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'You Should See Yourself'

'You Should See Yourself': Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture

Edited by Vincent Brook
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    'You Should See Yourself'
    Book Description:

    The past few decades have seen a remarkable surge in Jewish influences on American culture. Entertainers and artists such as Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Allegra Goodman, and Tony Kushner have heralded new waves of television, film, literature, and theater; a major klezmer revival is under way; bagels are now as commonplace as pizza; and kabbalah has become as cool as crystals. Does this broad range of cultural expression accurately reflect what it means to be Jewish in America today?

    Bringing together fourteen new essays by leading scholars,You Should See Yourselfexamines the fluctuating representations of Jewishness in a variety of areas of popular culture and high art, including literature, the media, film, theater, music, dance, painting, photography, and comedy. Contributors explore the evolution that has taken place within these cultural forms and how we can best explain these changes. Are variations in our understanding of Jewishness the result of general phenomena such as multiculturalism, politics, and postmodernism, or are they the product of more specifically Jewish concerns such as the intermarriage/continuity crisis, religious renewal, and relations between the United States and Israel?

    Accessible to students and general readers alike, this volume takes an important step toward advancing the discussion of Jewish cultural influences in this country.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3996-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Seeing Isn’t Believing
    (pp. 1-16)
    Vincent Brook

    Two Jews, three opinions notwithstanding, this much is indisputable: the quantitative level of American Jewish cultural production has surged remarkably in the past fifteen to twenty years. New waves of film and literature have been heralded in various Jewish journals, a major klezmer revival is underway, bagels have become as commonplace as pizza, kabbalah as cool as crystals, and as the 1976 “Too Jewish?” exhibit and my own bookSomething Ain’t Kosher Here:The Rise of the “Jewish” Sitcom(2003) indicate, similar trends have marked the fine arts and television as well.¹ As the titles of the exhibit and my book...

  5. Literature

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 17-18)

      Cultural categories in the postmodern age are anything but undeconstructible, in Derrida’s, or any other, sense. Multi-media practice and interdisciplinary analysis have long since achieved legitimacy in the arts and academe. However, while cross-culturalism will be evident in many of the essays here, and in some cases—performance art, graphic novels, stand-up comedy, film—even foregrounded, classification remains a useful conceptual tool for historicizing cultural permeability within categories and for comparing it across them. Thus, a traditional taxonomy (with significant qualifications) will be used for grouping the essays. As for the ordering of the groups, this will follow a quasi-chronological...

    • Re-imagining the Jew’s Body: From Self-Loathing to “Grepts”
      (pp. 19-36)
      Andrea Most

      American Jews have been instrumental in the creation of popular comic books, cartoons, and graphic novels throughout the twentieth century, but Jewishness and explicitly Jewish bodies have become visible in their work only recently. Living and working during the worst period of antisemitism in American history, mid-century comic book authors such as Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster (Superman), Bill Finger and Bob Kane (Batman), and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (Captain America,The Fantastic Four, andSpiderman), like their colleagues in the entertainment industry, kept their Jewishness quiet, often actively hiding it by changing their names.¹

      They also kept Jewish...

    • Recalling “Home” from Beneath the Shadow of the Holocaust: American Jewish Women Writers of the New Wave
      (pp. 37-54)
      Janet Handler Burstein

      Although American Jewish literature was slow to absorb the powerful effects of the Holocaust upon the Jewish life that survived it, from the 1980s on American writers took renewed interest in the Jewish past. Unlike their immigrant predecessors who had rebelled against inherited ethnic imperatives, and writers of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s who were concerned more with Americanism than Judaism, writers of the 1980s took up divergent strands of the fabric of collective Jewish experience that had once seemed so tightly woven, so whole. First described as belonging to a “new wave” by Morris Dickstein in 1997, these writers...

