HOW JEWS BECAME WHITE FOLKS AND WHAT THAT SAYS ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA by Karen Brodkin

HOW JEWS BECAME WHITE FOLKS AND WHAT THAT SAYS ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

paper 0-8135-2590-X How Jews came, during the last three decades, to be viewed, by themselves and others, as —white— (having previously been considered —not quite white—) is the focus of this equally interesting and flawed study. By —white— anthropologist Brodkin (Univ. of Calif., Los Angeles; Caring by the Hour, not reviewed) means not only skin color but also an ethnic-cultural identity (something connoted by such phrases as “WASP” and “mainstream American”) as well as factors such as class and labor status. Through anecdotal, sociological, historical, literary, and other cultural material, she traces the decline of American Jews’ working-class values, the loss of a distinctive language (Yiddish), the development of left-liberal politics, and general ethnic cohesiveness. Brodkin has some fascinating insights into the interplay between Jewish ethnicity and gender. For example, she observes that the stereotypes of the smothering Jewish mother and of the Jewish-American Princess may well represent Jewish men’s projections on to Jewish women of their own ambivalence about assimilating into the materially alluring but often culturally and spiritually shallow postwar mainstream American culture. Unfortunately, Brodkin’s perspective, which draws heavily on “African American, neo-Marxist and critical race theory,” neglects entirely or scants a number of key factors in the growing acceptance of Jews as full-fledged whites, such as the post-Holocaust rejection of the concept of a “Jewish race.” Brodkin also errs in other ways, such as romanticizing the degree of “reciprocity” (ethnic cohesion and mutual aid) found among Lower East Side immigrant Jews. While containing a great deal of interesting material from several disciplines, including popular culture, Brodkin’s book ultimately is unsatisfying because it rests on too narrow a theoretical base and contains too many unwarranted generalizations. Thus, the author fails to sustain the view that the story of the Jews’ successful assimilation into “white culture,” during an era of persistent discrimination against those who are now known as “people of color,” reflects something important about the role of race in American life.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8135-2589-6
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Rutgers Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1998