Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America

Article excerpt

How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says About Race in America. Karen Brodkin. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998. $18.00 soft cover. ISBN 081352590X.

In How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says About Race in America, Karen Brodkin uses tools from critical theory, anthropology, and personal experience to explore the impact of "whitening" on ethnic immigrant identity. Using her own family as a touchstone, Brodkin interrogates the relationship between racial assignment and identity formation. She argues that the dominant culture's impulse to categorize people into racial groups emerges out of capitalism's demand for a segmented labor force. Though individuals and groups can counter this oppressive force by forming distinctive identities, those very identities are formed under the limiting shadow of racial assignment. Brodkin is primarily interested in how racial assignment affected the political consciousness of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their descendants in the United States. Brodkin outlines a rough history of the Jews in America.

As immigrants, Eastern European Jews found themselves defined as "non-white." While their status as outsiders to the white American mainstream limited their social and political status, it also facilitated the development of a distinctive ethnic culture based on reciprocity. Jewish mutual benefit associations, labor unions, and community organizations were built around the idea that benefitting one member of the community benefitted the entire community. This same ideal of reciprocity allowed Jewish women to construct standards of femininity in sharp contrast to the American domestic idea. Most Jewish women and men measured femininity in ways that enabled women to be wage earners, family managers, and political citizens as well as wives, mothers and daughters.

According to Brodkin, Jewish intellectuals were a primary force behind the "whitening" of American Jews, a process that took firm root during the 1950s and 1960s. In the post World War II period, Jewish intellectuals reinvented Jewish immigrant culture, emphasizing its quintessentially "American" characteristics. …

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