Filming identity in the Jewish American postwar; or, on the uses and abuses of periodization for Jewish Studies.
This article takes the postwar period in the US (from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s) as represented by a handful of canonical films--both of the era and since--as an opportunity to argue for a critical Jewish Studies-based analysis of periodization. It illustrates the need in Jewish Studies to mount a sustained critique of the concept of identity that anchors its professional practices. Questions about identity are too often asked as questions about culture as the naturalized predicate of a population, and this tendency underlies and supports a dominant historicist approach in Jewish American Studies that suppresses critical alternatives. Through a series of close readings--of The Jazz Singer (1927), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), The Pawnbroker (1964), Liberty Heights (1999), and Inglorious Basterds (2009)--this paper instead proposes that we deploy a critical history of the concept of Jewish American identity--rather than a history of an empirical subject we take for granted as American Jewry--to destabilize the logic of periodization underlying the historicist self-evidence of Jewish identity.
Back in the 1980s, when Cultural Studies was professionally consolidating itself in response to Thatcherite and Reaganite neoliberalism, the key cultural-critical question was often something like: Why are questions about culture always articulated as questions about identity? Now, a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, the important critical question for the humanities might instead be reversed: Why are questions about identity so often articulated as questions about culture? More specifically, why are they so often asked as questions about culture as the normalized predicate of a population? More pointedly, why are we--Jewish Studies scholars, for starters--incapable of imagining identity other than as a historicist concept?
In the interest of analyzing not only how a label like "Jewish" circulates as a compelling way of describing a group or a set of phenomena or practices, but also how this circulation legitimizes, inscribes, and invests the kind of professional academic public that we constitute in our scholarly work--I analyze the functionality of Jewish identity in five American films that provide a kind of frame for thinking about postwar American Jewish identity: The Jazz Singer (1927), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), The Pawnbroker (1964), Liberty Heights (1999), and Inglorious Basterds (2009). (1) I'm interested in the period from the end of World War II through the Six Day War because of its centrality in a super-legible triumphalist narrative of Jewish history, in which linked Jewish successes in the US and Israel serve a multivalent exceptionalist self-regard. The postwar period in this narrative marks the moment in which Jews enter the mainstream--when American Jews lead the way in breaking out of the immigrant ghetto into cosmopolitan society and culture, and when Israeli Jews lead the way in finally shaking off Jews' weak stateless pariah status by joining the family of nations. What the world needs now is neither another reiteration of this mainstreaming narrative nor a retread cultural history of the shift from pluralism to liberalism to multiculturalism. Rather, it can benefit from a critical analysis of how these periodizing narratives function in the formation of an assemblage of intellectual tools for stabilizing the legibility not simply of a Jewish object of thought but more significantly of a Jewish scholarly project, an assemblage indicated by, among other events, the establishment at the close of this period of the Association for Jewish Studies in 1969. I'm interested in analyzing these films as a way to critically frame our practices of knowing.
"Jewish identity" is primarily a concept, a framework for understanding, a mode of thinking, a machine--not an empirical historical reality. Accordingly, I do not presume that these films function as historical representations or bellwethers or as an index of a positivistic historical reality, and I have no interest in arguing that this selective filmic inventory charts a change in actually existing Jews, in how some continuously recognizable population called or calling themselves Jews imagined themselves, or in how some abstraction we call "America" imagined a changing population which, despite these changes, no one then or now has had any trouble calling Jews. I'll leave such a task to the historians. (2) Instead, I want to analyze how our professional understanding of Jewish identity--as Jewish Studies scholars--invests a historical field to elaborate and legitimize a space of scholarly inquiry. I want to critically investigate how these films function as leverage points in a narrative of Jewish American history whose foundational historicist expectation of knowledge about population is currently hegemonic in Jewish Studies discourse. It's not simply that these films illuminate a significant period in Jewish American history, allowing us to talk about a historical subject we already take for granted; it's that they demonstrate how our ability to talk about Jewish identity is itself historical, allowing a critical Jewish Studies to interrogate how this period--then and since--defines a transformation in how we know that subject. Instrumentalized by a hegemonic Jewish Studies-situated historicism, periodization functions as a powerful consolidating instrument to produce professionally incentivized narratives about Jewish objects already stabilized by the historical legibility of populations, and serving the archival project of producing Jewish knowledge; deployed critically against itself, however, the logic of periodization contests the epistemological practices of a radically discontinuous project and exposes our desire for Jewishness to its own productive labor.
THE IDENTITY OF JEWISH STUDIES
I gesture toward this investigation with Walter Benn Michaels's critique of the racialization of ethnicity-framed concepts of culture in mind: if talking about ethnic culture is now easy and expected, indeed professionally and popularly incentivized, this development has advanced alongside a process that has rendered our understanding of culture as in significant ways heritable or biologistic. As anyone who has read Michaels's work over the last 20 years or so can rehearse, ethnic culture emerges as a useful term when we want to talk categorically about groups we don't feel comfortable defining racially, but the term in fact can't function absent a biologistic concept of inheritance: it's not accidental that, for example, Jews might feel Jewish cultural totems as a birthright or African Americans might feel "African" cultural totems as one. (3) A gentile may learn to play klezmer, for tendentious example, but only in perverting--however abstractly, felicitously, or productively--a kind of cultural expectation; and the fact that a Jewish Studies scholar might feel justifiably drawn to such a phenomenon is precisely my point. No need for a biological-determinist red herring; my point is that the humanities' culturalist move away from determinism, especially as manifested in Jewish Studies, has insufficiently acknowledged--to say nothing of theorized--the degree to which it still relies on a biologistic constellation of predispositions, including linked concepts of heritability and historical property. Culture may be historical, but we don't ultimately seem to have much problem with, and do not normally sidestep, the commonsensical truthiness of the assumption that certain cultural histories belong to certain biologically delineated populations.
If in the 1980s, in the wake of the minority identity movements of the 1960s and 1970s and of the subsequent neoliberal institutionalization of identity politics in the form of academic multiculturalism, Cultural Studies critics could easily see identity-talk as a reactionary apolitical suppression of the Marxist critique of culture, I submit that these days a biologistic confidence often precludes a critique in Jewish Studies of how a hegemonic historicist concept of "identity" frames our humanistic discourses. Christopher Douglas has shown how our current multiculturalist understanding of identity is inextricably dependent on a "group ontology." For Douglas, multiculturalist discourse borrowed this ontology from a Cold War project of national identity, providing a way of thinking about a group "without necessary reference to what the group actually did or believed," that begins with a recognition that the group cannot be defined solely through a description of "its current and historical experiences, its values, its practices." (4) Its development has run in parallel to our increasing ability to conceptualize ethnic and especially (if paradoxically) post-ethnic (5) identity outside a necessary or self-evident link between a given population and actual cultural practices. This paradox underlies the current field logic of Jewish Studies.
