Reading Cynthia Baker’s Jew with James Baldwin

Susannah Heschel 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

Once upon a time, “The Name” was God, and it was holy, ineffable, not to be pronounced except pseudonymously and in prayer. Today the name is “Jew,” and its ambiguities leave Jewish identity almost as ineffable as the divine essence. Cynthia Baker presents a brilliant discussion of the debates over how the name “Jew” came into being, and was defined by Jews and Christians, theologians and scholars, from antiquity to the present. Well aware of the ways scholars construct the narratives they claim to be resurrecting from the past, she points to biases, such as assumptions that “Jew” refers to men. Are women Jews? The question points to the ambiguity of the definition, that Jews are created not only by verbal articulation, but by carving flesh from a man.

Jew: the word that stands apart. A comparable book on the word “Christian” would be a work of theology, how Christians read and interpret their scriptures and doctrines. When discussing “Jew,” we talk about how Jews are viewed and defined by non-Jews as well as Jewish self-understanding, because the term “Jew” plays such a significant role in how the West constructs itself as Christian. In our Western rhetoric, Jews are constructs of Christianity, while Christians are a normative, hegemonic reality, the whites of our society.

Baker’s achievement with this book is transformative. Breaking through static definitions of “Jew,” she suggests that “Jew” carries a meaning not in “a simple sense … of secured selfhood but rather something far more complex and multifarious.” Thinking about Baker’s “Jew” together with James Baldwin’s profound analyses of “Black” raises two new questions. What are the limits to the fluid, multifarious meanings of “Jew”? And how have the contexts that have defined and shaped “Jew” affected the inner lives of Jews, including their religiosity?

Baker alerts us to the remarkable flexibility of the word “Jew,” and traces its various deployments in Western thought since antiquity. As Baker notes, being “Jew” is performative, imitatio Iudei, with identities constantly shifting, so that the “Jew” has become a free-floating signifier. For example, Edward Said famously declared that Palestinians are the new Jews. “We’re not Jews” says the protagonist of Hanif Kureishi’s short story of that title, a claim spoken by a Pakistani Muslim living in England and facing harassment. To be a “Jew” in Europe is to be someone whose life is threatened by racism. By contrast, “to speak as a Jew” in Germany today, after the Holocaust, is to speak in a voice of moral authority, in the name of the State and the principles it represents. Indeed, everyone faces the choice today. In John Biguenet’s short story, “I am not a Jew,” set in Germany, the Christian wife of the protagonist tells him, “After Hitler, what choice do we have? We have to be Jews, all of us.”

What the characters in these stories recognize is that to be a “Jew” incorporates and also transcends the singularity of the usual markers of race, class, nationality, religion, and even gender—illustrating Sander Gilman’s assertion that Jewishness constitutes a third gender. “Jew” is the linguistic, spiritual, moral, and physical category that stands at the center of what defines both the European and its Other. What Kureishi recognizes is that identity comes into being by reference to the Jew. From a transnational migration of Jewish identity, Jewishness has become a trans-ethnic marker of political identity. Baker concludes her book by writing, “Jews no longer look like the other, the not-self, that Jews so long remained. In the ‘genome era,’ Jews look like the peoples of all the lands, nations, and families of the earth.”

Yet the flexibility and anonymity of Jews may have limits. Baker’s discussion under the subheading, “Can a Jewface be Black?,” suggests that the very question and the distinct pages devoted to answering it (affirmatively) make clear the normative whiteness of Jews: Black Jews are the special case, the minority Jews. In a footnote, Baker quotes Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye: “I was a Black Jew before I was a Jew Jew.” Black Jew denotes a particular kind of Jew, Baker writes: “a name for liberation and Black power … Black and African American become not merely adjectives modifying Jew but rather subject positions deeply interwoven with it in a primordial and transformative embrace.”

Is “Jew” today a trans-ethnic marker, a performance that anyone can undertake? Those Jews who speak in the prophetic tradition of liberation and Black power—do they assume a subject position of Black Jew, Blacks who are Jews? Can white Jews pass as Black, as Jews who are Black? Jews, as Michael Rogin wrote, appropriated “blackface” in the early part of the twentieth century to define their identity as white and assimilate into American society, because “white” and “black” were social constructs and only if you were white was it necessary to put on blackface. Thus Jewish performances in blackface were signals of Jewish whiteness, not identities of the “Black Jew.”

Performance does not imply an absence of the concrete: both the body and the social structures that produce Jew and Black are historical realities that cannot easily be dismantled. Both Baker and Baldwin emphasize that the racism constructing Jew and Black is profound and close to immutable. Constructing “Jew” as a signifier that can be appropriated by Muslims, Palestinians, Christians, and African-Americans, as well as by Jews, also indicates that “Jew” is a hermeneutical lens constructed by society.

The social construction of “Jew” that Baker delineates becomes a signifier ranging from moral stance (Biguenet), to social exclusion (Kureishi), and political persecution (Said). Reading Baker with James Baldwin might enhance and expand Baker’s approach by leading us to consider the interior, subjective experience of Jews. Baldwin often refers to Jewish experience: “To ask oneself, ‘What is a Jew?’ is also, for me, to ask myself, ‘What is a black man?’ And what, in the name of heaven, is an American Negro?” Turning to Baker, we might ask: What happens to the identity of Jews when “Jew” is a free-floating identity produced as an Other and appropriated by numerous others for a variety of strategies?