  6. Theater

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 55-56)

      British director Tyrone Guthrie observed in the 1960s that if Jews were to withdraw from the American theater, it “would collapse about next Thursday.”¹ Transposed to the present, such a withdrawal might lead to a collapse a day or two earlier. Hyperbole aside, since the earliest days of vaudeville, Jewish participation and presence in American theater—from playwrights to producers to impresarios to actors to craftspeople to critics to season subscribers—have rivaled if not surpassed that in music, film, and television. From the creative side alone, fully one-third of the nation’s Best Play honorees during the first half of...

    • “Your World Is Very Different from Mine”: Troubling Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Theater
      (pp. 57-75)
      Jan Lewis

      “Who is a Jew?” I write this question on the blackboard on the first day of an undergraduate seminar entitled “Jews on Stage and Screen: The Performance of an American Ethnicity.” My students at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where I teach this course, are often surprised by my question, since most of them believe that they can easily define Jewish identity. Majoring in a range of studies in the sciences and humanities, they self-identify across a wide spectrum, as Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular Jews. They offer me numerous markers for Jewishness, including religious observance...

    • Tony Kushner’s Metaphorical Jew
      (pp. 76-94)
      James Fisher

      Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning two-play epic,Angels in America,subtitled a “gay fantasia on national themes,” catapulted him to theatrical fame in the early 1990s.Angelsfocuses on American life at the height of the AIDS crisis, establishing Kushner’s credentials as a “gay dramatist,” although subsequently critics have been wont to label him a “political dramatist.” Harold Bloom, acknowledging Kushner’s “authentic gift for fantasy,” adds yet another identity. For him, Kushner is a postmodern dramatic theologian writing “his own New Kabbalah” inspired by the vast tapestry of history, culture, religion, and literature of his faith and of human history...

  7. Music

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 95-96)

      Music suffers from one of the most pronounced of category crises, both across categories and within the category itself. Cross-category confusion derives from the always tenuous boundary between musical performance and musical theater/performance art. This problematic is exemplified in several essays in this volume: Judah Cohen’s on music begins with a detailed description of a performance piece; Rebecca Rossen’s on dance centers on a pair of performance artists; Jan Lewis’s on theater includes a critique of the musicalFiddler on the Roof. Intra-category issues emerge from the ever-less relevant distinction, in postmodern music generally, between high and low culture—opera/art...

    • Exploring the Postmodern Landscape of Jewish Music
      (pp. 97-118)
      Judah M. Cohen

      New York City: Friday evening, May 15, 2004. Well over one hundred people gathered at the Belt Theater in Chelsea, paid a ten-dollar admission charge, and sat in a small, bi-layered space, ready to watch the “ritual theater” group Storahtelling present its show entitled “The Sabbath Queen.”¹ With mixed club music pumped at a conservative level from ambient loudspeakers, two blonde “Go-Goy” dancers warmed up the audience. Then, around 9:15 the show proper began: a Sabbath evening ritual complete with wine and challah and “Shalom Aleichem,” yet presented as disorientingly hip performance art. Musically, the evening exhibited a broad range...

    • Continuity, Creativity, and Conflict: The Ongoing Search for “Jewish” Music
      (pp. 119-134)
      Marsha Bryan Edelman

      In the early years of the twentieth century, a group of Russian conservatory students formed the Society for Jewish Folk Music (Gesellschaft für Yiddishe Folksmusik) to develop and promote the creation of a new type of Jewish musical expression: Jewish art music.¹ Just as the proponents of “nationalistic” music had incorporated Russian, French, German, and even American folk music in the creation of operatic and symphonic works for the concert stage, the members of the Society based their activities on the premise that one could create music of a “Jewish character” that would be used for non-liturgical purposes and that...

  8. Dance

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 135-136)

      As Naomi Jackson reminds us inConverging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y,Jews have been at the forefront, in terms of creative involvement and promotion, of both the American modern and postmodern dance movements.¹ They also have been more proactive than in most other cultural forms, and from an earlier time period, in the incorporation of Jewish themes: Benjamin Zemach pioneered the Judaizing of modern dance in the 1920s and 1930s; Sophie Maslow and Anna Sokolow carried the Semitic torch into the 1940s and 1950s.² As for postmodernism, while the term was first applied...

