Introduction: Jews in Britain-Medieval to Modern

By Lavezzo, Kathy | Philological Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Jews in Britain-Medieval to Modern


Lavezzo, Kathy, Philological Quarterly


THIS SPECIAL ISSUE ORIGINATED IN A SYMPOSIUM ON "Jews in Britain: Medieval to Modern" sponsored by Philological Quarterly and the University of Iowa Hillel, as well as the University of Iowa departments of English, History, and Religious Studies. The one-day event, held on October 25, 2011, gathered scholars working in a range of historical periods to exchange insights about changes and continuities regarding the image of the Jew in England from the Anglo-Saxon period into the long twentieth century. The deeply informative nature of the symposium, along with the enthusiastic and highly positive response of audience members to the event, prompted my co-organizer, Alvin Snider, then the editor of PQ, and me to pursue the prospect of a special issue devoted to the topic. This volume contains expanded versions of all but one of the papers delivered at the symposium as well as one new essay. (1)

In devoting a special issue to images of Jews in England, PQ participates in a trend that extends back at least as far as Montegu Frank Modder's The Jew in the Literature of England (1939). (2) Since Montegu published his book, several broad historical surveys on the topic have emerged, most recently Anthony Julius's Trials of the Diaspora (2010). (3) And the last twenty-five years have witnessed an outpouring of more focused and often historicist work on Jews and English literature and culture. Rarely, though, has a single volume contained sustained and focused analyses of cultural artifacts created during widely disparate periods in English history, with the notable exception of Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller's anthology, Jewish Presences in English Literature (1990). (4) Cohen and Heller's volume focused on the depiction of Jews in major canonical English texts penned by gentiles, and aimed to dispel the antisemitic myths promulgated in those works. (5) In contrast, this special issue contains analyses of not only canonical literary works but also less familiar texts, along with images of Jews in other cultural forms, especially visual art and drama. Moreover, this volume contains articles analyzing not only gentile but also Jewish constructions of the Jew in England as well as Anglo-America.

In the pages that follow, I provide an overview of some key aspects of scholarship on the topic produced over the last twenty-five years. Of course, a relatively short introduction such as this cannot provide an exhaustive account of recent work on Jews and English literature and culture, thanks to the wide variety and high quantity of that scholarship, as well as its often nuanced and sophisticated nature. Forsaking any hope at full coverage, then, this introduction selectively touches on some of the more crucial insights claimed and methodologies employed in work on Jews in pre-World War II English literature and culture, and then turns to the contributions made by the contributors in this special issue.

On the question of the image of Jews in English culture and society, one thing seems certain: a radical and unresolvable uncertainty informs gentile representation. Arguably the foremost theorist of "the protean instability of 'the Jew'" in English literature is Bryan Cheyette. (6) Inspired in part by Robert Casillo's work during the late 1980s on Ezra Pound and antisemitism, Cheyette has shed light on the multiplicity and heterogeneity of images of the Jew within an English culture where imagined Jews "occupy an incommensurable number of subject positions which traverse a range of contradictory discourses." (7) Cheyette refers here to a particular moment in literary history, that of modernist writing from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Focusing on the ambivalent construction of the Jew as both possessed of a "transformable cultural Hebraism" and "as an unchanging racial other," Cheyette analyzes how Jews served as powerful and telling indicators in modernist texts "of the impossibility of fully 'knowing' anything. …

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