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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Prell's Article in Contemporary Jewry

Riv-Ellen Prell's article "Boundaries, Margins, and Norms: the Intellectual Stakes in the Study of American Jewish Culture(s)" appears in the journal Contemporary Jewry (Vol 32, July 2012). The article was based on the Sklare Lecture, delivered at the Association for Jewish Studies, where she was awarded the Marshal Sklare Award for distinguished scholarship in the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. The journal includes two responses to the article by Ari Kelman, an American Studies PhD now at Stanford, and Shaul Kelner, a sociologist at Vanderbilt. Continue reading for the article abstract.

Abstract: This paper lays out two research approaches to the study of American Jewry in order to examine the intellectual foundations of each approach. In the contrast between research focused on behavior and boundaries and research focused on subjectivity and sentiment, two different understanding of identity and culture are evident. The rethinking of Jewish life has rested on a greater focus on gender and sexuality as part of the dynamic view of identity and culture. However, this decentering of classical social science categories also raises other questions. What is the place of boundaries in the study of American Jews as well as other "identity" focused groups, and what are the most effective ways to study the reproduction of Judaism and Jewishness across generations?
This lecture, and then article, gave me the opportunity to reflect on issues I have taken up on in my writing for some time. I have been interested in the historically constituted notion of difference for Jews that put gender and class, as well as race, at the center of Jewish experience in the United States. My long association with non essentialist approaches to the culture and identity of Jews in the United States began to raise questions for me about how culture is constituted and transmitted. I was in part inspired by Herman Gray's book, Cultural Moves, in which he sought " a new Black cultural politics," and a "different logic for representation and politics." He called for "forms of belonging, association, and practice," that accounted for notions of "connectivity and identification" that changed over time. Like him, I am interested in practices that allow for counter memories and practices that reveal notions of subjects that challenge concepts of "nation, community, and belonging."
In this article I examine the underpinnings of debates about Jewish identity, whether it is primarily understood in classical ethnic/ religious terms as a matter of behavior, and coherent group membership, or whether a culture or even cultural politics can be constituted from "feeling." These approaches rarely acknowledge the intellectual roots of their positions, and the revolution in scholarship that asserted the centrality of race, gender, class and sexuality to social life that was so central to destabilizing the foundational concepts of the social sciences.
How, then, can scholars look to cultural/religious identities as wellsprings to opposition to a dominant culture? What are the sources for practices that draw on those traditions? This article does not answer that question. Its purpose is to lay out the central issues, and to argue for a more complex understanding of the shifting and historically constituted notion of culture and identity for American Jews.