Thursday, August 16, 2007

Minority Report: Sans Jews

I've cross-posted over at free to leave your comments there as well.

I recently returned “home” to Indiana from spending the summer at Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory. Basically, SCT is like the ultimate nerd camp, where young intellectuals (mostly professors and advanced PhD students) attend seminars and lectures—on literary theory, philosophy, political theory, postcolonialism, and everything in between—all day, everyday, and with a smile. Fortunately, evenings were devoted to reclaiming our cool-ness by going out to all the Ithaca, NY hotspots and drowning our livers in whatever libations the all-too-eager-to-close-at-1am bartenders would pour us (seriously, last call was at 12:30!).

But what does any of this have to do with Jews? Nothing. And, everything, it seems.

In addition to the public lectures and colloquia that all participants (approx. 60) attended, we were each enrolled in one of four seminars that we attended twice a week. I chose a seminar led by Eric Cheyfitz called “What is a Just Society?” On the last day of the seminar, we were asked to fill out evaluation forms. One participant in my seminar, a lusty Latina, was openly angry, groaning and mumbling as she filled out her form.

Later, as a few of us sat outside, I overheard her complaining that there was no diversity at SCT—that all of the seminar leaders and public speakers were white, that there was no minority representation. The few people around her seemed to agree.

Leave it to me to infiltrate myself into a conversation where I am not wanted. “Uh, what about Gayatri Spivak?” I said. Spivak, a heavy-hitter in the world of literary theory, and a South Asian woman, had given a public lecture that was rather bizarre, and in which she relayed too much information about her physical ailments before demanding—ahem, requesting—that the air conditioner be turned off. We were all sweating in sync by the end of her talk. A regular diva, that one. I hope to emulate her one day.

In response, one participant did one of those half-laugh, half-snort things, and said, “Spivak was the token minority.” I was confused. And I was confused because I had counted at least two or three speakers who were Jewish. And Jewish is a minority, right? White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are not minorities. But Jews are minorities. Right?

Apparently not.

As if she had read my mind, the lusty Latina again chimed in, this time with an unveiled air of disgust: “All four seminar leaders are Jews. And two of the three outside speakers are Jews also.” I waited for her to whip out her copy of the Protocols.

Okay, apparently my Jewdar, which is usually right on target, had overlooked a couple Jews. The list of SCT seminar leaders and speakers was as follows:

Daniel Boyarin—My Jewdar did not even have to be turned on for me to know he is Jewish; he’s an openly gay Orthodox Jewish scholar at UC Berkeley who wears both a kippah and suspenders.

Eric Cheyfitz—This guy is Jewish, and he is also pretty bad-ass, and does some cool work with American Indians. He was also a key player in the recent Ward Churchill debacle.

William Connolly—Not a Jew; he was the token WASP.

Dominick LaCapra—Technically not a Jew, but he’s done so much interesting work in Holocaust Studies and trauma theory that he deserves a free pass; in fact, he told me that when he was in Israel, he was the Shabbas Goy, who lit the candles for observant Jews.

Marjorie Levinson—A Jew, of course, who is an expert on Spinoza.

Martha Nussbaum—A convert to Judaism. In her lecture, she kept talking about converting to Judaism from Puritanism. I’m not quite sure what that means. I thought the Puritans died out with the scarlet letter. She wrote a piece on the boycott of Israeli institutions for this summer’s Dissent that I thought was smart and rhetorically savvy, but in her public lecture at Cornell she was anything but that.

Bruce Robbins—A Jew! My Jewdar completely missed this one! He’s totally incognito, except for that Magen David around his neck.

Gayatri Spivak—Like I said, not a Jew, but according to some, the “token minority.”

Ann Laura Stoler
—Jewish; an anthropologist over at the New School; the sound of her voice is so loud and abrasive that it scrambled the decoder on my Jewdar and I nearly missed identifying her as Jewish.

In my opinion, this was a great—though perhaps imbalanced—celebration of diversity. But I was one of very few people who saw it that way. Frankly, I was a bit freaked out by the animosity that the presence of so many ethnically Jewish (only one was religiously Jewish) speakers provoked in this particular group of participants. There was something creepy about it—what I mean to say, is that had all of the Jewish participants been Asian or African American or anything else, these people wouldn’t have been upset.

But they were Jewish. And they dominated the playing field. And they were kicking ass.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised—it’s par for the course. You’re not a “minority” once your ethnic group becomes successful or outnumbers the “majority” in any isolated instance. It’s the same reason why, as a scholar of Jewish and Jewish American literature about to enter the job market, I’m afraid to market myself as someone who does ethnic American literature.

So, what’s the story—are Jews no longer minorities?

1 comment:

Monica said...

Oops...someone just pointed out that I omitted Stanley Fish, also a Jew, from the list of participants. And, how, I wonder, could I possibly have left Fish out?