Don’t Call Me White: Jews & the Price of Whiteness in America

Whiteness studies is a burgeoning field in the academy with much attention focused on the ways in which ethnic groups like the Irish, Italians, and Jews socially evolved from being racial outsiders to unproblematic whites over the course of the twentieth century. Often, however, the question of integration is framed in a simplistic way: first the white mainstream dislikes group X, then it decides that group X is actually ‘A-O.K.’ and admits it into the circle of whiteness. This unambiguously thrills group X, allowing it to demonstrate the type of exclusivity it formerly opposed. Eric L. Goldstein, assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at Emory University, has written a new book that treats the story of the Jews and whiteness in a more sophisticated way. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity is a scholarly work, thoroughly documented with each general claim immediately followed by a slew of qualifications and distinctions. It is also compelling and readable, putting forward an urgent and relevant thesis on a perennial topic of Jewish life in America. Goldstein stakes his work on the notion that the dominant forces in American society have consistently defined themselves according to a “black”/”white” dichotomy, which has rendered Jews consistently uncertain of their place.

Goldstein reminds us that the issue of race in America was not always simply about color. In the heyday of racial “science,” even the “Great Caucasian family” was divided into numerous racial subdivisions such as Anglo-Saxon, Semitic, Teuton, Alpine, and Mediterranean. Unlike Germany, where the primary racial distinction was between Aryans and Semites, the distinction in America was primarily between whites and blacks. American Jews also frequently employed the discourse of race to describe themselves, since the concepts of blood and shared ancestry helped to describe the social ties Jews had with one another, even when they had abandoned religious Judaism or achieved a good measure of assimilation into white society.

These social ties were forged not only by a long history of forced habitation in European ghettos, but by a strong religious mission to be a distinct people.

But in a nation where a white majority felt the need to define itself against outsiders, the racial status of Jews was problematic. Were Jews white? Both Jewish and non-Jewish commentators wrestled with this question. To non-Jews, Jews were sometimes seen as whites who merely needed to overcome their persistent tendency towards endogamy (in-group marriage) in order to become full members of American society. For Jews, however, even this seemingly favorable attitude seemed like an invitation to self-destruction. Further, many Jews were fully aware that to be considered white meant adopting typical white attitudes towards African-Americans. Having in most cases escaped persecution in Europe, Jews were reluctant to adopt racist attitudes reminiscent of those under which they had suffered. Jews wanted it both ways: acceptance in mainstream society and the ability to continue to define themselves as a distinct group (which often meant taking a distinct position on racial issues). Yet, as long as race remained the primary standard for social identity, Jews were uneasy about their status.

In each of the chronological periods he treats, from the late 19th century to the present, Goldstein draws distinctions between Jews in the North and those in the South; those Jews already acculturated to the U.S. and new immigrants; richer Jews and poorer ones; Zionists and communists; religious Jews and secular humanists. Goldstein shows how at any time, conflicts existed both between and within all of these groups of Jews on questions about the racial status of the Jews, the approach Jews should take towards African-American rights, and the best way to achieve “harmony” with the white Christian majority without giving up Judaism entirely.

Through detailed looks at Jewish newspapers such as the Forverts and the American Hebrew, Goldstein presents all sides of the debate, encouraging readers to consider several viewpoints. He even provides another spin on Al Jolson’s famous turn as a blackface-wearing Jewish performer in The Jazz Singer, arguing that Jews who wore blackface did so not only to shore up their white identity by asserting their difference from black people, but also to display emotions they were uncomfortable expressing as “Jewish” emotions. “In this scenario,” Goldstein writes, “the use of blackface obscured the performer’s Jewishness and, through the use of heavy stereotype, focused the attention on the black-white divide. But at the same time, blackface made the African- American subject available as a surrogate for Jewish expression, combining, albeit uneasily, what writer Ronald Sanders calls an ‘element of longing admiration’ with the racist elements of the performance.”

It is this kind of attention to nuance that makes The Price of Whiteness a valuable contribution to a too often harsh and shrill discussion. The book does have weaknesses, however. Due to the fact that most of the U.S. Jewish population has traditionally been Ashkenazi, the existence of Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews is rarely discussed, to say nothing of black Jews and their own attitudes towards the question. Goldstein’s final chapter, addressing Jews and whiteness today, might have considered whether American Ashkenazi Jews’ conception of their own whiteness has changed in response to the immigration of non-white Jews to the United States as well as to Israel.

Goldstein argues that many young Jews today feel that they have assimilated too far into the world of the undifferentiated white, and now seek ways to again assert their Jewish difference. It may be that they are feeling the latent power of the religious command of Jewish separateness, or it may simply be that they think whiteness is boring. Whatever the cause, Jews today, in contrast to the era of their grandparents, feel an acute need to assert their difference from the surrounding society rather than their similarity. Goldstein cites Heeb magazine and the movie The Hebrew Hammer as examples of attempts in this vein, which often borrow from black culture (still seen as the quintessential “difference” in America). I would be remiss if I failed to mention Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae singer who has recently been all but accused of minstrelsy by writers in Slate and The New York Times for being a “white” performer of “black” music.

But the treatment of Matisyahu-entirely apart from the question of whether his music is any good-only shows how the intersection of race and Jewishness is a complex topic that is still failing to receive the treatment it deserves. As Goldstein points out, many Jews still want to see themselves as having risen from a disadvantaged “outsider” background, and are thus uncomfortable with the notion that they have benefited from white privilege. The insistence of black leaders since the 1960s that Jews indeed have benefited and continue to benefit from a racist power structure has been at the root of much of the acrimony between the two communities over the past few decades, and has spawned a defensive Jewish conservatism that prides itself on the success of Jews in America. In most cases, though, American racial discourse remains stuck on the “black”/”white” divide, with little place for other distinctive forms of difference.

The burgeoning popularity of Matisyahu may be a good place for Jews to start asking some of these questions. We can assume that Matthew Miller, a pot-smoking Phish-head from White Plains, benefited from white privilege; but does Matisyahu, the Crown Heights Hasid, really benefit in the same way? What is cultural appropriation, and is it okay to use the music of other cultures to work out one’s own identity issues? Is Jewish difference in America always a cover for an underlying “whiteness”? What about black, Hispanic, and Middle-Eastern Jews? And what will whiteness mean in a country with a continually decreasing proportion of European-descended citizens? A commitment to exploring these questions, and to the discovery of a method of understanding difference that is both broader and deeper than those of the past, should become the task of American Jewry today.

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