Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought


Exploring how visual media presents claims to Jewish authenticity, Imagining Jewish Authenticity argues that Jews imagine themselves and their place within America by appealing to a graphic sensibility. Ken Koltun-Fromm traces how American Jewish thinkers capture Jewish authenticity, and lingering fears of inauthenticity, in and through visual discourse and opens up the subtle connections between visual expectations, cultural knowledge, racial belonging, embodied identity, and the ways images and texts work together.


In the 1960s and 1970s, the makers of Levy’s Rye Bread ran their now recognizable poster campaign of Native, Chinese, Irish, Asian, and African Americans zealously devouring their leavened product. Levy’s slogan—“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s!”—utilized the presumed knowledge that some Americans do not look Jewish. These Americans could certainly enjoy Jewish cuisine, but they could not become what they ate. Yet to Toni Eisendorf, then a young adult living in New York City, these advertisements offered a very different vision of Jewish identity. When asked to explain her attraction to Judaism after negotiating various Christian and public schools as a youth, Toni recalled the visual impact of Levy’s advertisement campaign:

The first ad I saw, in a subway station, had a little Black boy. I remember seeing
this ad, and the way I interpreted it was that you don’t have to be White to be
Jewish. That made me feel so good for some reason. I actually felt relieved.

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, in her The Colors of Jews, retells Eisendorf’s story within her own account of a multiracial Judaism. For Kaye/Kantrowitz, Toni helpfully disentangles the black–white binary that too often situates black on the other side of Jewish experience, just as it presumes a white Jewish identity. But one need not read Eisendorf’s story as political commentary, or even as a “feel so good” narrative of belonging to recognize the confluence of visual clues and claims to authenticity. Eisendorf sees a more genuine Jewish presence in Levy’s poster campaign, and so reveals how visual authenticity works in the American Jewish imaginary.

This book tells a story about how Jews imagine authenticity by deploying images in texts, by appealing to visual metaphors, and by exploring how Jews ought to see the world, physical objects, and their bodies. I trace how American Jewish thinkers capture Jewish authenticity in and through visual discourse. But this critical project of recovery does not mean I wish to endorse any one form of authenticity, much less Jewish authenticity. This book is definitively not a normative project of that kind. It is, however, a project to retrieve the visual models deployed by some Jewish thinkers of the past one hundred years. Eisen-

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