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Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

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Exploring how visual media presents claims to Jewish authenticity, Imagining Jewish Authenticity argues that Jews imagine themselves and their place within America by appealing to a graphic sensibility. Ken Koltun-Fromm traces how American Jewish thinkers capture Jewish authenticity, and lingering fears of inauthenticity, in and through visual discourse and opens up the subtle connections between visual expectations, cultural knowledge, racial belonging, embodied identity, and the ways images and texts work together.

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Introduction: Visual Authenticity in the American Jewish Imaginary

ePub

Introduction

Visual Authenticity in the American Jewish Imaginary

In the 1960s and 1970s, the makers of Levy’s Rye Bread ran their now recognizable poster campaign of Native, Chinese, Irish, Asian, and African Americans zealously devouring their leavened product. Levy’s slogan—“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s!”—utilized the presumed knowledge that some Americans do not look Jewish. These Americans could certainly enjoy Jewish cuisine, but they could not become what they ate. Yet to Toni Eisendorf, then a young adult living in New York City, these advertisements offered a very different vision of Jewish identity. When asked to explain her attraction to Judaism after negotiating various Christian and public schools as a youth, Toni recalled the visual impact of Levy’s advertisement campaign:

The first ad I saw, in a subway station, had a little Black boy. I remember seeing this ad, and the way I interpreted it was that you don’t have to be White to be Jewish. That made me feel so good for some reason. I actually felt relieved.1

 

1 Seeing Israel in Bernard Rosenblatt’s Social Zionism

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1   Seeing Israel in Bernard Rosenblatt’s Social Zionism

It is conceivable that one could view the Zionists’ deliberate mediation of the Jewish experience in Palestine as manipulation, or worse, exploitation. But that would misrepresent their deep-seated quest for, and sincere belief in, the authenticity of their claims. This was, in the Zionist imagination, one of the chief means of national liberation for the Jews: they had to be able to see their potential as a people and a nation, quite literally, before their eyes—preferably in the best possible light, as a blossoming flower—in order to perceive themselves as fully human.

—Michael Berkowitz, Western Jewry and the Zionist Project, 1914–1933

In an essay discussing Israel in American Jewish education, Walter Ackerman (1925–2003) recalls how every American kid attending Jewish schools of his generation, at one time or another, went to see the film A House in the Desert (1948). This now classic Zionist promotional film tells the story of the alutzim—those vanguards of a rejuvenated Jewish people in the land of Israel whom Arthur Goren and Mark Raider have explored in some detail.1 Building a kibbutz in the desert region known in Israel as the Arava, the alutzim produced their first crops and made the desert bloom. Ackerman acknowledges the heavy romantic propaganda, yet still recalls its visual impact: “But I have never forgotten the last frame of that movie—a fragile sliver of white bud bursting through the dry and dusty brown of desert waste.” That frame holds its power for Ackerman in ways that Jewish education, focused on “the reliance on telling,2 can rarely capture with the same urgency and vitality. Images captivate the senses in ways such that even the most romantic of pictures seems right and fitting. A House in the Desert deploys images to make arguments—a visual form of telling that travels very deeply into historical memory.

 

2 Seeing Things in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath

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2   Seeing Things in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath

Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

When Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), perhaps the most recognized American Jewish thinker of his generation, published The Sabbath (1951),1 Jews were facing a new reality in America: their lifestyles were far more suburban than urban; there was less antisemitism in the wake of the Holocaust; and yet people were still driven by consumerist pressures and technological advances. Jews were wealthier too, and were living alongside their Christian neighbors, with middle-class choices open to them. With greater acceptance and visibility, American Jews could see a different, more enticing future filled with luxury goods, seductive comforts, safe homes, honest work, and caring families. Though Rosenblatt feared such a home precisely because of those enticements, a good many American Jews sought a calming presence after the horrors of the previous decade. The then popular television series The Goldbergs2 offered homespun advice for common, familial tensions, but those conflicts were often resolved, muted, and visually displaced to allow a more cohesive, accommodating picture. Jews could visualize themselves as the Americans they wanted to be, and yearned for the security of home so often denied them elsewhere. Rosenblatt’s social laboratory was too far away, both geographically and psychologically, from the accommodating charm of American culture.

 

3 Seeing Food in The Jewish Home Beautiful and Kosher by Design

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3   Seeing Food in The Jewish Home Beautiful and Kosher by Design

The beauty of the Jewish home resembles the ever-changing beauties of nature. God did not paint one sunset and hang it permanently in the sky. He paints a new sunset daily. Thus too do the beauties of the Jewish home pass through an endless cycle of repetition but not of exact duplication. Our mothers evolved new and beautiful settings and culinary masterpieces for the various days and seasons of the Jewish year.