As Christianity built itself theologically on Judaism, America is built on Blacks—not on their supersession, but on their oppression. The denial of Black humanity under slavery, Jim Crow, and the new Jim Crow has defined American politics, economics, and culture. For Baldwin, the gaze is black, and the object is white America. Whites, he wrote, do not look at Blacks, but Blacks look very closely at whites. Jews, by contrast, are both white and not quite white; they are simultaneously participants and antagonists of whiteness. Reading Baldwin, we might ask about the Jewish gaze: what is its object and what does it observe?

For Baldwin, racism and hate define not only the lives of African-Americans, but the inner lives of white Americans whose society and subjectivity depend on that racism and the disavowal of it. Hatred and evil have turned whites into monsters, he writes, into a phenomenon that whites themselves never acknowledge. They don’t know themselves, but they are known by black Americans. “These people,” Baldwin writes, “have deluded themselves so long, they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means … they have become moral monsters.”

How might Baldwin’s delineation of the interiority of the Black, the identity of the American Negro, and the gaze dissecting whiteness (as well as anti-Semitism) inform Jews? Baldwin’s concern is with the impact of racism on the soul. “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” That time is messianic time, as Baldwin makes it clear that he does not expect the resolution any time soon.

The passion of Baldwin’s analysis departs from Baker’s approach in two major ways: Baldwin focuses on the inner life, on the impact of racism at the deepest level of Black souls, continuing the work of W. E. B. DuBois, who wrote in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, of “double consciousness,” the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

The language of Baldwin is stronger: “White culture has operated deliberately to demoralize all black people. Demoralization has been fatal in many cases and has been sinister in all cases.” Key to that demoralization is its disavowal; white Americans’ innocence is preserved so that they do not recognize “the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.”

Do Baker and Baldwin have anything to say to each other? Their work is quite different: Baker’s book is primarily a critique of scholarship on Jews, while Baldwin’s essays are analyses of race written for a broad audience. Baker is interested in how Jews and non-Jews think about “Jew,” while Baldwin is interested in how Black identity is shaped by its experience of white racism and by its own penetrating gaze that pierces the disavowal of white America. Baker focuses on the ways Jews are represented, while Baldwin examines how white America constructs itself through its racism.

Nevertheless, there is some overlap. Racist oppression, as J. Kameron Carter has made clear, is a theological construct transferred to the political institutions of society. Carter argues that Christian anti-Judaism is foundational for all racisms that have emerged: “My claim is that this concerted effort to overcome Judaism is what binds the racial imagination at work.” Dismantling the “inner architecture” of supersessionism that creates Christian theology seems as impossible as Baldwin’s suggestion that white people might one day learn to love.

Religious faith and practice seem strangely absent from the articulation of “Jew” and Black by both Baker and Baldwin. The complexities posed by modern political movements for shaping Jewish identities are explored by Baker, but the revival of Jewish religiosity in recent decades, especially of Hasidism, is not discussed. Yet the daily regularity of Jewish religious practice, with its demands on the body as well as the spirit, provides a homeostasis and materiality to Jews that Baker finds missing in other realms.

For Baldwin, religion was an expression of adolescence, a passion that both stimulated and masked sexual desire. Here, too, religion is about flesh as much as soul. Toward the end of his life, Baldwin claimed that his novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, were not about church; rather, he said, “[They are] about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.” Still, the pathos that infuses Baldwin’s analysis of racism’s impact on Black inner life has echoes of prophetic pathos; he may have renounced Christianity, but the religious passion of his childhood has not let him go. His concern with the inner life, his rage over racism, his demand for radical social overhaul together reflect the religious agenda of soul, sin, and justice.

Baldwin spoke often of Jewish experience, particularly in Europe, though he was well aware that anti-Semitism did not function in the United States the same way as racism. While acknowledging that the impact of anti-Semitism on the psyche of Jews bore similarities to racism, he emphasized that America was built on racism for the construction of all its modes, from economic wealth to cultural expression. Crucial to that construction, Baldwin emphasized, was that America not recognize its racism: “they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” False innocence, a life without conscience, is the heart of the corruption denounced by the biblical prophets, and Baldwin’s critique of America resonates with the prophetic spirit. Jeremiah writes, “On your shirt is found the life-blood of the guiltless poor. Yet in spite of all these things, you say: I am innocent. Behold I will bring you to judgment for saying, I have not sinned” (2:14-15).

Baker has called our attention to the genealogy of “Jew” and its manifold representations. Attentive to the various ways political and cultural currents have affected constructions and appropriations of “Jew,” she offers a plethora of meanings, to which Baldwin would add religious faith in its many varieties. There may be, as Baker argues, no fixed “Jew,” but Baldwin urges that “Jew” become not only an identity but a perspective exploring the meaning of whiteness and perhaps also of blackness. Jews are both white and not-white, and racism may well emerge from the theological constructs of Christian supersessionism, as Carter argues. If the two signifiers of Jew and Black would bring together their gazes, we might create a new theological-political history.

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

Susannah Heschel is Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.