Sunday, May 27, 2018

How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America Paperback by Karen Brodkin (Rutgers University Press)

I found this book to be very interesting and an important statement on the dual-identity that exists among Jewish-Americans. This book could also serve as an important resource to anyone who holds an interest in the changing social definitions of race & class during late 19th century/20th century America, and how the Jewish community fared amongst those changes. Dr. Brodkin did an excellent job at finding published examples to show this changing opinion of Jews. She also made a wise choice in choosing to zero in on one of the main factors of American mobility which is family economics. In this aspect, this book should find it's way to any reading list pertaining to Jewish-American social/class identity studies.

On the other hand, I am disappointed in the writing style and tone of this book; although she did seem to "warn" the reader of this beforehand in the Acknowledgments section when she admitted that when she began her research, she did not intend to write specifically about Jewishness. That statement sort of set the stage for a pretty incoherent collection of information that is loosely worked into the book's intended purpose. For example, in Chapter 1., she devotes pages to statistics and descriptions of racist policies the FHA used to keep Black people out of suburbia. Although this information is interesting, how does it relate to Jewish people? In a much smaller span, Dr. Brodkin could have demonstrated the FHA's discrimination and then move on to how that affected Jewish migration into suburbia. She does a similar thing again in when she goes into detail about inequality in skilled labor in reference to Mexicans and Black people. Again, interesting, but there is too much information about a subject the book is not supposed to address. I understand that her point is to give the reader some background on how your racial identification affected your employment, but when your working text is only around 150 pp., it just detracts from the overall theme of the book.

I was also surprised at how Dr. Brodkin choose to sporadically intersperse her own experiences and family history into a book that had so much scholarly research. If she would have chosen to present the personal aspects of the topic in a more organized way (perhaps in separate chapters), it would have been much more natural to read. Also, I got the feeling that she was over-romanticizing and referencing the African-American experience simply because she herself had a history of civil-rights activism and admiration for Black culture. Again, although I find this very interesting, it only detracts from what you are trying to find out from this book...and that's the Jewish-American experience, not the African-American experience and how it either parallels or identifies with the African-American experience.

This book is far from being a masterpiece or required reading. However, the topic is interesting and I only hope that others will be willing to tackle this issue of "White-privilege", perceived & real, within the Jewish community with more seriousness and depth.

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