How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America

Karen Brodkin, Rutgers University Press, 1998

Reviewed by Salomon Gruenwald

In this broad-reaching work, UCLA anthropologist Karen Brodkin dispels the myth of Jews as a “model minority.” Drawing upon historical sources, literature, legal scholarship, feminist social sciences, and critical race theory Brodkin demonstrates how the discourse of the “model minority,” particularly as it applies to Jews, functions in the American cultural and national imagination. The nation, as it is conceptualized, has relied on continually renegotiated constructions of whiteness. Engaging and thoughtful, Brodkin challenges social science’s conventional epistemology by inserting herself and her family in the narrative. Most of her material is textual, and the portions that are ethnographic are reflections on her family and friends, as well as her own experience as a Jewish woman in America. Though she concedes that she collects this data “almost like a proper anthropologist” (Brodkin, 4), it does not detract from the strength of her argument. Rather, what she produces is a much needed “post-reflexive” grounded-theory anthropology.

How Jews Became White Folks explains how Jews have experienced a kind of double consciousness (cf. Du Bois, 1903). Their racial identity has been shaped by the experience of being not white in relation to the dominant culture and white with regard to blackness. Allowed to see through both, Jews developed a critical stance to white Christian culture and a social self-identity that made them proud to be in the middle, resulting in a characteristic left-liberal ethos that has been, from time to time, more style than substance. Becoming white works in two ways. For the dominant white society, the gravitation of Jews and European white minorities toward hegemonic white culture served as a Horatio Alger story within the cosmology of the nation and allowed for misguided public policy. Jews’ movement from racial other, to not-quite-white, to white reveals how race in America is constructed in the discursive space opened by a binary between whiteness and blackness. Jews did not become white because they succeeded in spite of racism, rather they succeeded because of white racism. Economic and social shifts following WWII reconfigured whiteness in such a way as to allow them-particularly Jewish men-the entitlements that being white brought (like the G.I. Bill and access to the suburbs). But becoming white is also a lived experience, a learning process in which social actors play an important role in shaping their own selfhood. Brodkin tells, for example, of the desire and ambivalence she and her brother felt for being like the “blond people.” The desire of the marginalized to be like those in power produces an anxiety, one that Brodkin argues is gendered.

At first glance, Brodkin’s arguments may not seem new. Others have shown how the Irish (Ignatiev, 1995) or other European immigrants “became white.” Brodkin, however, takes into account not only occupational and residential segregation, but also renegotiations of gender over three generations in the post-war era. Creating a Jewish identity in the 20th century produced a shift in the meanings and experiences of Jewish womanhood and Jewish manhood. To become white, Jews had to conform to the gender norms of the dominant culture. In the wake of that shift, Jews were left with anxiety and ambivalence which manifest in, among other things, Jewish American Princess (JAP) jokes and misogyny toward the “Jewish mother.” For Jewish men, accepting whiteness and the privileges it brings also means incorporating the patriarchal domesticity of dominant American culture. Jewish women give up the power they once held in the family in exchange for the lifestyle of bourgeois white women.

When immigrants learn that the way to be American is to claim white patriarchal constructions of womanhood and manhood and a middle-class or bourgeois outlook for themselves, they are adapting patterns and practices…by which the United States has continually redefined itself as a nation of whites.

Brodkin’s critique may not sit well with some Jews, for whom the model minority myth is still central to their identities. These myths of resilience and self-propelled success, that more than one American minority group holds dearly, give comfort to the collective pain of communally felt wounds. Brodkin offers her critique with the same respect she gives in the telling of her family stories.

While the model minority identity was the hallmark of a post-war generation, I am left to wonder about my own cohort of 20-something American Jews for whom acceptance in the dominant culture is (arguably) a given and being Jewish is but one of myriad intersecting subjectivities. How Jews Became White Folks should be a call to scholars of American Jewish society to take a serious look at a younger generation and, as Brodkin does, to inquire into the social and economic arrangements which afford them with a very different identity from their parents’ while nonetheless producing its own anxieties about spirituality and community.

Scholastically sophisticated and blissfully readable, How Jews Became White Folks will be welcomed by experts and also useful for undergraduate teaching in anthropology, women’s studies and Jewish studies.

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