One of the peculiarities of professional Jewish Studies is that its practitioners (in whatever discipline) often understand themselves as operating within both scholarly and community or public spaces. To put it another way, my English Department colleagues don't field many calls for shul talks. This institutional peculiarity persists (I imagine) on the assumption that Jewish Studies scholars, self-evidently, know about Jews and Jewish history and that this knowledge is, self-evidently, at once interesting, normalized, and (at least potentially) transparent to other Jews. But this self-evidence, which operates hegemonically and reproduces itself as an expectation, functions as a form of violence that suppresses alternative ways of imagining the field. In no other academic field that I know of does the taboo against "jargon" operate so virulently, functioning as a prohibition against critical questioning of first principles. (6) The Jewish Studies field allows and celebrates technical vocabularies specific to disciplines--professional languages of, say, quantitative demographic data analysis and philological exegesis happily coexist--but Moshiach is likely to arrive before some leading Jewish Studies journals publish a sustained critique of the concept of identity that anchors the field by authorizing the expectation that, say, quantitative analysis and textual exegesis are mutually relevant.
The de-essentializing turn in Jewish Studies associated with the New Jewish Cultural Studies (7) has shifted the warrant for certainly about identity from the recognized object--the person, place, thing, or cultural phenomenon--to the recognizing agent--the Jewish Studies scholar engaging in epistemological practices that produce and refine knowledge professionally accepted as Jewish-y. No one doubts the ability of the Jewish Studies scholar to talk about Jewish identity because the security of the category--that is, its ability to be recognized, however diverse its range of application, in fact regardless of what it's articulating--goes unchallenged and indeed unremarked. Jewish Studies scholars wouldn't dream of labeling themselves essentializers of Jews or Jewish culture, but the scholarly ability, overseen by a desire for Jewish legibility, to coordinate the recognition of cultural practices with the recognition of populations has not been subjected to adequate critical self-regard. Such a critique would contest the domination in Jewish Studies of a historicist concept of identity. Put simply, Jewish Studies as it predominantly exists is mostly uninterested in imagining what it does other than as a multidisciplinary historiographic effort to produce knowledge about Jews or, more generally, about people who have displayed some investment in calling themselves Jews, along with their various cultures and characteristic practices. This disinterest (which can often veer into incapacity) is grounded in historicism's biologistic predisposition. One can certainly defend a counteressentialist, pragmatic Jewish Studies-based project dedicated to analyzing the practices by which and the terms in which groups who have persisted in calling themselves Jewish have done so, but such a project continues to elevate a more or less positivist population-based history writing as the scholarly currency of the last instance. Even if "Jewish" is acknowledged to be a variable rather than a constant--and if Jewish Studies accordingly understands itself as the multidisciplinary study of the diversities of experience, affect, imagination, fantasy, subjectivity, ideas, and so on that circulate through and around that unsettled and adaptable signifier--scholarship operating under this regime imagines its labor as organized ultimately by a desire to produce historical knowledge about recognizable populations. At the very least, it has not usefully differentiated the institutional differences between producing knowledge about identifiable populations and a critical alternative that does not assume that the predication in the last instance of "Jewish" is an empirically verifiable population. (8) Jewish Studies needs to invigorate the critique of identity, and can start with an effort to denormalize the biologistic framing of the key term Jewish: in effect, let's prioritize an analysis of the history of the term's predication rather than a history of the populations predicated by it.
It is in this critical context that I draw attention to the production of Jewish legibility in these five films. My analysis proceeds through these specific films for two reasons: first, because they span the period of the consolidation of a biologistic concept of identity; and second, because these films show up so very often in scholarly treatments of postwar American Jewish culture, to the extent that one might call them--certainly the first three or four of them--canonical. (9) Rather than beginning from the presumption that these films have a representative truth to reveal about postwar American Jews, either in what Jews were, how they understood themselves, or how others understood them--this kind of presumption functions also as a presumption that period is a normalized given of the scholarly object--we might instead begin with the possibility that these films produce a periodizing frame that incites scholarly desire, a beginning that is also a curiosity about how Jewishness functions as a scholarly machine or mode of thinking. No one who studies American Jewish culture is going to find much in the content of my analyses that seems all that new. But that's precisely the point: we need to rethink how Jewish Studies knows what it knows. Jewish Studies scholars should not take for granted that Jewishness is a quality of the historical phenomena they professionally consider.
WHO WAS JEWISH AMERICAN FILM?
The Jazz Singer anchors one extreme of the periodization I'm interested in here, enacting a pluralist practice that became decreasingly persuasive in the face of an emergent one. Michael Rogin has prominently argued that Jewish identity is not really a problem in the film. Rogin's argument, we recall, is that the movie makes ethnic difference, like the difference between Jewish Americans and Christian Americans, acceptable by insisting on racial difference, like the difference between whites and blacks. Facing nativist pressure that would assign them to an already devalued dark side of the racial divide, immigrants could Americanize themselves by whiting themselves--by showing themselves capable of crossing and recrossing the racial line. Jewish immigrants to America acquired American credentials in this already racially divided society by at once taking control of the black role and underscoring the sharp line between white and black--only a non-black can act black--thereby leveraging the surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans represent something other than themselves. Rogin points out that American society is not represented in the film as at all antagonistic to Jewish culture; despite Cantor Rabinowitz's hostility to American social and cultural practices (including, for notable example, entertainment practices), America does not seem hostile to the Jews. Accordingly, Jakie's problems is far more with his father than with gentile America, and his de-Judaicizing of the Rabinowitz name, so central to the story, responds only to the attractions of Americanization, not to any prejudices against Jews. Displacing potential ethnocultural conflict between Jews and Gentiles with generational conflict between fathers and sons, the film celebrates the Jew not as outcast but as parvenu, the white American up-and-comer. (10) Blackface operates for Jakie as the instrument that transforms the immigrant Jew into an American; by putting on blackface, the Jewish jazz singer acquires first his own voice, then assimilation through upward mobility, and finally a white woman, through whom, presumably, he'll father [white] American children.
But American can be a category open to the Jews in this movie largely because white and black are already fixed positions. We recall the doubling that takes place when Jakie sees his father's image behind his own blackface reflection in the mirror, shortly before his mother and Yudleson come to fetch him from opening night preparations to come home to the dying Cantor. Jakie sentimentally looks at a picture of his mother, and gentile Mary Dale apprehensively admits she's worried that he's thinking about his parents--and therefore his culture--rather than his career (and their shared, albeit heretofore potential, success). Jakie reassures her: "I'd love to sing for my people--but I belong here." Nonetheless he adds, "but there's something, after all, in my heart--maybe it's the call of the ages--the cry of my race." Mary, of course, is too narrowly essentialist to understand this movie's take on American Jewishness--or rather, she's essentialist about the wrong things: she tries to be supportive even as she tries to convince him to pursue what for her is his goyishe calling: "I think I understand, Jack--but no matter how strong the call, this is your life." Jakie then looks in the mirror at his blackened visage, which then metamorphoses into his father singing the liturgy, at which point he contests Mary's too-easy declaration in a claim of Jewish belongingness: "The Day of Atonement is the most solemn of our holy days--and the songs of Israel are tearing at my heart," a declaration of Jewish belongingness that following Rogin we might want to argue is grounded in his adoption of a spectral black identity. The Jewish cry of his race can be acknowledged only through a repetition of that other racial difference, the one that we now might be tempted to call the real racial difference, that between Whites and Blacks, which remains unacknowledged in the film. With no actual African Americans in the film, and racial difference existing entirely as a spectral resource for Jewish American self-fashioning, race is both at the core of the film's cultural politics and ancillary, at once the film's indomitable fact and absent.
