Jewish Identity as a Psychic Wound?

Naomi Seidman on Cynthia Baker’s Jew

Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-9954946-0-2. $90.00
Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0813563022. $29.95

My starting point is the striking idea suggested by Cynthia Baker that the word Jew is or was received as a kind of blow, forming the subject not from within, not as an expression of a self but rather from a not-self, an imposition from outside, at least until “Jew” comes to be appropriated as a self-identification (never a simple process). For this, Baker’s book cites Kafka, Derrida, and Amery, who experienced Jew as a blow. As Baker writes in regard to one of Kafka’s letters to Milena:

Kafka’s characterization of the word Jew as a well-directed blow—albeit a “happy” or “cheerful” one delivered by his beloved—is, so to speak, striking. Jacques Derrida likewise describes receiving the word Jew—in his first recollected encounter with it—as a blow and, even more, a barb … Derrida being Derrida, however, the word comes to invite interrogation as a name/noun assigned to and thence embodied by him, a perplexing but increasingly significant element of a contingent sense of self.

One reason that this passage struck me, as it were, is that for the past month I’ve been reading Max Weinreich’s 1936 psychoanalytically informed ethnography of Eastern European Jewish adolescence, Der veg tsu undzer yungnt. Weinreich doesn’t focus on the word Jew per se, but his study is about the effect of anti-Semitism on adolescents. Weinreich came up with a theory of the stages in which a child encounters prejudice, which he similarly described as a psychic blow that originates outside family circles. According to Weinreich, there are two stages, one that is present to consciousness and one that precedes it, which he calls the first and second “attack of Yiddishkeit.” The first and most fateful stage, he believed, takes shape when the child learns that she is a Jew. Weinreich thought that the experience and memory of this first attack was generally repressed or lost to consciousness; the adolescent subjects of his ethnography reported only on the second stage, in which this attack involves a political and cultural coming to terms with anti-Semitic realities. Weinreich’s theory of Jewish adolescence revolves around what he calls the compensatory mechanisms by which minority cultures and individuals deal with such blows. He sees Judaism in many of its formations as essentially such a compensatory mechanism, arguing that these mechanisms had been partially or largely destroyed by secularization. This meant that the adolescents in his study suffered not only from the effects of anti-Semitism but also from a breakdown of the cultural transmission of modes for dealing with these effects, isolating them from their parents along with the history of Jewish psychic compensation.

Obviously Baker’s and Weinreich’s are very different projects, the first an attempt to trace the key word Jew and the second an attempt to analyze the psychic effects of anti-Semitism. But they do have some similarities that caught my attention. In particular, I see in both the notion that Jewishness (or consciousness of Jewishness), at least for Kafka, Derrida, and other Jewish moderns, begins as a trauma, and that Jew is an imposition on a consciousness and self that both precedes and exceeds it. It takes work, for both Weinreich and Baker, to become a Jew (to borrow from de Beauvoir: one is not born but becomes a Jew). But a major difference between their projects, aside from the obvious difference in methodology, is that Weinreich’s approach is comparative, perhaps surprisingly so for someone working in the cultural and historical context he did: at Yale in 1932-33, in a seminar led by Edward Sapir and John Dollard that brought together social scientists from thirteen different cultural contexts. Weinreich began his project to study Polish Jewish adolescents. His research project involved interviewing African-American teenagers and young adults at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and at segregated schools and universities throughout the South. The notion that Jewishness should be understand as a kind of attack came to Weinreich, he writes, in reading W. E. B. Dubois, who describes the moment in which the supposed “fact” of his own blackness was made evident to him as a young child by means of an attack, which was more particularly a surprise attack. Weinreich’s theory of compensatory mechanisms was also developed in conversation with African-American adolescents, however beautifully Jewish culture, particularly in its religious varieties, illustrates the ways that denigrated minorities have nevertheless managed to retain a sense of self-respect.

What does it mean that Weinreich’s theory of the trauma of Jewishness (as he called it) emerged, by his own account, from his study of American blackness, while the writers described in this book, and Baker as the author of the book, focus almost exclusively on the Jew. The apparent counter-examples, as for instance the discourse on the Muslim as the new Jew in Europe (cf. Gil Anidjar, Jew/Arab: A History of the Enemy), only serve to underline the exceptional power of the Jew, the non-interchangeability of the term, the privileged status of the Jew as victim and signifier, as the emblem of what Europe or the nation state cannot abide. These troubling literary, political, and philosophical mobilizations of the Jew amount to a kind of fetishizing, as Baker and others point out. This discourse amounts to a rhetorical inflation that leaves actual Jews (if such exist) far behind. A great example of this would be the chapter on Shakespeare in David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. These discourses are very different from Weinreich’s, which both describes the term Jew as a blow from without and then derives the psychology of the trauma induced by this blow from other cases. If the Jew is, as Baker beautifully puts it, a “non-Jewish enterprise,” perhaps it is appropriate to look elsewhere for its content.

