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Who is a Jew?

Ten essayists weigh in

Boundaries of Jewish Identity, edited by Susan A. Glenn and Naomi B. Sokoloff (University of Washington Press, $30.00), is an outstanding collection of essays that makes clear that the question “Who is a Jew?” has many answers. The essays engage this question not only across time and space but in matters as diverse as Israeli and American literature, Polish film, genetics and Jewish converts to Christianity in Russia in the nineteenth century who were beloved to their fellow Jews.

The essays, both scholarly and highly readable, capture the “human struggle for ownership of Jewishness” that the editors outline, and show the variety of responses to that struggle, in specific contexts. Many of the essays engage issues of gender — not surprising, in a work on boundary and difference. Lila Corwin Berman uses mid-century debates about intermarriage to examine the discursive terms of those debates that set generations against one another.

Susan Kahn’s “Are Genes Jewish” is a wonderful distillation of the many issues that surround surrogacy, genetic testing, and the strains within Jewish thought about defining the essence of Judaism. Erica Lehrer’s complex reading of the film “Dekalog 8: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” examines the issue of Polish/Jewish reconciliation following the Holocaust through the characters of two women.

Susan Glenn’s stellar essay on the complexity of visual stereotypes and modern Jewish identity, “Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish,” summarizes with remarkable economy the complex development of ideas about Jewish race and appearance and how they emerge from social scientific ideas and Jews’ efforts to create a shared identity. Her work illuminates the issues explored by many scholars on notions of Jewish women’s bodies and appearances. Glenn argues that “To blend in, Jewish men changed their names; Jewish women changed their noses.” She explains that in the 1940s and 1950s “more than half of those seeking rhinoplasties in the United States were Jews, most of them female adolescents hoping to attain a more “normal” American appearance without abandoning their Jewish identity. Non Jewish women also had rhinoplasties to avoid being categorized as Jewish.”

Not surprisingly, the two essays that focus on Israel amplify the questions of boundaries to a different decibel. Naomi Sokoloff ’s reading of the work of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli writers systematically explores the complex meaning of stereotype in literature and media, suggesting hopefully that they may not only close off relationships with other groups, but force the reader to consider limits on how “others” are portrayed. She finds hope in some literary stereotypes for expanding notions of who is an Israeli. Gad Barzilai’s “Who is a Jew” is an impressive analysis of citizenship law in Israel, examining how dynamic the question of “who is a Jew” actually is in the state, and underlines the political nature of these questions.

Boundaries of Jewish Identity keeps the complex question of how difference is reckoned at the center of each essay. It is a quintessential work of Jewish scholarship — the questions are hard and the answers complex, open-ended, and midwives of future questions. 

Riv-Ellen Prell, is Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota and affiliated with the Center for Judaic Studies and the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She is most recently the editor of Women Remaking American Judaism.