If the movie presents what initially looks like a putative opposition between American achievement and Jewish achievement, with Jakie ostensibly forced to choose between American success and Jewish tradition--an opposition underscored when his mother, just arrived to his dressing room with Yudelson, insists that blackfaced Jakie is a stranger--race in fact emerges as the agent of Jewish American legitimacy. When Jakie performs his number--the famous "Mama"--in dress rehearsal, his real, white, mama cries to Yudleson: "Just like his Papa--with the cry in his voice.... Here he belongs. If God wanted him in His house, He would have kept him there.... He's not my boy anymore--he belongs to the whole world now." Hearing in Jakie's singing "the cry in his voice," the echo of Cantor Rabinowitz--"Just like his Papa"--Sara here gives Jakie leave to read the "cry of his race"--what had initially seemed to him, to Mary, and indeed to the audience as clannishly inimical to his American success--as precisely the warrant for cosmopolitan Jazz singing and Americanization. And of course Jakie and his movie get to have it both ways: Jakie runs out on the performance to return to his father and chant Kol Nidre, which no one else has the skills to perform, and though the evening's performance is cancelled, the Producer decides to let Jakie remain in the show, to great, if inevitable, commercial benefit. Listening to Jakie singing the liturgy, an enlightened Mary states the movie's claim of commensurability: "A Jazz singer, singing to his God." So if Jews are different than gentiles in this film, the difference seems entirely historical rather than ontological: Jews are different because they were born to Jewish parents and know how to sing Kol Nidre, two things one cannot say of gentiles, but other than that, there seems to be little keeping them apart or from collaboratively participating in American social structures. The "race" in the "cry of his race," therefore, is more archive than essence. Jewishness is a set of exacting practices that, if existing as a birthright, nonetheless at once must be learned--other Jews, including the synagogue elders, simply aren't as good as Jakie at chanting Kol Nidre--and is entirely continuous with American citizenship and success.
Twenty years later, however, this kind of archival practice seems increasingly residual as practices grounded in a group ontology are emergent. The immediately post-World War II--but pre-"Holocaust"--film Gentleman's Agreement presents a shift in the signification and functionality of Jewish categoricalness, as a pluralistic acceptance of difference recedes before new protocols of correspondence and sameness. Though now, as in the previous film, Jewishness is not inimical to Americanness--to be sure, the film's great liberal appeal is to recognize Jews as Americans, indeed, as no different than any other Americans--the context of its acceptability has shifted significantly, and indeed Jewishness can remain normative only so long as it is understood to be an essentially empty category. Phil Schuyler's "angle" for the article he's writing on antisemitism for Minify's liberal muckraking magazine--that he will pass as Jewish for six months, as Philip Green--is compelling precisely to the extent that, in fact, there is no essential content to Jewishness, that he can "be" Jewish precisely by stating that he is Jewish. Just as he bummed as an Oakie when he wrote about Oakies and descended into the mines when he wrote about miners, Phil reasons--as does the film--that he can live like a Jew simply by claiming to be a Jew. He exuberantly explains to his mother, "All I gotta do is say it.... I can just say it!" When he giddily tells his gentile girlfriend Kathy (Minify's divorced niece), however, things get awkward fast: she feels pre-Oedipal discomfort at the Look-Who's-Coming-to-Dinner prospect of bringing him home to her WASP y Connecticut hometown--explicitly because she worries how his newfound identity will play among her family and implicitly, we suspect, because she has her own doubts about running around with a Jew in public--and then he gets offended, just as the Jew he is only--but apparently sufficiently--in name might. As he admits when they reconcile, "It started the minute you spoke.... I felt insulted. If I were Jewish that's the way I would have felt." Phil feels insulted because he--rightly--detects prejudice in Kathy's response; he's not really a Jew, but her genteel bigotry turns him into one--but only because there's no real difference between Jews and gentiles.
Unlike The Jazz Singer, which crosses heritage--"the cry of my race"--and practices--Jakie's cantorial acumen--for a proper identification of Jewishness (despite the spectrality of that heritage, regardless of how perfectly those practices map onto American popular entertainment), Gentleman's Agreement presumes no such differential predicates. This point is clarified later in the film, when Phil has a conversation at a party with Professor Lieberman, who claims, "I have no religion, so I'm not Jewish by religion. Further, I'm a scientist, so I must rely on science, which shows me I'm not Jewish by race, since there's no such thing as a distinct Jewish race. There's not even a Jewish type.... I will simply go forth and state 'I'm not a Jew.'" And yet no sooner has Lieberman described his "crusade," as he calls it, than he admits it's bound to fail. He wonders why Jews, no longer particularly religious, "still go on calling themselves Jews. Can you guess why, Mr. Green? ... Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus, for many of us, it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews. So you see, I will have to abandon my crusade before it begins. Only if there were no antisemites could I go on with it." An interesting turn of the identitarian screw, this. Though the movie doesn't really have a concept of "ethnicity" here, it does have something the professor calls "pride," which in the face of antisemitic prejudice hardens Jews' identificatory steel. Gentleman's Agreement relies on neither the cry of one's race nor one's learned religious practices to carry water for the legibility of Jewish identity; rather, in the absence of either these or indeed of any actual, positive, or categorically differentiating marks, it's simply antisemitism that perpetuates the Jewish Problem. Eliminate this irrational scourge, and the problem of identity disappears, too.
As if to underscore the problem, immediately after his conversation with Lieberman the Jew Phil is told by Gentile ally Anne, the host of the party, about Kathy's "terribly" antisemitic family. And then two later scenes focus on the liberal paradox of identity in the film. First Phil is denied a room at the Flume Inn when he announces he's Jewish, and then Phil's son, the dreadfully named Tommy, is attacked at school for being Jewish. If one can be the victim of antisemitic violence and not be Jewish, then there's no actual Jewish content or real differentiating quality that antisemitism responds to. The movie underscores this point by having Kathy persistently misunderstand the problem. Incapable of rising above her own genteel prejudice, Kathy repeatedly tries to get Phil to give up his "angle," an attempt invigorated by the attack on Tommy. As she sadly, half out the door, tells Phil, "You're doing an impossible thing. You are what you are for the one life you have. You can't help it if you were born Christian instead of Jewish. It doesn't mean you're glad you were. But I am glad. There, I said it." Kathy thinks the problem is a matter of identity as something essential, a defining characteristic from within, not of antisemitism as something that characterizes one from without; she mistakenly persists in focusing on the marked figure, rather than on the marking framework, as the source of the problem. It is finally the movie's only real Jew other than Lieberman, Phil's childhood friend Dave, just home from the army, who's so American he's almost never out of uniform and whose only Jewish attribute seems to be the discrimination that prevents him from finding an apartment for his family, who gets the film's liberal last word on the matter, when he tells Kathy, who asks him if he thinks she's antisemitic, that people are not cast in bronze, that people change. Identity is nothing substantive in the film, but rather only a referent-less claim, grounded in nothing but itself, and entirely superfluous in the context of triumphant postwar liberal Americanism.
