It’s clear that author Karen Brodkin approaches the subject of Jewish Americans from a very personal perspective. Her book on the subject How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race in America (Rutgers) is much more than academic. What began as a general study of ways that race, ethnicity, class, and gender combine to construct an American identity, Brodkin found her lens focusing solely on Jewish Americans and their experience. Even with that, an vast array amount of research and resources were utilized, lending the book itself a sometimes overwhelming quality.
While it’s not strictly a Jewish American experience to have assimilated to “whiteness,” Brodkin effectively examines the specific nuances of their experience such as how anti-Semitism has affected different generations of Jewish Americans. Brodkin also illustrates, in a compelling manner, how different generations of her own family felt about their cultural roles and dealt with ever-changing societal demands.
It is Brodkin’s constant correlation to her own family, in fact, that reminds the reader of her personal involvement and allows us-Jewish or not-to make a personal connection as well. Despite the sometimes overwhelming dearth of weighty information, Bodkin’s personal narrative provides motivation to continue to turn the pages.
While the author argues that it’s nearly impossible to define “Americanness” because of the infinite variety in the ethnic make-up of its citizens, she does provide a valuable insight into how one distinctive racial and ethnic group has adapted over generations to it’s racial middleness-on the one hand, marginality with regard to whiteness; on the other, whiteness and belonging with regard to blackness. More generally insightful are her assertions that class is a key element in racial, occupational, and residential segregation. How Jews is intriguing mostly in that it provokes the reader to learn more, to personalize their own Americanness and discover how their own “whiteness” may have evolved.