the Shoah. Here, the tables are suddenly turned, and the Jewish landlord’s mimicry assumes center stage, announcing itself most clearly.

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