While the fact of a powerful Americanism in Gentleman's Agreement does not represent a departure from The Jazz Singer, the structure of Americanism in Gentleman's Agreement does differ from that of the previous movie. The Jazz Singer's Americanism is for the most part pluralist: Jews can be Americans like any other group that's not Black can be, and what's different about Jews does not disqualify them from being American. The Americanism of Gentleman's Agreement, however, brooks no difference. Jews can be Americans because they are in fact no different from other, gentile, Americans in their practices and behavior; habits of regarding them as different are just that, habits--habits born of prejudice, better left behind in the past, like the Hitlerian genocide, which is entirely absent in the film. If only antisemitism would quit differentiating Jews, so Gentleman's Agreement's Americanism reasons, not completely circularly, then all this nastiness would cease. Indeed, the film's two actual Jews would happily ignore their identity it if it weren't for a persistent antisemitism forcing them to be mindful of it. The real identitarian innovation of Gentleman's Agreement is to disaggregate the category of identity from any content. As Professor Lieberman professes, and as Phil's and Tommy's experiences with antisemitic prejudice demonstrate, identity as a categorical marker can exist quite apart from any differentiating practices, beliefs, or doctrines. The locus of Jewishness has shifted from the historically legible archive of tradition and heritage celebrated in The Jazz Singer to a category that has no determinate relationship to any specific tradition or specific archive.
Ontologized but without content in Gentleman's Agreement, identitarianism takes another turn a generation later in The Pawnbroker (1964; US release 1965), where, captured as an object for historical desire, Jewishness seems to exist almost entirely as a form of pathology. More than twenty minutes in, the movie has offered only allusion--to the war, to the camps, to the Holocaust more diffusely--and a few undercontextualized flashbacks, but no explicit reference to Jewish identity. A group of hustlers comes into Sol Nazerman's shop trying to pawn a lawnmower, and one points to Nazerman's arm and asks, "Where did you get those numbers tattooed, uncle?" This question is left unanswered, but Jesus Ortiz, Nazerman's energetic and portentously named apprentice, pushes him on it a bit later, after the hustlers leave. Intensifying the problem of reference showcased by Gentleman's Agreement--what sort of inscriptive practices are we engaging when we use words like "Jew," "Jewish," and "Jewishness"?--Ortiz asks by, in effect, pointing: "Mr. Nazerman ... You want to tell me something, Mr. Nazerman, What is that? That. Is that a secret society or something?" When Nazerman mumbles, cynically, in the affirmative, bright-eyed Ortiz asks, "Yeah, well, what do I do to join?" Interested in acquiring business acumen, Ortiz assumes that Nazerman the Jewish business owner has it to teach; for Ortiz the camp tattoo becomes a sign, a historical relay between identity and legible meaning. Nazerman's answer, however, defers the referential self-evidence Ortiz expects by reflecting its antisemitic frame back at him: "What do you do to join? You learn to walk on water." If Ortiz seeks the normalized set of practices and knowledge he assumes Nazerman's Jewishness names, Nazerman displaces that expectation with the specter of the fantasies that invest Jewish identity. And indeed, as if in answer to Nazerman's nihilistic deferral, Ortiz then repeats his frequent request that Nazerman "Teach me gold." Nazerman's Jewish identity is restricted to a narrow oscillation between antisemitic fantasies.
A little later, after Nazerman first is accused by a desperate customer of being a "blood sucking sheeny" and "kike" for not offering more for a defective radio and then, when a pregnant girl comes in to pawn the fake glass engagement ring given to her by the deadbeat father of her unborn bastard, flashes back to Nazi guards taking rings from camp prisoners, Ortiz asks what can only appear as a legitimate item in this sequence of antisemitic inscriptions of Jewish identity: "How come you people come to business so naturally?" Nazerman recuperates the libel contained in Ortiz's "You people"--he answers him by repeating the phrase, in essence, in quotation marks as a question--and snaps back at Ortiz: "You, uh ... You want to learn the secret of our success. Is that right? All right. I'll teach you." What follows is a very particular history of Jewishness, starting with "a period of several thousand years during which you have nothing to sustain you," when "You have no land to call your own ... You have nothing. You're never in one place long enough to have a geography or army or land myth." Instead, "All you have is a little brain ... and a great bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that you are ... special ... even in poverty." With this brain--which is "the real key, you see"--you buy some cloth, split it in two, sell it for a penny more than you paid for it, buy more cloth, split it in three, and sell it for three pennies profit. "But during that time you must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread for the table or a toy for a child. No! No, you must immediately run out and get yourself a still larger piece of cloth. So you repeat this process over and over, and suddenly you discover something. You have no longer any desire, any temptation to dig into the earth to grow food or gaze at limitless land and call it your own. No, no. You just go on and on, repeating this process over the centuries." Jews therefore produced themselves as "blood sucking," as the strung-out radio pawner manque might put it, forced into the role by prejudice. At the end of the process, "you make a grand discovery. You have a mercantile heritage. You are a merchant. You're known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawnbroker, a sheeny, a mockie, and a kike!" Anti-pastoral, Jewish history and identity are coherent and visible only to the extent that they are pathological. Absent antisemitism, it seems, Jews would be coded by the same pastoral normativity as everybody else--which is to say they'd be Gentiles. Indeed, it pays to recall that, though other characters in the film are represented as, at least visibly, a diverse lot--white, black, Puerto Rican, and so on--only Jews seem to encounter identity as a pathology. Exceptionalist thinking that isolates Jews on identitarian grounds--either as objects of prejudice or by reversing that defamation in an image of group self-consciousness--emerges here as the toxicity of identification. The Jew in this film cannot but accede to his antisemitic representation, a pathological trap confirmed in Nazerman's final Christological transformation: Jesus Ortiz dies so that Nazerman may live as a human being in the normalized pastoral, but not before Nazerman repeats an imitation of Jesus Christ, re-performing the crucifixion himself, wounding himself for the sins of others, by driving the memo spike--tool of his usury, monstrous symptom of antisemitism--through his hand. Created out of a history of antisemitic abuse, Jewish identity's only just future is in being overcome.
