Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity

June 5, 2008

Jonathan Freedman's outstanding previous book revealed how American Jews entered the cultural mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s and, in so doing, began to transform what had previously marginalised or excluded them. This process of assimilation and acculturation meant that American Jews were universalised (by themselves and others) as an exemplary "model minority" that other ethnic groups were supposed to emulate. Klezmer America traces some of the ways in which this dubious status has been challenged and revised in relation to a wide range of discourses such as queerness, masculinity, blackness, conversion and orientalisation.

Freedman's argument especially challenges approaches in ethnic and Jewish studies that have naturalised the "model minority" status of American Jews. A teleological view of Jewish assimilation has meant that the inevitable march of immigrant Jews into a privileged whiteness (from the ghetto to the suburb) is accepted wisdom in ethnic and Jewish studies. But the problem with these positions is that they miss out large parts of the story of Jewish immigration and integration that connect with (rather than discount) America's other racial and sexual minorities.

Rather than describing boundary-ridden communities, nations and roots, Freedman offers a "vision of identity that rejects origin, nationhood, cultural reproduction". He does this by drawing on the history and contemporary practice of klezmer music (or "Jewish jazz"), which is characterised as a world of "multiple cultures" whose fluid and hybrid musical variations (part-Yiddish, part-East European, part-Gypsy, part-Levant) represent the existing and future possibilities of "new forms of cultural cross-fertilisation". The term "klezmer" is thus both an "organising trope" and an actual history that Freedman traces usefully beyond its East European origins into the Ottoman Empire.

Following on from Paul Gilroy and Edward Said, who also think of music as constructing alternative forms of social meaning, klezmer works as both a kind of reading practice ("klezmerical readings") and as a utopian space that derives from actual histories. Such readings are applied to a wide range of contemporary texts - from Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1993-95) to Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2002) - in a bid to trace what is left out of the "model minority" success story.

Each text in this book has an exemplary status. The discussion of Angels in America, for instance, shows the ways in which Kushner both resists and embraces a "queer diasporism", embracing queer citizenship at the expense of Jewish difference. One of the strengths of Klezmer America is that the question of gender and sexuality is subtly intertwined with discussions of race and ethnicity. The life and work of Arthur Miller - in so far as he represents the making and unmaking of an ethnic masculinity - is used to contrast with figurative immigrant Jews who were, historically, stereotyped as either hyperphallic or sexually perverse. Miller, through his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, helped to jettison the history of Jewish degeneracy and initiated a "new style of Jewish masculinity". Only in this way, Freedman argues, could "normative America fall in love with white ethnics in general, and Jews in particular".

Klezmer America is, above all, a celebratory account of the ways in which ethnicity (as opposed to race) is transforming contemporary America. The later chapters focus on Asian-American authors - such as Gish Jen or Han Ong - who interestingly rewrite the "model minority" stereotype and revisit the orientalisation of both Jews and Asians in the US.

With all the forward-looking exuberance of Barack Obama's post-racial US, we are left with a strong sense of the "sumptuous music" that underpins this vision. Only time will tell if this klezmerical vision is powerful enough to overcome the "hard realities" of American racism, anti-Semitism and imperialism.

Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity

By Jonathan Freedman
Columbia University Press
408pp
£20.50
ISBN 97802311486
Published 29 February 2008

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