    • The Jewish Man and His Dancing Shtick: Stock Characterization and Jewish Masculinity in Postmodern Dance
      (pp. 137-154)
      Rebecca Rossen

      In the summer of 2001, I traveled to UCLA to observe David Dorfman and Dan Froot, postmodern dance’s equivalent of the borscht-belt comic duo, while they worked on their latest collaboration,Shtuck,a duet inspired by Jewish vaudeville.¹ That week they were also rehearsing an older piece,Job(1996), because they had the rare opportunity to audition it for an HBO comedy show. Although Dorfman and Froot are usually presented as dance-makers in venues such as New York City’s Dance Theater Workshop, their humorous exploration of masculinity and insecurity, expertly communicated through witty dialogue and absurd actions, gives them crossover...

  9. Painting and Photography

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 155-156)

      A useful date from which to mark the onset of postmodern American Jewish art is 1989. The year that saw the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the premiere ofSeinfeldwas also the year Archie Rand exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York a series of fifty-four paintings inspired by the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Jewish artists were by then no strangers to the upper echelons of the American art world, but baldly Jewish iconography was; and so Norman Kleeblatt, the curator of the museum, mounted the exhibit in the spirit of multiculturalism...

    • Between Exile and Irony: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Jewish Modes of Thought
      (pp. 157-175)
      Ruth Weisberg

      This inquiry into the complex relationship between modernism, postmodernism, and Jewish modes of thought is not just of academic interest. As an artist and a Jew, I need to understand and grapple with certain pervasive attitudes in the art world and, more broadly, in Western culture. There are historical roots to the dynamic tension between exile and irony, and between identity and assimilation in Jewish life, and these dichotomies play out in the cultural realm as well. I believe an interrogation of the relationship between the great twentieth-century art movements and certain formative Jewish intellectual and spiritual tendencies will provide...

    • Observant Jews and the Photographic Arena of Looks
      (pp. 176-204)
      MacDonald Moore and Deborah Dash Moore

      Since the Depression, Jews have filled the ranks of professional photographers in the United States. Recently several scholars have suggested that work by these American Jews constitutes a discourse or school. Our contribution to this conversation examines photographic engagements with passing, the stage business of getting by. We focus on three matters: everyday dynamics of the look as given and taken; photography as a series of nominations and promotions that begin even as the shutter is being pressed; and the harnessing of that privileged stare with which people view photos.¹ While exploring implications of these issues, we have navigated uneven...

  10. Film

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 205-206)

      The postmodern surge in American films featuring Jewish main characters and Jewish themes is unlike any since the 1960s, when what Henry Popkin called the Great Retreat (since the 1930s) in Jewish cinematic and other popular cultural representation¹ was shattered by a spate of literary adaptations, Holocaust films, Barbra Streisand vehicles, the Woody Allen and Mel Brooks comedies, and many more. Although several high-profile “Jewish” films have been made in the interim (along similar lines), a full-fledged “new wave” in American Jewish film was proclaimed by critic Harry Medved in 1998. The difference here was twofold: first, most of the...

    • Joke-Work: The Construction of Jewish Postmodern Identity in Contemporary Theory and American Film
      (pp. 207-229)
      Ruth D. Johnston

      Both contemporary European postmodern theory and Jews’ self-representations in certain recent American films construct Jewish postmodern identity in terms of Freud’s definition of the self-critical tendentious joke inJokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Not that these disparate texts agree on a definition of Jewish identity—quite the contrary. Instead, an identificatory mechanism deemed problematic in the European context translates into a distinctive mode of minority discourse in Homi Bhabha’s analysis and receives different gender inflections in contemporary American films—for example,Amy’s O,A Family Affair, andKissing Jessica Stein—all of which ostensibly conform to the structure...