The liberal critique engaged by Gentleman's Agreement and The Pawnbroker operates by destabilizing antisemitism's self-legitimizing circularity. In both films, differential Jewishness is legible on the Jew only as a kind of trace of prejudice, even as antisemitism persists only by reinscribing that sign of its own history of abuse. Accordingly, both movies attempt to delegitimize a concern with Jewish identity; and yet they can do this only, paradoxically, by relegitimizing identity as a categorical object of ethical desire quite apart from any specific content--practices, traditions, knowledge, racial heritage--it might contain. We recall that The Jazz Singer imagined Jewishness as a kind of historical archive of social practices that, if superficially diverging from emergently industrial American mass cultural social practices, were not only compatible with them--nonexclusive of and noncompetitive with them--but to a large degree in fact complementary with American popular culture. Jakie's Jewishness is in large part defined by his highly specialized and restricted cantorial training and skill, to say nothing of the heritage of cantorial achievement that he represents for his parents and for the Jewish community (all of whom, it pays to consider, are represented as older, if not indeed elderly), and it's this training, skill, and heritage that serve to differentiate him from Mary; we know he is Jewish--indeed, he knows he's Jewish--because of this body of knowledge and the heritable tradition through which he, setting him apart from Mary and the others in the review, accesses it. Yet in The Jazz Singer this training and skill also manifest precisely the aptitude that makes him such a good popular American entertainer. The two postwar films, however, evince a radically different concept of identity. If we can still say in these two later films that Jewishness exists as a kind of heritage, it is an archive or a history as impediment, a name only for an itinerary of restrictions, a classification administered by discrimination; while Jewishness serves as a form of public agency in The Jazz Singer, in the postwar films it publicly impairs the agency of those it predicates, and neither later film ends up wanting much to do with it--except to say that the Jews, this paradoxically legible cipher, have been mistreated. The dominant historical fact of Gentleman's Agreement is that Jews have been victims, but they have been so, and can be so, only unjustly, so long as antisemites persist in mistakenly thinking that Jews are different. And it seems that the Jew is only able to survive in Lumet's picture, on the other hand, if he participates in an odd transit whereby he becomes a Christian; traumatically dominated by history, living in a suspended present, and denied a future, Jews are decisively a thing of the past in this film--indeed, the only image we get of Jews living happily as Jews is in the film's opening flashback, a distanced past violently foreclosed upon by the arrival of the Nazis. In these two postwar films, Jews have shifted from practitioners of Jewish things to carriers of Jewish facticity.
It's of course easy to see Gentleman's Agreement, released in 1947, and The Pawnbroker, released in 1964, as combining to define a transformative period of postwar reflection on the genocide of the Jews--a period that becomes even more legibly stable when we juxtapose it with a post-67 period to follow. If in the immediate postwar years, before a vocabulary of "Holocaust" was really available to the project of defining Jewish identity, it was possible to think in terms of avoiding genocide, and by the early 1960s, as "The Holocaust" is beginning to circulate in a hegemonic discourse of Jewish identification, there's still a kind of unease with embracing Jewishness given the long history of abuse that has attended its legibility in the West (even if there's no real way to escape this abuse), then we might want to say that between the end of the war through the mid-1960s, Jews are, above all else, defined by their victimhood, actual or potential, and even if only negatively. These movies suggest that Jewishness is something best not trotted out in public, an inherited signifier that can remain entirely private, and something a just world wouldn't necessarily think all that much about--maybe a label but little more. But to limit the investigation in this way, of course, would be to restrict ourselves simply to finding in these texts what we were confident of at the outset: confirmation of the periods through which we framed the investigation. There's a critique of periodization as well, therefore, to be interrogated in the filmic history of Jewish American identity that I'm tracing here. What's significant for the critique of identity is not that Jews or attitudes toward them change between the 1920s and the postwar period, but that the period becomes an opportunity to analyze how Jewish identity as a signifier to be read and recognized shifts its function, severing its link to the archives of specific practices, specific family histories, and specific modes of living that were its erstwhile ground and set to circulating as an abstract ontological category. A critical identity-based practice approaches period and periodization as a way of contesting our own analytical desire rather than as a predicate of the already legitimized historiographic object. It's not that "Jewish" comes to represent something different; it signifies differently. This is what is at stake in our understanding of postwar Jewish American history.
The diffidence of Gentleman's Agreement and The Pawnbroker is radically displaced by the time the turn of the twenty-first century gets around to reimagining the postwar period. In Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights, released in 1999 and set right in the middle of this post-Holocaust, pre-67 period--over the course of a Baltimore school year in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Brown ruling--Jewishness can decisively proclaim itself. By means of the master trope of desegregation, the movie foregrounds and celebrates cultural interchange--but largely perversely, in order to highlight public Jewish achievement. Proclaiming a multi-ethnic America, the movie centers on two narratives of sexual ethnic border crossing: older Kurtzman son Van falls for WASP goddess Dubbie, and younger Kurtzman son Ben experiments in emotional exchange and a bit more with bourgeois African American Sylvia. As the film's opening voiceover suggests--the movie is bookended by a presumably adult Ben Kurtzman's retrospective narration--Jews living outside the ghetto in multiethnic America must now contend with "a world beyond what I knew," and just two minutes into the film, Ben admits that, as a child, "I went to school thinking everyone was Jewish; now I know almost no one is Jewish." But Jews make up for their thin numbers by being competent, shrewd, and courageous, which justifies Jews' visibility in the world of the film and the film's pride in publicized Jewish identity. In Liberty Heights, Jews intermingle freely with white Gentiles and with Blacks; Jews need liberal multiculturalism, a level ethnic playing field, in order to stand out above everyone else.
If the civil rights struggle proclaims Blacks equal to Whites, the more historically salient fact of the film--repetition with difference of The Jazz Singer's racialized landscape--seems to be that neither Blacks nor gentile Whites can compete with the Jews, as denatured representations of WASP and African American group failure serve a triumphalist image of Jewish American success. As a result of the ethnic and racial mixture that historically contextualizes, and that is championed by, the film, WASPs and African Americans are shown to be equally dysfunctional, the former pathologically incapable of taking care of themselves as individuals, and the latter pathologically incapable of taking care of themselves as a community. While WASP dysfunction seems mostly attributable to the fact that they're all so rich that it doesn't matter--and so does not, in fact, matter, except to the extent that Van gets his heart broken by a tragic shikse--Black dysfunction prevents African Americans from succeeding in postwar America, the object lesson and warning hovering around the film's celebration of Jewish American triumph. Little Melvin, for example, ineptly runs the numbers business into the ground--a racket, it's important to recall, that he wins fair and square from patriarch Nate Kurtzman, by legitimately hitting a special number combination, but that he can't manage successfully as the Jews had been able to, and so is persuaded to return to Kurtzman, through further savvy maneuvers by the Jews. And it seems that only those black families that strike out on their own beyond the confines of the racial community, like Sylvia's family, who live in a suburban neighborhood where individual houses stand apart in individually defined spaces (in contrast to communally defined spaces like the Royal Theater, which, Ben's friend Sheldon notes, caters to an exclusively African American clientele), away from their co-racialists, indeed away from the possibility of racially bound community, are able to do well for themselves (on this note we might do well to recall that Ben earns Sylvia's rebuke when he assumes, wrongly, Sylvia must live "downtown," presumably with the rest of the African Americans).
