Are Jews White? Three Books Look at Race and Religion

My late aunt Frieda, naturally dark complexioned, would turn so tan in the summer months that on at least one occasion, driving through the Jim Crow South, she was told she could not use a “whites only” entrance but would have to go around back like the other “colored people.”

In the context of my liberal-minded family, this anecdote was meant to illustrate more than just the abhorrent and shameful nature of America’s legalized racism. There was a fitting irony that, in those days before the civil rights struggle, a Jewish woman, the daughter of leftist immigrants from Bialystok, should take her seat alongside persecuted African Americans.

Today, however, the story of Aunt Frieda has additional dimensions. Ashkenazic Jews, who by and large were not accepted on arrival as part of the white American mainstream, have over the past century increasingly come to be defined — and also to define themselves — as part of the nation’s “white” majority.

How did most American Jews become white people? The explanation isn’t simple, in part because this shift is the result of a variety of social, economic and political forces and in part because racial categories in America are arbitrary, imprecise and malleable. Beyond that, one wonders if Jews only become “white” to the degree they are willing to assimilate into the mainstream. The complex position of Jews and other European immigrant groups in the American racial continuum has drawn the attention of a growing number of writers and scholars in recent years.

“Seventy-five years ago, when a Protestant person looked at somebody like me, they wouldn’t see a professional white lady,” said Karen Brodkin, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America” (Rutgers University Press).

In her research, Ms. Brodkin explores the various economic forces — particularly the changes in the garment industry with the arrival of Jewish workers — that contributed to the changing racial classification of Jews. “In a sense, whoever gets slotted into those god-awful jobs, gets `un-whitened,’ and their `un-whiteness’ becomes a license for employers to degrade the jobs — it’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” she said. She argues in her book that federal economic policies and an end to restricted housing made it possible for Jews to assimilate into the white mainstream. “I grew up in a neighborhood — Valley Stream, Long Island — that had Protestants, Catholics, Jews,” she said. “My parents didn’t have [that] in the old neighborhood.”

For Maurice Berger, author of “White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the vagaries of “Jewishness as whiteness” were a very personal “tug of war” throughout his childhood in a Lower East Side housing project. His father, a left-leaning Ashkenazic Jew, identified with the plight of African Americans and idolized Martin Luther King Jr.; his mother, a dark-skinned Sephardic woman, was unabashedly racist and would, much to his father’s displeasure, describe the neighboring “shvartzes” as inherently inferior to white people.

“She was trying to protect me from every ounce of dark blood that she thought was in my body,” Mr. Berger said, recalling how his mother would force him to straighten his thick, curly hair with pomades and how she herself would never leave the house without lightening her own face several shades with foundation makeup and powder.

Mr. Berger, a senior fellow at the New School for Social Research, is today fascinated by the idea of “whiteness itself as a myth. There’s no such thing as racial purity, of course. But also, the many myths that whiteness creates, that white people are superior and smarter — myths which were virulent and grotesque in Jim Crow America — have turned into more subtle and sophisticated myths, still used to create a hierarchy that gives whiteness credibility and often demeans blackness.”

Jews are just one of many groups, beginning with the Irish, who found themselves being redefined when they came to America, writes historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of “Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race” (Harvard University Press). Mid-19th-century newspapers routinely depicted European immigrants’ “Celtic physiognomy” and “black-tinted skin,” and these images soon gave way to recialized caricatures of Jews and Italians.

“Jews were able to come in such numbers and to attain citizenship on the basis of their legal categorization as white persons,” said Mr. Jacobson. “But in terms of social convention, the way people looked at them — and the way they looked at themselves — they did not think of themselves of the same race, or the same kind of `white’ as an Anglo-Saxon person.”

Interestingly, notes Mr. Jacobson, the canard of the Jews as a distinct race of man — which would see its horrifying apotheosis in Nazi policy — was also advocated by the nascent Zionist movement.

“Early Zionism on both sides of the Atlantic generated a racialized consciousness about Jewishness,” said Mr. Jacobson. Many Zionists, he notes, had moved away from religion, but needed a framework in which to see Jewishness as a defining category. “One of those idioms that appears, especially among the Labor Zionists, is Jewishness as a racial identity.”

Ms. Brodkin says that racial self-identification is often more complicated than definition by others. “Whiteness from within has always been problematic,” Ms. Brodkin said. “In part, that’s because whiteness isn’t a history, isn’t an internally constructed identity. It really works as an identification from the outside, an assigned identity that carries some very valuable perks. Part of the reason that Jews have had so much trouble is that we don’t think of ourselves that way — we think of ourselves as Jews.”

Today, Mr. Jacobson said, there’s considerable debate in the scientific community about whether existing racial classifications have any validity whatsoever. “Most scientists are convinced that there’s been so much mixture over time that you can’t discover anything more than simple tendencies, you can’t find genetic certainties.”

For her part, Ms. Brodkin argues against any distinct racial categories: “I think most anthropologists would tell you no. There aren’t races, you can only talk about clines and gradations across the species.”

She went on, “We are a multi-populous ethnic group, and I’m willing to bet that if you look at any ethnic group and you go back far enough historically, they’ll define themselves as multi-populous. My own grandmother thought of herself as a Galitzianer before she though of herself as a Jew.”

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