—Betty Greenberg and Althea Silverman, The Jewish Home Beautiful

In chapters one and two I explored the anxiety of authenticity as it surfaced in Bernard Rosenblatt’s Social Zionism and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, and noted how these texts deployed images to present extra-linguistic claims (Social Zionism) and to mirror textual dilemmas (The Sabbath). In these two texts, visual accounts of the land (Rosenblatt) and sight (Heschel) raised claims to authentic Jewish presence. The images in both texts capture but also evade this anxiety as they deconstruct visions of harmony between Jewish identity and American culture. For Rosenblatt, the American frontier has moved to Palestine where Jews recover their authentic selves; for Heschel, iconic vision protects Jews from the dazzling displays of technical, American culture. Yet these appeals to visual authenticity raise the fear that an authoritative Jewish presence could be lost or never fully regained. The land could remain fallow, or American Jews might turn iconic things into idols. The visual images in Heschel’s text mimic this textual anxiety, for Schor’s etchings are just as alluring as they are inspiring, whereas the images accompanying Social Zionism work in different registers than textual ones to expose both authentic and inauthentic vistas.

 

4 The Language of Jewish Bodies in Michael Wyschogrod’s The Body of Faith

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4   The Language of Jewish Bodies in Michael Wyschogrod’s

The Body of Faith

Were God to have entered this world in the fullness of his being, he would have destroyed it because the thinning out or the darkening we have spoken of would disappear and with it the possibility of human existence. He therefore entered that world through a people whom he chose as his habitation. There thus came about a visible presence of God in the universe, first in the person of Abraham and later his descendants, as the people of Israel.

—Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith

In the preface to the second edition of his The Body of Faith, Michael Wyschogrod notes the change in subtitles from the first to this more recent edition. Where he had once appended Judaism as Corporeal Election to the title (first edition, 1983), the reissued second edition now defined The Body of Faith as God in the People Israel (1996).1 Much of what interests me in Wyschogrod’s embodied language of authenticity can be gleaned from this acute change in subtitles. Where the first edition focused on Judaism and chosenness (Judaism as Corporeal Election), the second edition emphasized God’s presence in a particular nation (God in the People Israel). This modification delicately alters how one understands Wyschogrod’s book. With Judaism as corporeal election, the word body in The Body of Faith defers to a theological statement about belief. Body reads more as metaphor, such that corporeal election becomes the “body” of faith. The point here seems to be that chosenness is Judaism’s central theological principle. But with the phrasing in the second edition—God in the People Israel—the word body refers less to a theological claim and is far more a descriptive statement about the physical indwelling of God’s presence. And that presence resides in the people Israel—really, truly, in that body. Judaism is neither some kind of chosen religion, nor a theological construct. Indeed, God displaces Judaism altogether, reflected in the subtitle, and chooses to dwell “in” a particular national group. The body of faith is a real, material, and visual body in which human beings recognize God’s presence. This is a claim about visual authenticity and chosenness in a corporeal body. Wyschogrod tethers ocular metaphors to physical bodies, and thereby directs visual discourse into carnal Israel. Faith has a body, so Wyschogrod argues, and we can see it in the Jewish people. In The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel, Michael Wyschogrod envisions God’s presence in an embodied people as an authentic and corporeal display of divine chosenness. This is the embodied language of visual authenticity.

 

5 The Language of Gendered Bodies in Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism

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5   The Language of Gendered Bodies in Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism

What happens, however, when I reach out to stories whose worlds do not permit me to enter, that exclude me or distort me? This is the first problem that confronts anyone who attempts to construct a theology of Judaism that includes all the people Israel, men and women. How do we face a story that de/faces some of us and thereby diminishes all of us?

—Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism

Rachel Adler (b. 1943) begins all her chapters of Engendering Judaism (1998) by telling a story that, she hopes, will yield a “purifying laughter” to restore the feminine other.1 Though she reframes the tales as comedies, these are serious narratives indeed. And like many good jokes, Adler’s textual play is subversive, offering a transformative account of “a way of thinking about and practicing Judaism that men and women recreate and renew together as equals.”2 One of those jokes is the “shit” method that relies on a bilingual pun in Yiddish for throwing stuff together. Eastern European Jewish women often used this method as they cooked their foods without precise measurements or recipes. Though a far cry from Fishbein’s more deliberate and precise cooking recipes in Kosher by Design, the heuristic value of utilizing the resources at hand works for feminist theologians because the “shit” method teaches how to be “attentive to potential resources in its immediate environment, imaginative about combinations, and flexible about the structure of the recipe.”3 This playful openness—one that is pliable yet resilient, inventive yet also attentive to context and tradition—shapes Adler’s approach to engender Judaism. She mines the Jewish textual tradition in order to reclaim female presence and performance; she offers imaginative retellings of stories to embody an ethics of mutual responsibility and just relations; and she stretches the boundaries of vision to include the face of the forgotten Other.