It is a primary aim of Baker’s book, one fully fulfilled, to register and analyze the specificities of the ways that the Jew as signifier functions in various registers and philosophical systems. But what constitutes the difference between some of the inflated discourses Baker draws attention to and the very program of the book she produces from this material, which takes recourse again and again to the uniqueness of the Jew: the exceptional power of the Jew to expose the ruse of such dichotomies (and implicit teleologies) as religion and ethnos in antiquity; the exceptional power of the Jew to give the lie to the nation state in modernity? The uniqueness of the grammar of the Jew, which unlike the Christian and Christian, Swede and Swede, produces different meanings in its adjectival (Jewish) and noun (Jew) forms? And so on. Is the Jew truly unique, exceptional? Or only so in the non-Jewish mind? Does the exceptional Jew emerge as an inevitable byproduct of the invitation to write a book about the Jew? Does this “key word” become more or less so as it is historicized, contextualized, fetishized, and deconstructed? Is there any other way to play the familiar game of Jewish specialness differently? If Weinreich’s view that Jewish culture is a series of compensations for the blow against the Jew, then might we scholars have discovered another form of secular compensation, transposed to a level higher than the more popular forms available in coffee-shop conversation? And if our scholarship is another compensatory mechanism, then what does the attention to the Jew allow us to miss?

Another question: Derrida, Amery, and Weinreich all make the point that the blow that is the word Jew comes from outside the family. Baker adds that indeed that word, certainly in its violence, was until recently quite uncommon within Jewish sources. The language of Jew comes from outside Jewish culture, and more particularly—our writers hasten to add—from outside the Jewish family. In this way the word stands in contrast with the way that language functions in Lacanian psychoanalysis to produce a gendered subject, a subjection that occurs within the family (more accurately, as the family) through the Name of the Father. Or, to put it otherwise, language in its differentiation functions constitutes the incest taboo under threat of castration, which is to say that gender takes shape under the threat of violence (or as violence itself), precisely within the family. But is it really the case that the violence of gender is so entirely different from the violence that is the Jew? As Baker points out, the word Jew and the Yiddish term yid are, in at least some of their historical formations (for instance, the Yiddish word yidene), also gendered; and in specifically Jewish ways, with terms that function within Jewish culture, this gendered Jew must also shape the internal (if not interior) language of Jews. So can we really separate the violence that is gender from the violence that is the Jew? Is one truly a function of the family, while the other absolutely outside it? If Jew is always-already gendered, then the self who is not yet a Jew, who has not received this blow from outside, is nevertheless stamped as both a gendered and a Jewish self (inextricably both at once, even without the word) by her (Jewish) family.

I think we can hardly avoid talking about a violence that accompanies the Jew from one generation to the next, whether this comes as narrative transmission (for instance, in the second-hand, displaced attack of Yiddishkeit that Freud suffers in hearing of his father’s hat being knocked off by a Gentile, in which the violence is shot through with shame, for the son), or more directly, as the blow of circumcision that is inextricably accompanied by the view of the (Jewish) daughter as already castrated, or through the subjection that is collectivity, identity, and language, and Jewish language, whether or not it includes the word Jew. Which is to say that mamaloshen is also “the Name of the Father.”

If this is so, then how do we understand the insistence in Derrida and Weinreich (and echoed in Baker) that Jew marks a boundary between inside and outside? Do these writers not thereby leave intact a (Jewish and familial) space free of coercion and threat in the moment before the blow? The violence carried by the word Jew as the traversal of a boundary and an attack from outside does the work of undoing the illusion that the Jew truly names any intact, much less inborn, interior self. But in pointing at this outside world from which the word is launched, have we not also succumbed to the fantasy that there is an inside domain which exists before this naming, which is free from its violence until it falls victim to this violence, a region inhabited by those we still call Jews?

This is the fifth essay in the Marginalia Forum on Cynthia Baker’s Jew.

Naomi Seidman is Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.