The great fact of this film is Jewish legibility born of Jewish exceptionalism; it's no longer even possible that Jews or Jewishness can recede from public view--Jews are simply too successful as Americans for their identity to remain out of sight. Unlike Gentleman's Agreement, where Jewish American success requires the invisibility of Jewishness qua positivistic difference, and The Pawnbroker, which is incapable of imagining Jews other than through the lens of the breakdown of civilization, focused by postwar urban American collapse, and so in fact perversely imagines the erasure of Jews, Liberty Heights narrates the impossibility of ignoring Jewish legibility. While the Brown decision promised, at least ideally, that blacks would no longer be restrictively ghettoized--the movie opens the fall of the year schools are desegregated--the film is interested in African Americans really only to the extent that they help in the effort to draw a bead on Jewishness, and in fact uses the racialized frame of the Brown decision and the Civil Rights movement instead to narrate American Jews leaving their ghettos. With Blacks at least provisionally threatening to encroach on erstwhile Jewish social space--the numbers racket that Little Melvin takes over from Nate Kurtzman, the largely Jewish classroom where Ben first sees Sylvia (a classroom where all difference is leveraged in the service of Jewish self-evidence: a classroom with three different Cohens and two errant Vietnamese siblings whose name Ben can assume is Jewish so strong is the contextual frame of Jewish normalization)--Levinson's film shows how Jews are now capable of moving more decisively into social spaces that were formerly the exclusive preserve of white Gentiles. Indeed, the nostalgic cast of the film's depiction of Jewish Forest Park operates as a kind of bittersweet postmodern pastoral, looking back on the Jewish neighborhoods we no longer have. The film's money shot, five minutes before the closing titles, shows Ben Kurtzman and his chums Sheldon and Murray defying provincial WASP prejudice and breaking into the suburban Turkey Hill Swim Club. One of the earliest scenes in the film positions the three boys, in the waning days of the summer of 54 as the school year is about to begin, standing before the Club's chain link fence, staring at a sign that reads "NO Jews, Dogs, Coloreds." They joke about it; Ben wonders, "How do you think they came up with that order? ... That must have been some meeting to come up with that, because some guy, you know, he had to say, 'I have to tell ya, the Jews bother me more than the dogs.'" But the sign of course signals the film's major dramatic axis. In the early scene, the Jewish boys are barred entry insofar as they are cowed by convention, but their year of crossing borders teaches them better; by the next summer, as the later scene demonstrates, these Jews have the courage and moral wherewithal to defy the anachronistic and unjust restriction. They cut down the sign, breach the fence, and take up positions on the erstwhile exclusively Christian diving pier to launch their integrationist salvo: they strip off their shirts, revealing the letters J-E-W painted on their respective chests, thus announcing the proud Jewish presence in American civic life. A year after the Brown decision, it's the Jews who have leveraged both emergent black representative self-evidence and residual WASP privilege to advance the goals of the civil rights struggle. And it pays also to notice that if their hairless torsos indicate Ben, Sheldon, and Murray's youthful moxie, the entire scene is accompanied by the traditional Yiddish music playing during "The Jewish Hour," the radio program to which Bubbe Kurtzman habitually listens; this image of Jewish visibility affectively links the future of American liberal multiculturalism to the long history of Jewish heritage.
In Levinson's multicultural re-visioning of the 1950s, Jews are nothing if not visible--visibly different from other groups but also visibly part of American society. And yet, as the climactic scene's neoliberal fantasia suggests, this difference and this visibility are really nothing other than spectral mirror images of each other. On the one hand, Jews seem to be different than other groups--they don't drink too much and screw up their lives, like rich WASPs do, and they are smart and can take care of business, family, and community, unlike poor African Americans. But on the other hand, these are learned behaviors, not inherited traits. Jewishness is certainly manifested in history-bound traditions--there's Bubbe and her old-world music, to be sure, and the film's narrative is framed not only by the cyclicality of the secular school year, but also by that of the clannish Jewish religious year, as the story is bracketed not only by late summer visits to the goyische swim club, but also by Rosh Hashanah observances. But these traditions really only serve to make Jews look different, rather than curtailing their ability to participate in the full range of American civil society; after all, Nate Kurtzman and his associate Charlie habitually leave services to look at the new Cadillac, a tradition no less significant than, and in fact compared to, the observance of the Jewish New Year that it traditionally interrupts. Jews are exemplary here, and the film seems to imply that more people, like Blacks for instance, should be like the Jews--which sort of, but not entirely, means they should act like Jews. Everything Jews do in the movie qua Jewish is essentially a repetition of the boys' standing up in the gentiles-only swim club with J-E-W spelled out on their chests: to be Jewish in this film is really only to announce oneself as Jewish--with the proviso that only Jews can in fact be like Jews. There is at the same time nothing that separates Jews from other Americans and something absolutely differentiating. Little Melvin may be a screw-up, but there's nothing keeping him from being successful--except for the fact that he's black. The same goes for Van's crush Dubbie or his new-found WASP friend Trey (whose name overheard on the telephone occasions Bubbe to remark, "You know a name like this?"): they are at once just college kids, just the same as Van, and they are completely different, because Gentiles, with names unheard of in Forest Park off Liberty Heights Ave.
In Levinson's postwar, identity is normative. Isomorphic with the difference Matthiessen divined between the constative and optative moods of thought in postwar America's ancestor renaissance, The American Renaissance, (11) postwar identity does not--cannot--differentiate the labor of description and the affects of sociological expectation. Multicultural neoliberalism's Americans maybe entirely what they make of themselves, but at the same time their ethno-cultural identity is irreducible. Half the pleasure of viewing comes from seeing expectations and stereotypes confirmed. Levinson's viewers can applaud the Kurtzmans for their pluck and intelligence, but then again the Kurtzmans are Jews, and that's what Jews are known for. Similarly, we can lament Little Melvin's laziness and self-serving small-mindedness, but, after all, that's why the African Americans didn't do nearly as well as the Jews, right? We get to both celebrate a level playing field and revel in the legibility of ethno-racial types. Levinson's neoliberalism productively leverages a paradoxical conception of identity at once ontologically categorical and non-determinative, at once incidental and essential. Therefore his Jew can have it both ways, in a departure at once from The Jazz Singer's celebration of Jewishness as essential to its cultural pluralist-melting pot hybrid, where Jewish Americans actually are different from Gentile Americans, though not unAmericanly different; from Gentleman's Agreement's liberal refusal to recognize Jewish difference as anything other than a trace of antisemitism, itself born of a fear that any articulation of Jewishness will earn antisemitic attack; and from The Pawnbroker's insistence that Jewishness is the unavoidable historical accretion of antisemitic abuse. In Levinson's postmodern multiculturalism, identity has become the spectral metaphysical trace of a historicist desire for ethnic legibility--all centered on the reproductive family. Assured of their sociocultural embrace by America, distant enough from the Holocaust to have seen this existential threat transformatively leveraged by the recognitive machinery of identitarian self-awareness, and dimly aware that assimilation more than genocide presents the more pressing threat of an American future ethnically cleansed of Jewishness, Levinson's Jews offer the viewer of Liberty Heights an image of Jewish identity that can be simultaneously protected against antisemitic attack, free of clannish racialist taint, and self-evident to boot.
