Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jewishness: The Inside and the Outside

My transition from living in West Lafayette, Indiana to living in Santa Monica, California has not been easy. But now that I'm finally settled into my new place, I've been able to finish a few novels that I started over the past month or so. Last night, I finished Adam Mansbach's The End of the Jews. I have mixed feelings about it. In some respects it is brilliant--for example, the way in which the three central characters (an old Jewish novelist, his hip-hop loving graffitti artist grandson, and Nina--a young Jewish woman/photographer from former Czechoslavakia) question what it actually means to be Jewish these days. I'm also interested in the way he juxtaposes Jewish and black identity in America.

But I wonder if he is saying something about identity in general, and the ways in which it bends and sometimes even breaks down in what one character calls America, "the culture of the cheeseburger." Nina, for instance, right before the collapse of Communism in Czechoslavakia, meets a jazz trio comprised of three African American men as they are traveling through Eastern Europe. She takes their photographs, and they end up getting her out of Czechoslavakia. She fits well with the group, and the men jokingly suggest that she is "Creole, three generations back."

Later, when she applies for admission to Hunter College, she checks the box next to "Black" on her application, and is awarded a scholarship for young black photographers. We see this duplicity--despite her ignorance (coming from Czechoslavakia) regarding what it meant to be black in America--of course, as horrendous. "If you got a soulful type of vibe," she tells the grandson at one point, as he deals with the fallout of being a Jew who writes about hip-hop, "you can understand the greatness and the sophistacation of any tradition. . . . Art is universal...We gotta deal with that" (187).

On some level it seems rather silly. Thinking one is black or even being accepted into a black community does not make one black. But is it the same, I wonder, with Jewishness? I can convert to Judiasm, for example, but there is no conversion process that will render me an African American. There are different ways of being Jewish--one can be a convert to Judaism and claim Jewishness; or one can be born into an ethnically Jewish family.

But can one identify him or herself as being Jewish if both of these categories are absent? I want to say that it is possible, but not unless the identification is accompanied by a certain respect for what can never be known, in the absence of an ethnic component. I guess such a person is like the Mobius strip, in that s/he is both inside and outside of Jewishness?


Casey said...

I love these questions. You wrote:

Thinking one is black or even being accepted into a black community does not make one black.

And I think right to question whether it's the same for Judaism. There was, you might remember, no process of conversion-to-Judaism for... what, a thousand years?

I secretly honestly believe that some day there will be a way to convert to blackness, in precisely the way that one "becomes" Jewish by process of conversion (maybe I shouldn't put becomes in quotes there?). Of course, this insight has to develop within the black community; the invitation has to be extended from within.

But I wonder you one further: when Jesus and Paul and all that happened, isn't that essentially what they recognized? -- that even "gentiles" who were not of Jewish ancestry could access the very important spiritual tradition (a spiritual/cultural tradition that, like "blackness," had its roots in slavery)?

But then I dunno... some of this doesn't quite make sense, of course. Parallels get shaky.

More like this! :)

Monica said...

You know, Casey, this is one of those discussions where I start to feel nervous in thinking about who might be reading and take something the wrong way. And I'm thinking mostly of what I might say about this idea of the future possibility of converting to "blackness." It's strange--I'm not concerned about what I say in regard to Judaism and Jewishness, probably because I feel that I know the world so well. (Not that I'm not still learning...) But I feel so much like an outsider in regard to thinking about blackness that I'm afraid to say much, because my overwhelming feeling is: I just don't know, and I can't ever know.

That said, there are definitely connections between some parts of black and Jewish histories--slavery, and obviously the whole Moses motif, is a big one. That said, there's still one profound difference, which is that Jewishness is both/either an ethnicity and a religion. Some who call themselves Jews embrace both; others identify with only one--for example, the large number of secular Jews in America. For these secular Jews, although they aren't religious and often know little about Judaism, there is still a strong sense of shared history and of cultural continuity that I think that I will never be able to access even if I convert to Judaism and identify as Jewish. It's just not the same...

Then again, there's Maurice Blanchot's suggestion that Judaism is an essential modality of all that is human (or something like that)--as if it's a mode of being rather than strictly a religion or ethnicity. I just don't know that blackness can be the same thing, especially because it's so much more difficult to pass when one is black--much more difficult than a Jew passing for a non-Jew.

Casey said...

I think it's right to be tentative when discussing other cultures until the invitation has been extended (and accepted). You may feel more comfortable discussing Jewishness and Judaism because Judaism (now) does extend a universal invitation that is not based on genetics, and because you've happily accepted the invitation.

And I see what you're saying about the major difference: that Jewishness is a religion and/or an ethnicity.

For now, at least, that is a major difference: "blackness" is certainly not a religion in any recognizable sense. And perhaps we realize more with each generation that it is at best an unstable ethnicity.

But blackness is very frequently understood as a "culture" (at least, "African-American" culture is understood this way). And I wonder just how neat the distinction might've been 2,700 years ago between "a culture" and "a religion." That is, was early Jewish religion essentially the same thing as early Jewish culture? Perhaps something becomes "a religion" only when...

I dunno, again: maybe "only when something happens to a shifting culture as it becomes more stable and based in tradition," or something?

Anyway -- thanks for commenting and posting about all of this. I'm completely engaged.