UW News

January 19, 2011

Jewish identity is subject of new book of essays edited by UW profs


The Percussion Ensemble will perform May 29 in Meany Studio Theater.

Who is a Jew? And who gets to decide?

Boundaries of Jewish Identity, just issued by the UW Press, attempts to address these questions from a variety of perspectives. The book is edited by Susan Glenn, professor of history, and Naomi Sokoloff, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization. The essays within are based on a conference they held at the UW several years ago, which was a subject of much public acclaim. Glenn and Sokoloff brought together a stellar group of scholars in the fields of law, anthropology, history, sociology, and literature to consider three related themes:

  • Who and what is Jewish, including controversies surrounding conversion and concepts of Jewish authenticity
  • Images and self-representations of Jews
  • Boundary issues among Jews and non-Jews.

“What all these essays have in common,” Glenn explains, is their focus on “Jewish epistemologies,” Jewish claims or “ways of knowing who and what is Jewish and how they differ across time and space.”   Glenn points out that current trends in globalization have made issues of identity – particularly Jewish identity, but also other ethnic/religious/national identities – ever more subject to varieties of interpretation.

One example of the mosaic of identities connected with being Jewish is the situation faced by the flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who entered Israel in the 1990s, Sokoloff notes. “Under Israels Law of Return [which gives Jews, as well of those of Jewish ancestry and their spouses, the right to migrate and settle in Israel and obtain citizenship], they were welcomed to Israel. However, some of them were not accepted as Jews by the religious authorities in Israel, so they could not marry a Jew in a religious ceremony without going through a conversion process.”

Added to long-standing issues surrounding identity are new ones brought on by breakthroughs in medicine, such as assisted reproduction.  “These have become issues of religious law,” Sokoloff notes, since tradition holds that any individual born to a Jewish mother is a Jew. In cases of a surrogate mother, for example, does Jewishness come from the woman who contributes the ovum or the woman who carries the child in utero?

Examples of different views of Jewish identity abound. In the American Southwest, some individuals have learned that they may have descended from Jews who lived in Spain six centuries ago and were forced to convert to Catholicism under penalty of death; now, these people are rediscovering their  Jewish past and in some cases have claimed a Jewish heritage.

Other people identify with Jewishness without claiming to be Jews, notes an anthropologist who has written one of the essays in this volume. In Kazimierz, Poland, a town close to the former death camps at Auschwitz, the Jewish heritage tourist industry is largely run by non-Jews, some of whom feel a special closeness to Jews. American and Israeli Jews who come to this town, seeking information about their ancestry or attempting to learn more about the Holocaust, at times resent these non-Jews, claiming that “actual” Jews should serve as guides to the Jewish past.  The situation in Poland is complicated, too, by the fact that many Poles have Jewish ancestors. One such Pole cited in this essay describes himself as a Catholic who feels “Jew-ish,” using the word as an adjective.

Both Sokoloff and Glenn have contributed essays to the book, focusing on how stereotypes are used. “Stereotypes have a bad rap,” says Sokoloff. “They can perform all kinds of functions in boundary-drawing. In my study of literature I find that stereotypes can be used in creative and artistic ways, to help define when boundaries are open and when they are closed.”

Glenns essay on this topic suggests that stereotypes about Jewish looks have also provided Jews with a way of knowing who is Jewish. In popular culture and everyday behavior, looking for Jews on the basis of their looks is a very Jewish way of knowing who is Jewish, yet how do we reconcile this behavior with a century of social scientific thinking that attributes stereotypes of Jewish looks to racist thinking? And what does the continuous and shifting public Jewish discourse about whether Jews look “Jewish” reveal about the complex and contradictory meanings that Jews have attached to the notion of their own physical differences?

“Jewish identity is very much a moving target,” Glenn says. “There are always new cases of contest, and as we have an ever more globalized world, they are likely to arise more often.” “Our book is not meant to reach a consensus,” explains Sokoloff, “because the answer to the question “Who is a Jew?” depends on who is asking.

“What holds this volume together,” says Glenn, “is that each essay, in its own way, talks about struggles over definitions and the inability to solve the conundrums of Jewish identity.”

Sokoloff and Glenn will be discussing their book at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3 at the University Bookstore.