Antisemitism is real here, to be sure, as it is in Gentleman's Agreement and The Pawnbroker, but it exists only as a weak and reflexive affect, whether of a residual class whose social dominance is coming to an end--Trey comes to respect Van when Van refuses to testify against him, and Trey's friend Ted, who started a fight with Yussel by antisemitically insulting him, comes around to be friendly after Yussel refuses to retreat--or of a pathetic and resentful class that will never succeed in America so long as they refuse to take care of themselves--we recall the scene when Little Melvin kidnaps Ben, Sheldon, Sylvia, and Sylvia's friend Gail and is shocked to learn about a history of Jewish oppression; "Bullshit" is all he can muster in response to Ben's informing him that Jews once were slaves, too. Hitler is literally a joke in the film, as Ben is forbidden by his parents to go out on Halloween dressed as The Fuhrer--Ada Kurtzman insists, "You are not leaving this house dressed as Adolph Hitler," to which Ben responds, "It's Halloween; that's the joke"--and, instead of changing his costume and going out with his friends, stays home alone and, still in his Hitler costume, watches TV, on which he views a comedy show mocking Hitler. Jews are so secure in their social position, so confident in their legibility, and so free from the threat of genocide, that the movie can make fun of Hitler even as it treats antisemitism dramatically. If in Gentleman's Agreement the threat of antisemitism can be real even when Jews aren't, and if in The Pawnbroker antisemitism is so powerfully deformative as to have produced Jews as the dysfunctional avatar of Christian civilization's collapse, then Liberty Heights flips this process on its head, insisting on the ontological distinctiveness of Jews even while suggesting that the only difference between Jews and other Americans is that they do things better than goyim do.
The reductio ad absurdum of this history of re-identifying Jewishness--shifting from a determining archive of specific practices, family histories, and modes of living to circulating as an abstract yet heritable normative category--can be found in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009), where Jewishness exists simply as the justification for an Americanist historical revenge fantasy. Tarantino's imaginative revisioning of World War II is not a historical movie, but a movie about history--history as a form of desire--and how we historicize. Shosanna Dreyfus's image--return of the Dreyfusard repressed--in the burning theater, after she's dead, proclaims itself "the face of Jewish vengeance": Jews don't even have to be alive anymore to justify retributive violence. The guerilla film with which she interrupts Goebbels's Frederik Zoller hagiography presents her full-screen face telling the theater full of the German high command, "I have a message for Germany--that you are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jews who is going to do it ... My name is Shosanna Dreyfus, and this is the face of Jewish vengeance." Her absence-in-death visualizes the warrant for American retaliation, as the film's other face of Jewish vengeance is Aldo Raine's Basterds: a cinematic image of Jewish vengeance made possible by genre film, like westerns, war movies, Blaxploitation, and so on. Indeed, everything in the film is authorized by our cinematic imagination, however preposterously intensified the typecasting: Landa is a stereotyped filmic villain, hammed up even as he is terrifying (think of the farce of his crazy alpine pipe during the early interrogation scene); Hugo Steiglitz is presented with full Blaxploitation treatment; Raine presents himself as a stock figure out of a Western; Pride of the Nation, Goebbels's film about and starring Frederik Zoller, perversely repeats Audie Murphy's 1955 To Hell and Back; and Shosanna appears as a classic femme fatale on the big night--and we watch her dress to David Bowie's "Cat People," his song from the movie of the same name, in yet another layer of citation. (12) Moreover, Aldo describes Donnie "The Bear Jew" Donowitz's Nazi beatings as "the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies"; Operation Kino, the British plan to infiltrate Geobbels's film opening and execute top brass, is literally named for cinema and is dependent entirely on a British officer's having been a film critic before the war (and is explained by a Churchillian Mike Myers); and Shosanna is killed when she shows compassion for Zoller, whom she has just fatally shot, and goes over to him, allowing him to shoot her in a dying act--she is punished, in effect, for acting like she's in a movie. Filmic history defines the narrative--and therefore ideological and moral--universe of this film, and recognition provides the film's primary mode of affect.
The movie is entirely ex post facto: we don't need to be told about the Holocaust, and Hitler can be a completely parodic figure, because historical reality is not at stake in representations of Hitler and the Holocaust: the audience already has entirely secure and normalized knowledge of them, and therefore vengeance is liberated as the affect through which the audience can know and relate to the genocide of the Jews. (13) What's important to the audience is not a realistic narrative of World War II or the Holocaust, but rather the fantasies of retaliation for the Holocaust--which has indeed already happened--that likely attend any cogitation of the Holocaust now; the movie is all revenge fantasy. Shosanna is an important figure for most of the film, but her Jewishness, and her family's murder at the hands of the Nazis, exist exclusively to justify the brutality of the Basterds, which the film portrays in a positively comic light. Indeed, their brutality is far more real to the movie than is any German cruelty towards Jews, which goes unrepresented except for the opening murder of the Dreyfus family--which is less harrowing than is Landa's harassment of the gentile LaPadite family, who hides them--and, again, exists largely spectrally, as the warrant for unlimited violence committed against Nazis. What's more, the Basterds are a distinctly postwar American image of vengeance: Scotch-Irish, Native American, Jewish, German, and even Italian (well, some of the American Jews grew up with Italians on their block, at least), all working together as a group. They're a historical platitude, a white ethnic cartoon picture of the greatest generation such as might occupy a cartoon block in the Bronx (well, with the exception of Aldo, at least). Jewishness is a value traded by the movie, exchanged for the satisfaction of revenge desire. Jewish identity and the history it anchors offer America carte blanche justification for exacting the most violent--and antihistorical--retribution upon History's greatest villains. Once again, we see an image of Jewishness completely devoid of specific cultural content; for God's sake, the Dreyfuses live in the Gentile French countryside as dairy farmers--perverse parody of Tevya--and we never see anyone do anything particularly "Jewish" in the film besides hide from, and later hate, Nazis. Completely nonreferential, Jewish identity is pure--and empty--fantasy in the film, unbeatable in any kind of historical specificity and yet categorically secure enough to authorize the most violent retributive revenge fantasies in the service of a reflexive Americanist triumphalism. Indeed, the ultraviolence of the Basterds, like the mass murder orchestrated by Shosanna--in both cases reveled in by the film and depicted with gleeful attention--is OK because it's directed against the Nazis, who are bad because they are Nazis, but whose violence is not, for the most part, present in the film. Jews allow America to do what America does best--kick ass and take names--but they don't actually have to do or be anything specific in the process. This is the real statist triumph of multiculturalism, as identity becomes entirely persuasive as an administrative form of normative epistemological control.
