Sorry Paco and Lou, but I’ve got to break the rules!!
What is a Jew? Does it hinge upon religious identification? Going to shul twice a year? Speaking Hebrew? Speaking Yiddish? Speaking German? Being a nice person? Eating kreplach?
David Shneer, a historian, and Caryn Aviv, a sociologist, both at the University of Denver, have co-authored a book that will without a doubt upset some people. It’s called New Jews and was published back in 2005 by NYU UP.
Indicative of the point the authors want to make, the computer program I am using to type this right now does not let me leave “diaspora” un-capitalized. Aviv and Shneer forcefully argue that the nebulous and confusing baggage the term ‘diaspora’ carries implies that it has lost its value as a descriptor of the Jewish community. The thesis of the book is that the binary, “homeland-diaspora,” needs to be thrown into the dustbin of history; it simply does not reflect adequetly the practices and hopes of the global community of Judaism, which continually dismantles the very notion of diaspora. The authors unabashedly displace Israel from the symbolic center of the Jewish universe and interrogate an alternative Jewish universe, considering Jewish communities in Russia (Ch 1), queer Jewish communities in the United States and Israel (Ch 4), and the multiplicity of Jewish expression/experience in New York City (Ch 5). In addition, Shneer and Aviv consider Jewish identities manifested through ideologies implicit in what they designate the “diaspora business” (Ch 2) and Jewish museums in Los Angeles and New York (Ch 3).
Aviv and Shneer argue that the binary of diaspora-homeland, which carries a specific form of Jewish identity, is displaced by the “new Jews,” who are settled and thriving in around the globe, creating a new cosmopolitan and globalized Jewish identity. The authors attempt to displace identity thinking, governed by the Same, by invoking multiplicity, rootedness and difference. Whether this categorization only serves to replace one descriptor based on Sameness with another descriptor based on Sameness through Difference, which is no more than the sublation of the Different by the Same, remains to be seen. Still, this formulation cuts straight to the problem, the authors ask “what does an upper middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Spehardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except for the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?” (20)
A very good question indeed!
The answer, on the face of it, is the word “Jew” in the inventory of their identities. However, the problem cuts deeper as it is tied to definitional questions, hyphenated identity and citizenship.
The book deals with both sociological and historical questions, for on the one hand, the authors are attempting to make a political point by placing the centrality of Israel in the Jewish landscape—however symbolic—into question, which necessitates their empirically based approach. However, on the other hand, this dovetails into a different, more rigorous project, “to move beyond the term “diaspora as a mode of explaining postmodern collective identity, since such a conceptualization reinforces notions of centers and peripheries and emphasizes motion and rootlessness, often at the expense of home and rootedness” (19). This is quite another matter, and hints, well, points to the manner in which the term “Jew” has been used as a trope to explore difference, otherness etc. in the postmodern philosophical/theoretical landscape. Another matter for another time.
Aviv and Shneer organize their account of Jewish communities around three principles; (1) suspicion towards the homogenizing effect of the Israel/diaspora binary as a descriptor for Jewish geography (2) suspicion toward the notion “of a unified Jewish people who live within these two categories of Israel and diaspora” (19) and (3) a de-emphasization of “diaspora,” which according to the authors, is always paired with powerlessness, and “homeland,” which is always tied to power. Given this de-emphasis, power within the Jewish world, whether political, economic or cultural, “flows in many directions and to and from diverse places” (19). This last point merits attention because it leaves out religion by assimilating it into the category of culture, which is a political statement in itself. This is the position from which the authors approach the “new Jew,” namely, as a unique and diverse cultural form rather than a (blood) community of faith.
In the introduction, Aviv and Shneer trace the binary of Jewish diaspora and homeland from the prophet Jeriamiah, who after the destruction of the Temple, urged Jews to “seek the welfare of the city I have sent you,” to the Zionist nationalist movement of the early 20th century and the contemporary ideological critiques of the grand narratives that perpetuate diasporism, such as Post-Zionism.
Chapter 1 deals with Russian-Jewish identity in a Post-Soviet context. Aviv and Shneer, relying on interviews, field notes and historical documents, examine Jewish life in Moscow. What they find is a thriving Jewish community with a marked Russian twist. From the state-sponsored Jewish group Chabad to the emergence of Reform Russian Judaism, “Moscow is now home to two JCCs, a holocaust museum, two Jewish publishing houses, several kosher restaurants, many jewish schools, and several synagogaues” (48). Aviv and Shneer cite immigrant statistics that point towards a rising tide of Jews both returning and moving to Russia. (Why the return, I’m not so sure…)
Chapter 2 investigates the rather diverse world of youth tourism, which the authors call the “diaspora business,” defined as “a broad institutional and organizational terrain that complicates the differences between home and abroad, centers and peripheries, in a shifting, increasingly compressed global world of capital, people, ideas and national borders” (52) This chapter I am sure will make some people unhappy.
The aim is to “shore up” the perceived diminishing religious, ethnic and cultural identities of communities around the world with the goal of benefiting Israel, the United States and Eastern Europe through finance, tourism, exchanges and employment (52-53). After a brief history of Jewish youth travel, which often focus on interpellating youth to a number of different “Jewish” ideologies, from making Jews more Jewish to encouraging immigration to Israel (neither of which, on my view are necessarily bad things per se), the authors point out the changing nature of youth travel, “we imagine that ten years from now, diaspora business organinzations will spend as much money sending young Jews to Vilna to study Yiddish or Prague to study Jewish art (whatever that is-SO) as they do sending young Jews to Israel” (70). The authors suggest that travel is as important as ever but instead of travel focused on the ghosts in Auschwitz or at the Kotel, Aviv and Shneer imagine young Jews recovering their Jewish cultural heritage (Could a tour of “Jewish” Shaker Heights be around the corner? I shudder to think it).
Chapter 3 looks at museums and the fourth chapter surveys queer Jewish communities in San Fransisco, New York, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Chapter 5 explores the diverse range of Jewish communites—from reform to orthodox—in New York City. These are nice chapters, kind of like a lonely planet guide for “new Jews” or some such.
In the epilogue, the authors comment, “we have shown that new Jews are creating homes and futures in intimate, symbolic and national ways” (173). Indeed, the whole book surveys a number of ways in which people are rooted in particular places, which shape how “new Jews” identify themselves as both individuals and part of a community.
Shneer and Aviv’s book, at times, almost reads like a manifesto for the New Jew, which on the one hand is a good thing, but on the other, they tend to overstate the case I think. So, while this tendency sometimes results in prose that is somewhat adulatory and at times “campy,” this is offset by the strength of the book as a whole. One lingering thought was whether or not being “settled” was a new idea for Jews.
What’s really so new about these new Jews?