Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity
Klezmer is a continually evolving musical tradition that grows out of Eastern European Jewish culture, and its changes reflect Jews’ interaction with other groups as well as their shifting relations to their own history. But what happens when, in the klezmer spirit, the performances that go into the making of Jewishness come into contact with those that build different forms of cultural identity? Jonathan Freedman argues that key terms central to the Jewish experience in America, notions like the immigrant, the ethnic, and even the model minority, have worked and continue to intertwine the Jewish-American with the experiences, histories, and imaginative productions of other groups: Latinos, Asians, African Americans, and gays and lesbians, among others.
Freedman traces the twists and turns taken by these various relationships in a number of imaginative arenas: the white-black crossover between jazz and klezmer and its unexpected consequences in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain; the relationship between Jewishness and queer identity in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; contemporary fictions about crypto-Jews in Cuba and the Mexican-American borderland; the connection between Jews and Christian apocalyptic narratives, especially the best-selling Left Behind series; the centuries-old cross-referencing of Jewish and Asian American identities; the stories of new immigrants spun by contemporary writers like Bharathi Mukherjee, Gish Jen, Lan Samantha Chang, and Gary Shteyngart; and the revisionary relation of these authors to classic Jewish American immigrant narratives by the likes of Henry Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow. By interrogating the fraught andmultidimensional uses to which Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness have been put in shaping the nature and properties of other categories of identity and experience, Freedman offers a richer understanding of racial, ethnic, and sexual categories in America and of the ethnoracial complexities facing the United States in the twenty-first century.
By comparing and contrasting the performances that go into the making of Jewishness in America with those that build different forms of cultural identity-Latino, Asian, white, black, and homosexual-Jonathan Freedman believes we can learn much about the attitudes toward Jews in the United States and the construction of racial, ethnic, and sexual categories. Freedman’s central focus is klezmer-a Jewish musical tradition that has its roots in biblical times but is continually reshaped through contact with different cultures. As klezmer has entered the United States, it has continued to evolve, reflecting Jews’ changing relationship to Judaism and Jewishness and their frequent interaction with outside groups and influences.
A similar dynamic characterizes the experience of a number of ethnic groups in America, affecting ideas of maleness and femaleness, queerness and normativity, and the very terms defining these categories. From the 1880s to today, Jewish Americans have shaped notions of the immigrant, the ethnic, the model minority, the pervert, and even the Antichrist, and have transformed or have been transformed by the social, racial, and ethnic groups around them. Freedman’s chapters address the crossover between jazz and klezmer, the relationship between Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and contemporary fiction about crypto-Jews in Cuba and the Mexican-American borderland, the connection between the Christian apocalyptic Left Behind thrillers and narratives focusing on new immigrants, and the emigrant literature of Bharathi Mukherjee, Lan Samantha Chang, and Gary Shteyngart. Using klezmer as the primary metaphor, Freedman emphasizes the value of cultural hybridityin these contexts and offers a better understanding of the increasing ethnoracial complexities facing the United States.