    • They All Are Jews
      (pp. 230-252)
      Daniel Itzkovitz

      Google the words “Jews” and “famous” and you’ll get an interesting choice among the top hits. First up, a catalog of Jewish standouts, collected and listed “not to brag or gloat,” but “to convince Jews they have much to be proud of.” Following not far behind, a “white nationalist resource page,” generously serving as “a resource for those courageous men and women fighting to preserve their White Western culture, ideals and freedom of speech.” Google “Jewish celebrity” and you’ll reach, where you can ogle with pride the astonishing lists of famous members of the tribe (Larry David...

  11. Stand-up Comedy

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 253-254)

      This venerable form of entertainment has been given a section all its own because of the form’s uniqueness, its indelible Jewishness, and its overlap with almost all the other sections. Stand-up’s roots in the night club, the music hall, and vaudeville—themselves extensions of popular theater—are clear, as are its contributions to film comedy and any number of television genres from the variety show to the sitcom to stand-up specials to regular offerings on Comedy Central. Stand-up’s kinship with performance art—another noted cultural hybrid—has already been highlighted in Rebecca Rossen’s piece on David Dorfman and Dan Froot....

    • Genealogies of Jewish Stand-up: Looking Back, Moving Beyond
      (pp. 255-272)
      Donald Weber

      With the recent passing of four giants of stand-up comedy—Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, and Rodney Dangerfield, a veritable Mount Rushmore of Borscht Belt humor—is there a future for Jewish stand-up? Can the contemporary Jewish American landscape produce stand-up artists who match these comic icons’ substantial talent? Does an emerging cohort of comedians (much less a rising generation) desire to keep the faith, in Jewish stand-up solidarity? The following essay offers some tentative answers concerning the fate of Jewish comedy in what might be called our post-Seinfeldera. Before we can appreciate the current moment of Jewish...

  12. Television

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 273-276)

      No cultural form lends itself more to postmodern analysis, particularly from a Jewish perspective, than television. As for the postmodern aspect, the mass media, specifically television, are the privileged sites of the postmodernist discourse; in its advertising base and leveling effect—conflation of public/private, past/present, reality/representation, culture/consumerism—TV is postmodernism incarnate.¹ And while, in one sense, it thus becomes pleonastic to speak of postmodern television, one can apply to TV thehistoricaldimension of postmodernism (as distinct from the cultural and theoretical dimensions). One can, in other words, speak of apostmodern erain television, distinguished by Jim Collins’s notion...

    • Something Old Is New Again? Postmodern Jewishness in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and The O.C.
      (pp. 277-297)
      Michele Byers and Rosalin Krieger

      In his introduction to the 1996 exhibition catalogToo Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities, Norman Kleeblatt notes that since the mid-1980s, largely under the influence of feminism, postmodernism has been politicized.¹ This politicization engendered greater visibility for the cultural products of marginalized groups, even those that had already had some success in infiltrating the sociocultural mainstream. According to Kleeblatt, the paradox for many Jews was that “admission into the mainstream had required the shedding of that very ethnic and cultural specificity upon which the new identity-centered art is based.”² Thus it is not surprising that while the recent, identity-inflected period has...

    • “Y’all Killed Him, We Didn’t!” Jewish Self-Hatred and The Larry Sanders Show
      (pp. 298-318)
      Vincent Brook

      Did the Jews invent self-hatred? A case can be made—from both the production and the reception end. Centuries before they were branded collective Christ killers in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, a calumny that laid the groundwork for both antisemitism and Jewish self-hatred, Jews themselves had planted the seeds of self-hatred for all humanity in the Garden of Eden. The biblical God’s banishment of the ur-couple from Paradise inflicted a primal self-loathing (with a decidedly gendered component) that would prove, at least for the faithful, all but inexpungible. Then there is the Jewish Freud, whose nondenominational take on Original...

  13. Contributors
    (pp. 319-322)
  14. Index
    (pp. 323-338)