 

6 The Language of Racial Bodies in Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s The Colors of Jews

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6   The Language of Racial Bodies in Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s

The Colors of Jews

The term “Jew” I associate with white people. I have some conflicting emotions about that. If I say I’m not Jewish because Jewish people are white, it’s as if I’m accepting that all Jewish people are white people. Yes, not all Jewish people are white people, I do know that, but at the same time the term “black Jews” doesn’t work for me either because it seems to assert that Jewish people are “normally” white. You have these terms, these labels that other people give you, that don’t quite work for you, and so you establish your own terms, and those terms are sometimes in reaction to terms that already exist.

—Navonah, in Kaye/Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews

Mrs. I, a married mother of two children, joined Prophet Frank S. Cherry’s Church of the Living God in Philadelphia in the late 1930s. She fully participated in Passover observance, accepted two resurrections (the one for good, the other for bad people), and relied on Prophet Cherry as a source of knowledge who could “seal” a person’s fate. Conversant in both Yiddish and Hebrew, Prophet Cherry believed he and his congregation of black Jews could trace their lineage within the Hebrew Bible. Like many other black Jewish communities, this one (originally founded at the turn of the twentieth century) appropriated freely from both Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, and so established a vibrant syncretism of Talmudic lore, baptism by immersion, and Christian hymns together with faith in a black Jesus. When Arthur Huff Fauset introduces Mrs. I in his Black Gods of the Metropolis, he notes how his description “closely follows that of the informant,” and he offers this telling remark: “Mrs. I. argued with a Jew over a Jewish star she was wearing on her dress. The Jew said that she had no right to it. She upheld her right, and finally she told him that even if he claimed to be white, his damned mammy was a black woman.”1 When Mrs. I and this Jewish white man confront each other, what do they see? How do whiteness and blackness appear to them? Is Jewishness a color, one attached to skin? What claims to authenticity, culture, race, and heritage map onto black and white colors?

 

Conclusion: Imagining Jewish Authenticity in Every Generation

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Conclusion

Imagining Jewish Authenticity in Every Generation

This book has presented an extended argument for recognizing visual images and rhetorical discourse as performative utterances. Images do more than refer to or describe things: they produce claims to Jewish authenticity, and so do languages that deploy visual idioms. I have been tracing this narrative thread within American Jewish thought, tethering visual language to articulations of authenticity. In the first section of this book, those expressive claims expose discrete instances of images working with and against textual arguments (as illustrated in Rosenblatt’s Social Zionism), or images mimicking textual dilemmas (Heschel’s The Sabbath), and images staging cultural practices (Fishbein’s Kosher by Design; Greenberg’s and Silverman’s The Jewish Home Beautiful). In the second section I turned to rhetorical modes of persuasion that embody visual authenticity in Jewish (Wyschogrod’s The Body of Faith), gendered (Adler’s Engendering Judaism), and racial subjects (Kaye/Kantrowitz’s The Colors of Jews). All of these texts reveal how, in rhetoric and image, the language of authenticity works as a visual discourse in American Jewish thought. This concern for visual legitimacy also uncovers a parallel discursive thread: the underlying anxiety of inauthenticity. In Heschel’s The Sabbath, Schor’s images might fail as signifiers to the ineffable, or the decorative and elaborate photographs in Fishbein’s Kosher by Design might witness instead to an ornate façade rather than to hearty substance. The food, we might say, looks too good to eat. Greenberg and Silverman locate their aesthetic tastes within a pageantry of beauty, yet compare their homemaker’s designs to God’s natural creations—an appeal to continuity that belies the anxiety of new beginnings. This anxiety of (in)authenticity weaves its way into Wyschogrod’s concern that while non-Jewish bodies may not convert to Jewish ones, by some miraculous and invisible mutation they become one with Israel. Yet only God can see this. For Wyschogrod, the taint of inauthenticity stains conversion precisely because the converted body lacks visual presence and authority. Adler located the inauthentic gaze in the sexual look that focuses on female genitalia, whereas Yavilah McCoy wanted to deflect the inauthentic entirely, and so live and simply “BE” a Jewish person of color.

 

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