My Critics and Mai Nafka Mina: Further Reflections on Jewish Literary Historiography

M. Kramer

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ur usual conception of the term "race" is shaken up by the encounter with Jews from Russia, Greece, and Ethiopia. Neither color nor national origin nor mother tongue characterizes these Jews as one race. We may call them "one race" only by appealing to a sense of the term that is at odds with the customary way that race is used in American political discourse. They can be called a race in the sense that they are the descendants of what was, at the beginning of things, an original family, a tribe, or a community with blood kinship. This kind of relationship is the exact opposite of what we now talk about as "imagined communities," that is, groups that, in the absence of such obvious features as shared language, physical traits, and territory, view themselves as related by their claim to a common origin in blood kinship in the past. Kramer thus rejects performative and constructed definitions of Jewish identity in favor of what he sees as the immovable historical fact of Jewishness: membership in the Jewish body. The strength of his foundational position lies in the historical truth that the "body of the Jew" never suffered the question of its basic definition. This held true both for Jews defining themselves (from the inside out) and for non-Jews defining Jews (from the outside in). Although invisible, the trace of blood was insisted upon both by the Jews and the non-Jews as the sign of identity. It is in this appeal to familial loyalty and tribal bond that we have some justification for using the time-honored slogans kol yisraʿel ḥaverim (all Israel are brothers) and kol yisraʿel ʾarevin zeh lazeh (all Israel are responsible for one another). In fact, this is the only basis for shared community in an era in which historical conditions have dissected, pluralized, and fragmented the Jewish people. It is on this foundation that Kramer rests his claim that Jewish literature is exclusively the body of literature produced by Jews. I agree, but I find that in the last analysis his claim is a sterile one, a zero-sum definition that is self-evident and circular to the point of tautology. To inscribe an item in the body of Jewish literature, one must endeavor to reveal the trace of blood not in the work of literature itself but in the body of its author. This minimalist and essentialist definition of race, which is the most we can adhere to, may produce a vast and encyclopedic list of works of Jewish literature, but it has nothing to say about the significance of this corpus. The only way to generate significance is to [End Page 331] cross-reference race with such categories as language, style, ideas, and culture. Kramer warns of a "confusion between race and creed," yet it is just such a confusion that must necessarily and commendably be perpetrated in order for anything interesting to get said. Some of the best students of modern Jewish literature have succeeded in doing precisely what Kramer has admonished them for not doing. In their essays and anthologies, Saul Bellow, Robert Alter, Hana Wirth-Nesher, and others have taken the "body" of Jewish literature as a point of departure and then gone on to examine what writers do with their Jewishness and how, through language, style, and experience, they have construed it differently. As in the nature/nurture argument, what nature determined as Jewish was nurtured over the course of history to determine several themes of Jewishness, and what these anthologists are seeking are the facets and content of Jewishness in the literary representations and productions of Jews. It was not discomfort with race-speak that led these anthologists to define Jewish literature in categories other than race. Race is a given for them, to be sure, and Kramer has exposed this point of departure with great scholarship and erudition. But to what purpose? If it were up to Kramer, all we would be left with is a list.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)335-349
JournalProoftexts - Journal of Jewish Literature History
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


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