These philosemitic films' proleptic collective focus on the functionality of postwar Jewish American identity suggests how periodization can be a powerful resource for critical Jewish Studies. Period can certainly function as a framework for positivistic knowledge-production, but as such it contests the self-evidence with which historicism invests its field of exercise. So, instead of taking periodization for granted as a means for making positivistic claims with the help of a representational concept of Jewish identity, we can use it to historicize the constitution and productive labor of a critical concept of identity that draws attention to our ability to make historical claims in the first place. The current dominance of historiography as the analytic mode of Jewish Studies goes hand in hand with a foundational biologistic identitarianism: Jewish Studies does not question the persistent legibility of the Jewish subject whose social and cultural expressions it tracks through history. The critique of identity in Jewish Studies compels a question: How does periodization interact with other professional practices and itineraries, including not just the disciplining of academic work but, say, Jewish community, philanthropy, or advocacy organizations? A critical Jewish Studies unearths a discontinuous history that denormalizes the evolutionary and social scientific paradigms--dominated by progressivist historicist metaphors like "assimilation," "acculturation," or "Americanization," or more recently, maybe "multiculturalism," "post-Jewishness," or "hybridity"--that now authorize work in Jewish Studies. Certainly the twenty or so years between the near extermination of European Jewry on the one hand and Israel's military supremacy and occupation of the Palestinian territories and American Jews' unquestionable collective success on the other suggests significant political and social transformation. But rather than aiming to normalize an empirical entity, we might also seize the opportunity to reconsider the temporality of identity. Jewish identity becomes a dynamic product of historical thinking rather than a self-evident foundation of historical thinking anchored by biologistic historicist practices that tie cultural signifiers and meanings to populations. Freeing ourselves from this normalizing epistemological anchor on the way to making historiographic difference a possibility, and therefore rethinking the labor and role of periodization for the humanities, also requires us to take stock of how we actually do the history of identity as a project. In a 1981 Partisan Review symposium, Irving Howe wrote, wonderfully, that "literary criticism resembles the Jews: easy to recognize but hard to define"; (14) wise words, so long as we don't normalize this difficulty into a professionalizing empiricist platitude. A critical Jewish Studies will repudiate the easy historicism that allows us to look backwards in order to recognize an identitarian prehistory in claiming it as ours. This seems to be a lesson of the postwar deployment of Jewish identity as a heuristic, at once a synecdochic attractor and a floating signifier (15) capable of reinscribing--by periodizing--American history in its image.
(1.) There's nothing particularly essential about the tack, through film, that I take here; the critical project I'm gesturing toward obviously needs to be diverse and multiple, pursued simultaneously in many fields.
(2.) The preponderance of studies of American Jewish film, incidentally, approaches the topic with historical, and historically representational, intent. For very selective example spanning 30 years of scholarship, both Paticia Erens's more or less standard, "typological" treatment, The Jew in American Cinema (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), and the more interdisciplinary and critically engaged Hollywood's Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema, ed. Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013), begin their introductions with historical survey sections entitled, respectively, "The Jews in America" and "Jews in America." This is not my interest.
(3.) See, for example, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995); The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); and The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Equality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). For more on this concept of biologistic identity, see my "Literary-Historical Zionism: Irving Kristol, Alexander Portnoy, and the State of the Jews," Contemporary Literature 55, no. 4 (2014): 760-91.
(4.) Christopher Douglas, A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 254, 298.
(5.) I want in some way to condition the word "ethnic" or put it under erasure, but I'm embarrassed to use any of the readily available typographical alternatives. I suppose this problem has fueled the persuasiveness of the term "post-ethnic."
(6.) Anyone who doubts this should feel free to ask me; I've got the reader reports.
(7.) Spearheaded in the 90s by texts like Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, eds., Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) and David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel, eds., Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
(8.) If Jewish Studies is going to continue to proudly commit itself to interdisciplinarity--and there's no reason why it would not--we might want to devote some thought to considering what the various disciplinary projects housed under the Jewish Studies umbrella might respectively offer to a Jewish Studies-based critique of identity. As a literary critic, I perhaps predictably have come to think that the critical methodologies developed and nurtured within literary studies over the past generation or two have a lot to offer such a project; in any case, I feel most comfortable talking about developments within Jewish Studies-situated literary studies--specifically in Jewish American literary study--and so will limit myself here to that discipline. Some of the most visible and celebrated recent works in Jewish American literary study have indeed leveraged the de-essentializing promise of the New Jewish Cultural Studies, and have turned to analyzing the ways in which Jews have administered (and have been administered in) their legibility as Jews; I'm thinking, for example, of Jonathan Freedman, Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Rachel Rubinstein, Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010); Lori Harrison-Kahan, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011); Joshua Lambert, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013); and Jennifer Glaser, Borrowed Voices: Writing and Racial Ventriloquism in the Jewish American Imagination (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016). Attending to the malleable historicity of the (non-exceptional) terms of Jewish identification, these books are dedicated, in various ways, to unsettling the self-evidence of a Jewish subject. And yet, at the end of the day, these books do not seem really to register any ultimate unease in recognizing Jews as a population, or at least in catachrestically recognizing a population that will recognize themselves as Jews, and in so doing pave the way for their scholarly analysis as such--in these books' shared historical project, that is, of producing and refining knowledge of that legibly Jewish population. (Lambert's book is a bit exceptional in this group insofar as, unlike the others, it positions itself more determinedly and avowedly as a work of history rather than of literary criticism; indeed, NYU Press marketed it explicitly as such, in its Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History.)
(9.) I'll be honest: part of my evidence for saying this is anecdotal, based on my own experiences over the years talking with people invested in Jewish Studies formations at various levels, seeing syllabi, etc. But there is certainly a wealth of scholarship attesting to this canonicity. See, for very selective (and chronological) example, from across a wide array of methodological approaches and scholarly positions: Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Anchor Books, 1989); Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002); David Desser and Lester D. Friedman, American Jewish Filmmakers, 2nd ed. (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Lawrence Barron, ed., The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011); Nathan Abrams, The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012); Eric A. Goldman, The American Jewish Story Through Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013); Andrea Most, Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America (New York: NYU Press, 2013); and Bemardi, Pomerance, and Tirosh-Samuelson, eds., Hollywood's Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema.
(10.) Michael Paul Rogin, Black Face, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 56, 17, 14, 87.
(11.) F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (London: Oxford University Press, 1941).
(12.) We should also note that this scene opens with Shosanna standing seductively in an Oeil-de-boeuf through which we see a movie poster and on which we see her reflection, her mirrored face superimposed on the face on the movie poster. Three iterative suggestions of film--the eye, the poster, the reflected image--assemble a parodic palimpsestic reference, attesting to our--and the film's--seduction by cinema.
(13.) Susan Rubin Suleiman calls the spectacular murder of Hitler and Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi high command an "antihistorical" gesture that "actually reinforce[s] our sense of the reality of the historical event" ("The Stakes in Holocaust Representation: On Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds," The Romanic Review 105.1-2 (January 1, 2014), 72-73.
(14.) Irving Howe, "The State of Criticism: Theory and Practice," Partisan Review 48, no. 2 (1981): 172.
(15.) I admit to largely stealing this idea of the coupling of synecdoche and floating signifier form Laurence Roth's great book on Jewish genre fiction, Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories (New Brunswich: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 5.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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