How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America
Dinnerstein, Leonard, Shofar
How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America, by Karen Brodkin. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998. 243 pp. $18.00 (p).
I wish that the insights and analyses in Brodkin' s volume were as sparkling and imaginative as her title. Alas, they are not. Karen Brodkin, a professor of anthropology at the University of California (Los Angeles), has tried to trace how Jews traversed the line from being outsiders to becoming insiders. She has combed most of the published works on the subject of Jews, acculturation, assimilation, gender-based experiences and limitations, and institutionalized racism and its decline in the United States since 1945. Her conclusions are that Jews wanted to become part of the mainstream in the United States, but when they did, many of them were ambivalent rather than comfortable with their new status. Moreover, she focuses especially on the complexities with which Jewish women had to contend. Her explorations into why and how Jews tried to "create a Jewish ethnoracial identity" has led her to vast generalizations about white ethnic immigrant experiences and the so-called desires of Jews. These contain many truths, but they also ignore the fact that different European groups brought their own cultural values with them to the New World and that these helped shape both their experiences and development.
Brodkin's assessments and analyses repeat what most educated people already know. We are informed that it is, and always has been, better to be white, male, and Protestant in the United States than it is (was) to be a person of color (or one who, regardless of color, is nonetheless regarded as "non-white"), female, and non-Protestant. We are also instructed about other historical experiences which no educated person today would dispute: only a small minority of immigrants and their children benefited from public education at the rum of the century, women worked (and still work) for lower wages than men, the American government has engaged in racist, and malefocused, policies throughout its history, and societal and family values (often the same) dictate(d) adult choices for women and men.
Brodkin's knowledge of American history is scanty. She narrates how, after World War II, Jewish males crossed over the line, ceased being members of a minority group, and became "white." So far, so good. But Brodkin writes as if everything changed in the 1940s for Jews. She assumes, and this is only a partial truth, that mobility after the war "was due to programs that allowed us [white ethnics] to float on a rising economic tide" (p. 51). Her conclusion that "by the late 1940s . . . economic and social barriers to Jewish aspirations" in the United States had fallen away is unsubstantiated (p. 141). It would be more accurate to state that barriers to equality of opportunity were in the process of falling away at the end ofthat decade. …