Writing Jewish Culture: Paradoxes in Ethnography

Writing Jewish Culture: Paradoxes in Ethnography

Writing Jewish Culture: Paradoxes in Ethnography

Writing Jewish Culture: Paradoxes in Ethnography

Synopsis

Focusing on Eastern and Central Europe before WWII, this collection explores various genres of "ethnoliterature" across temporal, geographical, and ideological borders as sites of Jewish identity formation and dissemination. Challenging the assumption of cultural uniformity among Ashkenazi Jews, the contributors consider how ethnographic literature defines Jews and Jewishness, the political context of Jewish ethnography, and the question of audience, readers, and listeners. With contributions from leading scholars and an appendix of translated historical ethnographies, this volume presents vivid case studies across linguistic and disciplinary divides, revealing a rich textual history that throws the complexity and diversity of a people into sharp relief.

Excerpt

Paradoxes

Ethnography by its nature is a highly complex kind of writing. Ethnographers try to describe a culture using a specific scientific language, but they know the words they use may limit their readers’ understanding of that culture and betray the limitations of their own knowledge. Ethnographic writing is inevitably objective and subjective at the same time; the description of the alien reveals the self, whereas the seemingly familiar self emerges as alien and unknown. To use rhetorical and literary-critical terminology, ethnographic writing lends itself to ambivalences, contradictions, and aporias, or moments that give rise to philosophically systemic doubt. These aporias are at once epistemic—concerning the possibility of gaining knowledge—and aesthetic—concerning modes of imagination and narration, the effect of writing and art through various means of representation. Analyzing ethnographic texts consequently requires one to evaluate their success at empirical scholarly measurement and at aesthetic representation that evokes the ethnographer’s experience of seeing and listening by means of drawing and storytelling in multiple media.

This constellation of scholarly and literary questions is the starting point of this volume, which concerns ethnographic writings on the Jews produced between the late eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. When writers worked to describe Jews as a group, they produced powerful epis-

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