The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture by Warren Hoffman (Syracuse University Press, $24.95) challenges the popular conception of what “queer” is, reaching back to reexamine some of the hallmarks of American Jewish culture in the 20th century. Focusing on six major works (with more modern pieces bookending the discussion), Hoffman upholds a definition of queer that has gained increasing currency in recent years — one that denotes nonheteronormative sexual or gender identity — but he reclaims the term’s original or alternative definitions as well: queer is something odd, something different. And it’s not only sexual orientation or gender identity that can be queered; everything from racial identity and immigrant status is open to queer interpretation. Queer, Hoffman demonstrates, is about passing, not passing, and subverting the paradigm, and he delights in demonstrating how, by this definition, Jewish American culture (represented in this book by literature, film and theater) is about as queer as it gets.
Moving through great works of the Jewish American canon — such as Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengance,” Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and all of the important films by Yiddish stage and screen legend Molly Picon — Hoffman seeks to demonstrate that the Jew has long been “other” in America — odd, different and, one might say, queer. The struggle to assimilate, and the undercurrents of counter- assimilationist culture, have really been ways for Jewish Americans to grapple with their queerness — their distinct otherness, which made them unique but also was often feared, lest it inhibit their ability to become American. Hoffman puts it plainly when discussing Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky: “In the world of the assimilating Jewish American immigrant, one cannot be queer and American at the same time.”
Of course, there’s plenty of modern-day queerness in the book, as well, in examinations of Picon’s onstage cross-dressing and the fine line between homosocial and homosexual in David Levinsky’s tortuous love life — not to mention the lesbian love affair in “God of Vengence” and Portnoy’s obsession with his own male member. But the real joy in a work like this is its ability to challenge what our concept of “queer” really is. Although this book does refer to a lot of queer theory and tends towards the dense and erudite, it is a great read for anyone examining Jewish work on page, stage or screen in America — or anyone who ever wondered, deep down, if there wasn’t something just a bit… queer about Jewish culture in America.
Melanie Weiss is Lilith’s associate editor and runs the Lilith website.