"How do you know that i am a jew?": Authority, cultural identity, and the shaping of postwar American judaism

Riv Ellen Prell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


In 1955, Bernard Malamud, a writer much taken with metaphorical relationships between Jews and African Americans in the United States, wrote "Angel Levine," a story that might be read as a comment upon authenticity and authority in Jewish life.1 In Malamud's fiction, a modern-day Job, a tailor and pious Jew whom he calls simply - and not without irony - Manischewitz, suffers a tragic reversal of fortune.2 He loses his business because of a fire and is left in penury despite insurance. His son has been killed in the war, and his daughter has married "a lout" and disappeared. He is wracked by debilitating physical pain, and his beloved wife, Fanny, is near death. Finally, in desperation, he prays to God for help. Later that evening, he feels the presence of another person in his tiny apartment. In the next room, he discovers "a Negro reading a newspaper" seated at his table. Manischewitz, after some time, finally asks him, "Who are you?" and is "amused" by the man's reply: "I bear the name Alexander Levine." This obviously Jewish name strikes the tailor as incongruous for an African American. Malamud writes of Manischewitz, "Carrying the jest farther, [he] asked, 'You are maybe Jewish?'" Levine replies, "All my life I was, willingly." Manischewitz feels by turns mocked and dubious when Levine offers him his "humble assistance" because he declares that he is an angel of God, albeit one who has recently been "disincarnated." Thus he begins his attempt to authenticate Levine both as an angel and as a Jew. He inquires about his wings, asks him to recite the blessing over bread, and finally inquires why God has sent a black angel. Levine explains obliquely that he had lost his wings, provides the blessing over bread in a rich Hebrew voice, and notes simply - in response to why a "Negro angel" - that he was next in line to appear. Unsatisfied, Manischewitz proclaims, "Is this what a Jewish angel looks like? This I am not convinced." Confronted with the denial of his authority and authenticity, the angel takes his leave for Harlem. Ultimately, however, Manischewitz does seek out the angel Levine's help. Malamud takes this Job to the brink of belief and pulls him back finally to have him affirm to a disheveled, drunken Levine in the arms of a very human woman, "You are Jewish. This I am sure." Then, prompted by Levine, he adds, "I think you are an angel from God." Weeping, Levine declares, "How you have humiliated me," and then changes his clothes, walks with Manischewitz to his flat, and from there ascends. At home, the tailor discovers his wife restored and tidying their apartment, and he, too, regains his health and ability to work. Manischewitz's prayers have been answered, and he proclaims the final words of the story: "A wonderful thing Fanny⋯. Believe me, there are Jews everywhere!"3 Although "Angel Levine" has rightly been read as a theological work concerned with embodiment, as well as a meditation on relationships between Jews and African Americans, it offers an equally incisive reflection on the nature of authenticity and authority for Jews immediately after World War II. In Manischewitz's meeting with an angel who is "other," that is, a "Negro angel," he must ask himself what makes a person, or an angel, for that matter, a Jew. Is genealogy, religious competence, or race the most relevant, or even necessary, criterion to authenticate Jewishness? Could a man in Harlem in 1955 be a Jewish angel? Could black Jews, whom Manischewitz encounters in Harlem, be Jews like himself? Malamud's fictional tailor is persuaded that Jews are everywhere, and Malamud's readers are similarly asked to consider what Jewishness is, and how one can know who and what is Jewish. Malamud was prescient precisely because his story did not focus on institutional life; he did not confront his crisis in the spaces of synagogues or organizations. Rather, Manischewitz must confront the problem of authority through his own choices and actions. He must, in a time of crisis, decide not what to believe, but whom to believe. He must face the problem of how to bring order out of what he experiences as the contradictions of race, ethnicity, and Judaism in the midst of personal crisis. Further, Malamud writes of Manischewitz's quandary, "Was a man ever so tried? Should he say he believed a half-drunken Negro to be an angel? The silence slowly petrified. Manischewitz was recalling scenes of his youth as a wheel in his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice."4 Thus, Malamud offers a story of how one man makes sense of cultural and religious contradictions in order to restore order to his life. Through the story's juxtaposition of whiteness, blackness, Jews, and Judaism, it frames a discussion of authority