It happened, as these things often do, at a conference.
“It,” being Boundaries of Jewish Identity (University of Washington Press), a new collection of essays on Jewish identity edited by UW Professors Susan Glenn, the Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor in History, and Naomi Sokoloff, Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Professor of Comparative Literature.
The essays that make up the book began as papers presented at a 2007 conference organized by the two professors.
“I was interested in two things,” Susan explained to me, “how social scientists were trying to put a public face on Jewish [culture] and Jewish identity [and] the relationship between what they were doing and…popular culture.”
The conference was a “huge success,” she says. “People were so fascinated.”
Both Susan and Naomi singled out the keynote address — and the book’s first essay — as among the most interesting works. “Are Genes Jewish? Conceptual Ambiguities in the New Genetic Age” is by Susan Martha Kahn of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
“The lead article in the collection,” observes Naomi, “about changing genetic research and assisted reproduction…strikes me as a very contemporary issue that will affect many different communities…on deciding on identity issues.”
That article “generated the most amazing conversations,” says Susan. “It highlights the importance of a book like this,” and “the many different forms this conversation can take.”
Prof. Glenn’s work in the book centers on the intriguing and entertaining practice or game by which Jews have tried to identify who is Jewish on the basis of their looks. This goes against social scientific writings, which attempted to undercut the notion that you could tell who was a Jew on the basis of physical features.
“There’s this intense curiosity among Jews to try and find other Jews,” she says.
Haven’t we all done that? Susan calls this “Jewhooing.”
I asked Naomi if she thought the interest in Jewish identity is stronger among unaffiliated Jews than affiliated, and she disagreed.
“Jews move in and out of identities a lot,” she says, depending on a variety of factors. “Every generation finds itself in some way,” she adds. “We didn’t put this volume together to specifically speak about groups at the margins.”
A member of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Naomi says her Yiddishist-Socialist grandparents might be shocked that she attends synagogue.
“I came from a secular but highly Jewishly identified home,” she says.
Prof. Sokoloff’s piece in the book, “Jewish Character? Stereotype and Identity in Fiction from Israel by Aharon Appelfeld and Sayed Kashua” examines the use of Jewish stereotypes in defining Jewish identity in two specific works by those prominent Israeli writers, one a well-known Holocaust survivor and the other an Israeli Arab. Naomi will continue this discussion with the general public at an April 12 lecture at the Stroum SJCC, part of the Israel 360 lecture series organized by the UW’s Stroum Jewish Studies Program.
Susan’s scholarship and teaching have focused on 20th-century cultural and social history and she says anti-Semitism, particularly in the 20th century, is an enduring interest of hers and the subject of one of her UW classes.
“Everyone thinks they know what it means, but it’s used very elastically,” she says.
She has also taught — although not recently — “a really fascinating course on Jews and blacks in the United States.”
Both Susan and Naomi say that most of the students in their classes are not Jewish, with the possible exception, Naomi says, of advanced Hebrew.
I couldn’t resist asking Prof. Glenn if she thought there was a difference between East Coast and West Coast Jews.
“It depends on context,” she responded, illustrating her point with an anecdote: Growing up in L.A. she felt quite Jewish, but while doing research at the YIVO Institute in New York, “I was fascinated by how un-Jewish I felt in that context.”
Gad Barzilai of the UW’s Jackson School and the Lucia S. and Herbert L. Pruzan Professor of Jewish Studies, has an essay in the book, too, titled “Who is a Jew? Categories, Boundaries, Communities, and Citizenship Law in Israel.”