What a Jew Looks Like

Two Books Present A New Cartography Of Jewish Identity

There is much talk these days about the loss of Jewish identity or the re-imagining thereof. Two new books — Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz’s The Colors of Jews (Indiana University Press, $24.95) and New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora by Carolyn Aviv and David Schneer (NYU Press, $20) both lean towards optimism and possibility in their examinations of how today’s Jewish experiences fit into a global and historical view of Jewish life.

The Colors of Jews declares its project from the start — the title is a clever play on the now-ubiquitous phrase “Jews of Color.” Such a phrase, used without a greater consciousness, Kaye/Kantrowitz intimates, is analogous to saying “a woman doctor” — in qualifying the subject “Jews” with the phrase “of color,” we make assumptions about what is “normal.” Instead, Kaye/ Kantrowitz asserts that “The numbers of Jews of color is large enough that Jewish whiteness should never be assumed.” Moreover, the slope of race is slippery and subjective, shifting with changing circumstance and reflected through various prisms. As such, the testimonies of Jews of all colors are no ploy of political correctness; they represent a numerical reality, one that may be at odds with many American Ashkenazi Jews’ experiences.

Kaye/Kantrowitz explores the ways in which non-Ashkenazi Jews are exoticized and considered, somehow, inauthentic. She interviews some of the biggest names in the field Jewish multiculturalism, including Yavilah McCoy, who runs Ayecha: Jewish Diversity Resources, and Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, both of whom are well-known for their Jewish diversity-centered activism. If the book lacks in any way, it is structural coherence — a chapter in the middle detailing the history of the organization Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, while informative, comes out of nowhere, and a reader who chooses to return to it at the end may find it of more use.

In New Jews, Carolyn Aviv and David Schneer (who previously collaborated on Queer Jews) are also interested in the deconstruction of a Jewish binary. In advocating that the Diaspora-Homeland dichotomy is no longer relevant, they invoke the Global Jew, a concept reminiscent of how the identities of other diasporic communities have evolved. A Global Jew exists in neither exile nor true home, because “home is constantly shifting.” The authors of this volume don’t ignore the relevance of Israel to a Jewish identity, but they disputes its centrality — how, they ask, can Israel occupy a central place in Jewish life when there are Israelis who don’t identify as Jews, as well as Israelis who leave Israel to live in the “Diaspora”? Examining locations as diverse as New York, San Fransisco and Moscow, Aviv and Schneer probe what makes Jews feel “at home.”

Some of the ways Jews “place” themselves within the world are more metaphoric than spatial: a chapter called “Queer Jews at Home” explores a kind of dislocation that challenges any preconceived notions of finding oneself within Judaism. And although at times the authors seem oddly confused about why Israel has played such a central role, imagined or real, in forming a “Jewish geography,” they do explore the ways Zionism — versus an imagined global Jewish ethos — might affect the Jewish people in the future.

In their treatment of the places and faces of modern Jewish life, both these books presuppose that Jewish identity is changing and evolving, becoming ever more difficult to navigate. We should be grateful, then, to have these helpful roadmaps.