with the problem of identity. It reveals that competing ideas of authority are at play in the ways in which individuals and communities understand themselves to be Jews, to engage in Jewish life, and to make Jewish decisions and choices. But if Judaism and Jews are not, to use Malamud's formulation, what they first appear to be - something given, immutable, and transparently identifiable - then scholars of culture must find the right settings to ask how religion in general and Judaism in particular "work." How does Judaism, as a total system of claims on the individual, constitute specific practices and discourses as Jewish? This process revolves around the problem of authority or of multiple - and, at times, competing - sources of authority. Thus, over and beyond the historical issue of placing Judaism within a particular time and place, the central question must be how Judaism is made authoritative through specific sets of relationships and processes. How does the negotiation of multiple authorities, both communal and individual, translate to the formation of culture and identity? What are the sources of self and communal identity that put Jews into relationships of power that are continually being constituted and challenged?5 Malamud's short story "Angel Levine" serves as a literary metaphor for the case study that is the focus of this chapter, a crisis concerning the authenticity of the Jewishness of a group of young Black Jews who visited a Conservative Jewish summer camp in the mid-1960s. In the summer of 1965, teenage campers and their counselors and teachers at Camp Ramah experienced a version of Manischewitz's problem when the camp was asked to host a Sabbath visit with Black Jewish teenagers who belonged to an organization called Hatzaad Harishon (The First Step), which was devoted to linking Black Jews and Jews of European descent, groups that had rarely recognized each other's legitimacy or claims to Jewishness.6 It is no surprise that the authenticity of the Jewishness of the camp's guests became a source of crisis, making visible the often implicit conflict among competing ideas about what constituted the central values and symbols of postwar American Judaism. In these events, Jewish authorizing processes were made manifest. The classical rabbinic system of authoritative legal-religious discourse (halakhah) was evoked in relationship and contrast to American concepts of democracy, racial liberalism, and personal meaning in the context of a nationwide mobilization around race relations and civil rights. The events reveal how these various systems of authority were integrated, fractured, and reshaped - in short, how they became an authorizing process for Jewish life. More than showing systems of authority in conflict, the case study reveals the dynamic process by which identity and authority interacted. In the 1960s, Jews faced a growing number of possible definitions of what it meant to be a Jew and how to act like an American Jew. A close study of this dynamic suggests how they formulated choices and asserted authority. It also reveals the existence of a surfeit of authorities, all claimed and legitimated by those within the Conservative movement. In this essay, I offer a reading of the context of Jewish life in the postwar period that locates Jewish summer camping as a critical site for understanding Jewish socialization as it was conceived by rabbis and educators. These contexts provide an ideal venue for the study of competing ideas and visions of Jewish life and how those are central to the problem of authority. I will then look at the unique role that civil rights programming played at Camp Ramah in the 1960s, how leaders of these camps translated ideas about Judaism to contemporary events, and how their translations created an American Jewish identity authorized by a particular reading of halakhah. In short, these events, like so many forms of socialization, reveal authority as a process. In so doing, they allow us to analyze the construction of identities. The historian Ivan Marcus provides a helpful starting place for a discussion of authority as a dynamic process. His study of rituals of childhood in medieval Ashkenaz moves well beyond traditional definitions of Jewish authority. He argues that the important question to ask is how Jews of a particular period made sense of the world in which they lived. He counsels that one cannot focus on "the culture of the Jews," since in that period, "culture" privileged a world of written texts authored by rabbis, all of whom were men.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationJewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History
Subtitle of host publicationAuthority, Diaspora, Tradition
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Print)9780812243031
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011


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