Changing Families

December 1, 2007
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Reviewed by Caryn Aviv

The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism , by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Indiana University Press, 2007. 320 pages, $24.00

The Family Flamboyant: Race Politics, Queer Families, Jewish Lives , by Marla Brettschneider, SUNY Press, 2006. 232 pages, $24.95

Two new books provide food for thought about contemporary Jewish identities in the United States. The Family Flamboyant: Race Politics, Queer Families, Jewish Lives by Marla Brettschneider, and The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism , by Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, have much in common. Both books are informed by the authors’ deep commitment to social justice, their insights as Ashkenazi Jewish lesbians, and their experiences as coalition organizers. And both authors offer a nuanced, passionate, and sophisticated analysis of slippery Jewish identities in relationship to racial politics and inequality in the United States.

Each author inserts compelling autobiographical experiences into their political analyses. Brettschneider reveals the unsavory and overt racism and homophobia of the adoption system in the United States based on her own experiences of trying to adopt as an outspoken Jewish lesbian. Kaye/Kantrowitz draws upon her experiences of living in diverse places in the U.S., her struggles for racial and economic justice, and her memories of growing up in a secular, Yiddish-inflected family in Brooklyn. And both books provide meticulously documented empirical and theoretical evidence for the arguments they advance, offering a veritable bibliographic trove of resources for scholars and lay readers interested in these literatures.

In The Colors of Jews, Kaye/Kantrowitz maps out an ambitious intellectual and activist agenda. In the first third of the book, she does a fine job deconstructing the complicated histories of race and Jewishness, and the pernicious myths about Jews and African Americans in the racial hierarchy of the United States. She also provides a lucid analysis of how the concepts of Jewishness have been racialized in relation to other groups throughout history and in different places, including Israel. For some readers unfamiliar with these ideas, I imagine reading The Colors of Jews might prompt a feeling that the solid ground of Jewish identity (read: Ashkenazi Jewish whiteness) is shifting under one’s feet.

The second section describes the world of Jewish activists organizing for social change and racial justice. Here, Kaye/Kantrowitz analyzes case study examples of cutting-edge nonprofits, multiracial Jewish congregations, and research centers that are challenging conventional notions of whiteness and Jewish identity. She includes extensive material from interviews with activists about issues of race, ethnicity, and inclusion. And she gives detailed descriptions of the coalitions that progressive Jews try to create to work within, across, and beyond Jewish communities to dismantle racism.

In the final section, Kaye/Kantrowitz outlines her vision of diasporism (and an explicit rejection of Jewish nationalism), and how such a political move can link progressive Jews together and in coalitions with others, across the lines of racial, economic, and social differences. She writes, “Diasporism places at the center our memory of strangeness and our desire (not duty, desire) to welcome strangers. Diasporism means, given the multicultural nature of the Jewish community, inside the Jewish community we should expect to experience the simultaneity of home and strangeness.” (p. 221)

For Brettschneider, these issues of race intersect with a trenchant critique of the adoption system and reigning ideologies about heterosexuality, family formation, marriage, and monogamy. In short, her project is to use political philosophy and experiences from her everyday life, to re-think basic cultural assumptions about race, family, sexuality, and identity. She includes much discussion and empirical evidence for how “mutually constitutive identities” influence who has power and how the intersections of race, class, and sexuality shape people’s lives.

Suffice it to say, Brettschneider is not pleased with the historical and contemporary conditions of family formation and how those ideologies preclude/obscure creative thinking about intimacy, love, and human relationship. The first chapter of her work covers similar terrain as The Colors of Jews , but with far more academic theoretical contextualization that might be helpful for Jewish studies scholars unfamiliar with this literature. In the most disturbing chapter, Brettschneider provides a description of her own convoluted, complicated, and sometimes painful path toward adopting two African American girls with her partner Dawn. She also lodges a searing critique of the not-so-implicit injustices and rampant problems (for example, antisemitism, racism, classism, and homophobia for starters) of the adoption system in the U.S., with forays into global examples of market forces of international adoption at work as well.   She writes: “There are clear hierarchies of human worth in this country and the adoption world has done the market research, assessed the situation, organized a filing system, and very neatly attached price tags to services and humans according to their appropriate rank.” (p. 49). And yet, this same system provided the author with not one, but two opportunities to open up their hearts, lives, and home, to become the self-described loud, proudly queer and Jewish mothers that they now are. So at the end of the day, Brettschneider’s own story is, despite the ugliness of the system she critiques, happy if paradoxical and bittersweet.

My one criticism of these books is actually a broader plea for scholar-activists more generally. Today, more than ever, we need books like these that critique and challenge the entrenched inequalities and forms of oppression (racial, class, and gender) that characterize U.S. history and society. But we need more than just critique. We also need visionaries who can inspire the compassion, joy, and passion to “fight the good fight,” by outlining what is possible to imagine. That’s a tall order. Sometimes I worry for the health and coronary well-being of activists like Kaye/Kantrowitz and Brettschneider, given the depth and breadth of their anger at the structural and ideological arrangements of the global order. In such relentlessly bleak analyses of systemic injustice, I often wonder if and where there is room for hope, joy, pleasure, and potential happiness, both individual and collective, in the myriad efforts to create healing and transformation in our broken world.

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Dr. Caryn Aviv is a lecturer in the Center for Judaic Studies and academic coordinator of the Certificate Program in Jewish Communal Service in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. She is the co-author of New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York University Press ), American Queer, Now and Then (Paradigm Publishers), and co-editor of Queer Jews (Routledge). In 2003, she co-founded Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

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