[Marxism] Jews and Anti-Semitism in America

Calvin Broadbent calvinbroadbent at hotmail.com
Thu Oct 13 11:13:50 MDT 2005


How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. - Book 
Sociology of Religion,  Spring, 2000

by Emily Noelle Ignacio

How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, by 
KAREN BRODKIN. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998, 243pp. 
$48.00 (hc), $18.00 (pbk).

In the past decade, race theorists have increasingly used social 
constructionist theories, especially Omi and Winant's theory of racial 
formation, to explain why and how race and racism continue to persist. In 
addition, more scholars are now also seriously interrogating the socially 
constructed nature of "whiteness," particularly how the boundaries of 
whiteness are defined in relation to "black" and "others" to reify the 
racial hierarchy in the United States. While very informative and liberating 
compared to the "race as a variable" paradigm, most authors have not shown 
this process of racial formation at work, nor how racial formation affects 
intra- and interracial relationships. Karen Brodkin's How Jews became white 
folks fills both of these gaps.

The title, How Jews became white folks and what hat says about race in 
America is the book's weakest point. Brodkin states that her purpose was to 
explore "the ways our racial-ethnic backgrounds -- American Jewishness in 
particular -- as well as our class and gender contribute to the making of 
social identity in the United States" (p. 1). However, the author 
accomplishes much more than this. She situates historically the complex 
interconnections between race, science, popular discourse, global and local 
politics, and the US's labor supply and demand to explain how and why Jewish 
Americans have been classified as both whites and blacks. Her account 
further buttresses the argument that theorists should not privilege race or 
class; like others before her, Brodkin demonstrates that race and class 
emerged simultaneously.

In addition, through her unique mix of historical examples, interview data, 
and personal accounts, the author gives readers a complex picture of how 
structural changes affected Jewish-Americans' interpersonal relationships 
and identities. One of the most thought-provoking chapters contains 
anecdotes and vignettes of Brodkin's relationships with her mother and 
grandmother. Not content with just exploring possible effects of structural 
changes, she breathes life into her readers' sociological imaginations by 
documenting how large, systemic issues affected her family. Through an 
exploration of generational differences, the anger and pain they endured, 
and the struggles with identity experienced by the women in her family, 
Brodkin shows that the racial classification system, stereotypes of 
Jewishness, gender stereotypes, and gender role expectations are all 
related; none can be separated from one another. All contributed to their 
sense of identity and uneasy, even vacillating, affiliation with the Jewish 
communi ty and the white race.

The strength of Karen Brodkin's work is that she meticulously documents this 
process of racial formation with respect to Jewish Americans, while 
simultaneously describing how this process has personally affected her 
familial and other personal relationships. However, other than the chapter 
on race and gender, Brodkin does not document the contribution of ruling 
Christian elites' conceptions of Judaism on the categorization and 
stereotyping of Jews. She mentions briefly that, at the turn of the century, 
Jews were defined as "not white" because of the conflation between 
Christianity and whiteness. However, because Jewish Americans became 
classified as an ethno-racial group due to this dichotomizing of religions, 
Brodkin could have provided a fuller analysis of the Jewish-American 
experience and struggle with whiteness if more attention had been placed on 
the role of Christianity in racial formation. Although she describes in 
great detail the effect of anti-Semitism on the construction of Jewish 
identity, collectivity, and interpersonal relationships, the normalization 
of Christianity is integral to white identity and deserves deeper 
exploration. Thus, if she had highlighted the rise of anti-Semitism in 
relation to the privileged status of Christianity, her analysis might have 
produced a more wholistic picture and highlighted why the Jewish-American 
racial formation process is unique and differs from that of other white 

Brodkin's conversational style of writing makes this an interesting and easy 
read. This is not to suggest that her book is neither thorough nor 
theoretically complex. In contrast, her refreshing style of writing makes 
post-structuralist theories of race palatable. Because she describes the 
complex process of race and racial identity formation so effortlessly, this 
book is a must-read for undergraduate and graduate students taking 
race/class/gender courses. In addition, since Brodkin describes the 
interconnections between economic practices, popular discourse, and 
political processes, as well as documenting the waves of immigration to the 
United States, this would be an excellent text for an introduction to 
sociology. With respect to the sociology of religion, although she does not 
examine the impact of Christianity or Judaism on the categorization of Jews, 
she does describe how Jewish Americans themselves create a romanticized 
version of Jewishness to resist dominant ideas of Jewishness and to create a 
community of their own. Thus, despite giving inadequate attention to the 
impact of Christianity on Jewish Americans, this is an important 
contribution to the study of religion and racial formation.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Association for the Sociology of Religion
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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