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Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation.

Emily Miller Budick. Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. 263 pp. $59.95 cloth/$17.95 paper.

The complex relationship expressed in the phrase Black/Jewish relations is the subject of Emily Budick's Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation. This text is an important contribution to a growing corpus on a volatile subject that has generated studies in several disciplines. Spanning the political spectrum, these include: James Baldwin and Nat Hentoff, eds., Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (1969); Shlomo Katz, ed., Negro and Jew: An Encounter in America (1966); and, more recently, Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State (1993); Paul Berman, ed., Black and Jews: Alliances and Arguments (1994); and Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America (1995), as well as Jeffrey Melnick's A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song and Adam Newton's Facing Black and Jew: Literature as Public Space in Twentieth-Century America (1999). Budick's study offers fresh insight on the subject through an examination of the creative and critical work of several African American and Jewish American writers from the 1940s to the present.

In an America intolerant of racial or ethnic difference, Blacks and Jews have always been in competition for social and cultural space. Indeed, Budick argues, the "mutuality" that describes this relationship does not, as illustrated in Bernard Malamud's The Tenants, assure a "mutual" understanding or respect. Instead Blacks and Jews, whatever their purported similarities, are like two parallel lines which, in Budick's analysis, rarely meet in meaningful conversation. This is due to the way each group has used the other to construct its own distinct American identity. For their part, Jewish American writers of the early post-War period were unable or unwilling to recognize the African American as an American, first and foremost. As Budick rightly points out, what Ralph Ellsion rejects in Irving Howe and Stanley Hyman echoes what James Baldwin means by "stranger" in "Stranger in the Village": African American literature is not controlled by, but rather participates in, the creation of Western culture; the Afri can American is not the "stranger" in America. On the other side, Budick contends that African Americans' relationship to Jewish Americans has been affected by their encounter with Judaism through Christianity. Consequently when Ellison and Baldwin produce Old Testament-centered responses (such as Ellison's rejoinders to Howe or Baldwin's The Fire Next Time), their objective is to deliver black culture from Jewish and white Christian hands. Paradoxically then, the African American writer "becomes trapped into a position that is not autonomous or even distinctly his own."

Next, Budick carefully examines the conversation about race and racism to which the pages of Commentary and The Crisis were devoted during and after the Second World War. This section addresses the immediate consequences of the Holocaust on the discussion of "Black/Jewish relations." The error of drawing parallels between the European Jew's experience of the Holocaust and the African's experience of slavery is that it produces important distortions of each experience, best illustrated by Hannah Arendt's "Reflections on Little Rock" and Stanley M. Elkins's Slavery. This mutual mis-reading is further explored in the context of the post-War celebration of assimilation, integration, and liberalism. Here Budick considers the most vocal participants in the conversation: Harold Cruse on Zionism, Norman Podhoretz on "miscegenation," and James Baldwin on liberalism. Against this background, the following two chapters examine the Jewish American writer's use of black cultural materials to construct a secular Jewish Am erican identity and then scrutinize the African American writer's use of Jewish history and culture to establish and assert an African American identity.

Through the early post-War fiction of Lionel Trilling ("The Other Margaret") and H. J. Kaplan ("The Mohammadeans"), Budick considers the way Jewish American liberals used African Americans and their history to reconstruct a non-religious Jewish identity wherein the Jew becomes a symbol of transnational morality dedicated to the rights of the oppressed. This post-War Jewishness is made more visible through the "parallel" experience of African Americans. In this imaginative remaking of Jewish American identity two features of the liberal Jew's politics become apparent: "Jewishness" merges with the African American experience of race and racism, making it more race than faith; and this non-religious Jewishness illustrates the secular Jew's resistance to Zionism and, by extension, the state of Israel. A better illustration of this position is Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, in which the black character functions to construct a Jewish American identity and an Israeli identity, and it is implied that American Jews must resist the latter. But making the Jew the symbol of Western morality is, Budick argues, offensive "to Jewish populations (such as the Israeli population or religious community) who may believe that identity has to do with commitment rather than race, with specificity rather than with general humanistic value."

When, in several novels published in the past twenty years, African American writers refer to Jewish cultural or historical materials, Budick suggests that the line between acknowledgment and allusion and displacement and supersessionism is very fine indeed. Budick cites examples of this in Alice Walker's Meridian, Chester Himes's The Lonely Crusade, and Toni Morrison's Beloved and Song of Solomon. Although the larger project of Morrison's work may be historical recovery, it performs this recovery through a re-configuring of African American history that displaces white Christianity and, through Christianity, Judaism itself. The most obvious flaw here is that re-imagining African American history without Christianity and Judaism merely repeats the ethnic/religious displacement the novel condemns. Moreover, in this process Morrison's Song of Solomon works to displace the biblical Song of Solomon, thereby putting itself in conflict with Jewish as opposed to Christian or Judeo-Christian culture. This is a posit ion Budick finds particularly unwarranted, because until very recently "Jews (at least in Europe) occupied a position no less oppressed than that of African Americans." Here there is an important oversight in Budick's analysis. African American cultural expression is inextricably bound to Judeo-Christian culture. To truly achieve the larger goal of historical recovery, Morrison's Song depends on a knowledge of the biblical Song. And since the "Song of Songs" alludes to the love between a dark-skinned beauty and King Solomon, Morrison's Song of Solomon highlights African America's special relationship to the biblical Song of Solomon.

The relationship between Morrison's Song of Solomon and the biblical Song of Solomon also recapitulates the New Testament's relationship to the "Old" Testament. It is grounded in and dependent upon the other for meaning, in much the way the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans viewed their own relationship to contemporary Jews and other Christians. However much Christianity has attempted to erase Jews and Judaism from its narrative, its story cannot be told without them any more than the American story can be told without its African, Asian, European, and Native American daughters and sons. Budick's study affirms this throughout, but she sees the Black/Jewish expressions of ethnic and/or racial identity as a struggle for cultural dominance in which writers appropriate and displace each other's cultural materials. Budick's position in this discussion, as she reminds us, is influenced by her own complex identity as a Jewish, American, Israeli critic, and she acknowledges her biases with admirable candor. Indeed, it may be this complex identity that enables her to hear in the Black/Jewish literary conversation real efforts to silence rather than rhetorical posturing or signifying. It seems to me that Jewish historical and cultural materials are in no immediate danger of being displaced by African American writers. The making of Americans has been characterized by a conflicted "mutuality" that involves, in Eric Lott's memorable phrase, both "love and theft." Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation underscores this stunning irony; in one of the most heterogenous and syncretistic nations in the world, the belief in racial and/or ethnic purity continues to inform most discussions of American literature and culture. The great strengths of Emily Budick's study are the keen sensitivity and intelligence with which she discusses the many sides of a conversation that is itself rarely as instructive or wise.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Weiss, Lynn
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:1361
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