Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Jewish Roots and Routes of Anthropology1

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Jewish Roots and Routes of Anthropology1

Article excerpt

Does anthropology have "a Jewish problem"? Let us not be deceived by the fact that Mary Douglas's "The Abominations of Leviticus" is part of the contemporary canon of mainstream anthropology, or that Barbara Myerhoff's work has inspired and moved innovative scholars in anthropological folklore. Large numbers of American anthropologists come from Jewish families, yet very few have done any research or writing on Jews (Dominguez 1993:621-622).

Ten years after Virginia Dominguez questioned the existence of a "Jewish problem" in anthropology, the critically and ethnographically engaged study of Jews and Judaism is on the move. The rise of this new subfield has been marked by an increase in networking sessions, conference panels, and publications, as well as a host of new undergraduate courses and doctoral projects devoted to Jewish topics. Even more recently, this phenomenon has moved from the margins to the center of the discipline. In his 2002 William A. Douglass distinguished Lecture for the Society of the Anthropology of Europe, "History, Memory and Remembering," Johannes Fabian addressed at considerable length the topic of Jewish experience. The significance of such a distinguished anthropologist shifting his focus from Africa to Jewish culture was well-received by Europeanists, was inspiring for advocates of the anthropology of Jews and judaism, and was further evidence that the study of Jewish culture has finally secured a place at the very heart of anthropology.

Despite these long overdue developments, for many who have contributed to the anthropology of Jews and Judaism, Dominguez's question remains largely unanswered. This is because the Jewish problem in anthropology is not merely a question of culture areas, but a multifaceted discourse on anthropology's own cultural biography. Historically, anthropology has always been of two minds when it comes to Jews and Judaism. Anthropologists have often shown a keen interest in the Jewishness of their intellectual ancestors even as they have remained cautiously ambivalent towards the study of Judaism as an ethnographic pursuit, a hesitancy resulting from unease with ethnographic subjects not contained by discrete geographic spaces (Fabian 1983:19; Boyarin 1992: 58-61).

In the abstract for a recent scholarly panel titled "A Jewish Science?" (American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 2002), Matti Bunzl observed:

Since its modern codification...our discipline has been rumored to be a "Jewish science." For some practitioners and commentators, this has been a cause for anthropology's celebration, while others have commented on the discipline's purported Jewishness with a certain degree of skepticism and even disdain. Whether partisan or seemingly objective, self-consciously philosemitic or the function of casual anti-Semitism, the persistent discourse on anthropology's Jewishness has rarely taken the form of sustained critical engagement. Instead, it has been confined to such informal settings as conference gossip, hallway conversations, and graduate seminars (Bunzl 2002:40)

Picking up where Dominguez left off, Bunzl argues that the Jewish problem exists as a "persistent discourse" on the backstage of anthropological practice. What remains to be scrutinized of anthropology's "Jewish problem" is not the exclusion of Jews and Judaism from the list of viable ethnographic topics, but the absence of critical debate on exactly how anthropology treats the Jewishness in its own history. What I have often perceived as a kindly fascination with the Jewish identity of anthropologists continues to be expressed, even as the ethnographic base on Jewish culture pushes towards a critical mass. Accordingly, in this paper I address the question of how anthropology thinks about the Jewishness of anthropologists. How does anthropology inquire after and discuss the Jewishness of its ancestors? Is the idea of a "Jewish identity" historically and theoretically sound, and is it relevant to the question of anthropology's Jewish roots? …

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