Color Me Jewish: One Group’s Quest For Whiteness

Nonfiction

By Nathaniel Popper

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity

By Eric L. Goldstein

Princeton University Press, 320 pages, $29.95.

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Last fall, researchers published a study claiming that higher IQ scores among Jews were a result of natural selection. This biological explanation for stereotypically Jewish traits was widely discredited by geneticists, but it didn’t stop a number of high-profile publications from trumpeting the study’s findings. It seems the hunger for stories about the “Jewish brain” is floating in the Zeitgeist these days. By giving such prominence to the story, editors were picking up on the increasing tribal identification among American Jews, reflected everywhere from the “Jewcy” T-shirts to the popularity of the Birthright Israel program — all of it coming a decade after intermarriage became the great bugaboo of the American Jewish world.

As it turns out, this is hardly the first time that Jews have been drawn to a biological or racial envisioning of their peoplehood. As Emory University professor Eric Goldstein tells us in his new book, “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity,” American Jews in the 1880s similarly embraced a racial conception of Jewishness on the heels of a panic about rising intermarriage and assimilation. In 1887, the rabbi at Boston’s largest synagogue told his congregants that “it remains a fact that we spring from a different branch of humanity, that different blood flows in our veins.” While Jews are generally seen as the unwitting victims of biologically deterministic thinking, Goldstein argues that they have also frequently been among its most active proponents.

Goldstein’s well-timed book traces the fraught history of Jewish particularity from the era in which “Hebrew” was a category in the census to today’s society, in which scientists are again reviving chimeras of Jewish race. In the popular mind, race has loomed large as the most immutable of character markers — a trace in the blood that can’t be altered. But Goldstein suggests that Jews’ perception of their own racial coherence has been an unsteady concept, changing constantly and depending primarily on the acceptance of Jews in American society. He argues that Jewish identity has largely been shaped by a tug of war between two contradictory desires: on one hand, to be fully accepted in the white majority, and on the other, to maintain the boundaries of the Jewish community. And combing through nearly every racially charged historical moment of the past century, Goldstein produces the rare academic book that uses history to enlighten, rather than complicate, a very contemporary debate.

The starting point for Goldstein’s book is the mid-19th century, when German Jews on these shores first began to adopt racial terminology to explain the unity of their community. Before this, American Jews, inspired by the Enlightenment, had frequently described themselves as part of the nation of Jews. But in America, the “nation” label conflicted with the ideal of immigrants leaving behind their old political allegiances for the New World. Race was appealing because it carried no political connotations.

But just as German Reform rabbis began embracing racial terminology, it suddenly became less attractive. The onslaught of Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the century muddied the apparent coherence of the Jewish community. But more importantly, the newcomers made the Jewish community visible and large enough to run up against the racial discourse that was becoming ever more dominant in American discourse: the black-white divide. Jewish leaders wanted to avoid the lot of American blacks, and so racial terminology itself became less attractive. When the 1910 census rolled around, Jewish leaders fought, unsuccessfully, to have the “Hebrew” categorization removed.

In Europe, Jews had been the quintessential “others” against whom white societies could define themselves. In America, that role fell to blacks. In the 1920s and ’30s, when racism against blacks reached a fevered pitch, many corners of the growing Jewish community made public efforts to separate themselves from the black community. When Booker T. Washington suggested an affinity between the black and Jewish history of oppression, the Jewish Ledger, a New Orleans newspaper, called him an “impudent nigger.” “To compare the Jew, who occupies the highest pinnacle of human superiority and intellectual attainment, with the Negro, who forms the mud at its base, is something only a Negro with more than the usual vanity and impudence of his race could attempt,” the Jewish Ledger’s editorialists wrote.

Goldstein rests his arguments a little too heavily on the Jewish fear of blackness — and on the converse desire to be white — as the primary factor driving Jewish identity. As a result, the story becomes less engaging after World War II, when antisemitism began to fade. Goldstein’s interest seems to fall off at this point — since Jews had achieved their early desire to become white — though Jewish identity continued to evolve.

Which brings us to the current moment, one in which certain Jews are moving in the opposite direction from the one noted in Goldstein’s book, demanding that their difference be noticed. Goldstein finds an early trace of this in Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song,” in which Sandler listed celebrity Jews who are identified not by practice but by birth. More recently, the tribal instinct that Goldstein identifies has taken the form of identification with blacks, e.g., through the surge of Jewish musicians involved in hip-hop and rap. Identifying with Jewishness has become, finally, a way of rebelling against the homogenized white culture of Middle America. Whether it is a lasting elixir for Jewish continuity is another question.

Nathaniel Popper is a staff writer at the Forward.






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