Look­ing Jew­ish: Visu­al Cul­ture and Mod­ern Diaspora

Car­ol Zemel
  • Review
By – December 7, 2015

Car­ol Zemel, a pro­fes­sor of art his­to­ry and visu­al cul­ture, states that the pur­pose of her book Look­ing Jew­ish is to call atten­tion to image pro­duc­tion as a sig­ni­fy­ing prac­tice of Jew­ish dias­poric life.” Con­sid­er­ing the orig­i­nal mean­ing of Dias­po­ra as a scat­tered peo­ple,” she sum­ma­rizes many of the the­ses made by social his­to­ri­ans (most notably, Simon Dub­now) and schol­ars of var­i­ous dis­ci­plines about the impact of the dias­poric con­di­tion on Jew­ish art, lit­er­a­ture, and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in her intro­duc­tion. The chap­ters that fol­low are thought­ful case stud­ies through which Zemel attempts to answer the peren­ni­al ques­tion of what can be called Jew­ish art.” This is no sim­ple task in the post-eman­ci­pa­tion mod­ern era, when Jews have been vig­or­ous par­tic­i­pants in the cul­ture of nations where they have settled.

The first three chap­ters focus on par­tic­u­lar artists, pho­tog­ra­phers, and lit­er­ary fig­ures of dif­fer­ent geo­graph­i­cal areas and time peri­ods, cho­sen to illu­mi­nate the author’s the­sis — from 1920s pho­tog­ra­phers Alter Kacyzne and Moshe Vorobe­ichic (who adopt­ed sev­er­al dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties); to Bruno Schulz, acclaimed Pol­ish artist of the pre-Shoah peri­od; to Roman Vish­ni­ac, whose pho­tographs of Pol­ish Jews on the eve of their destruc­tion are indeli­bly inscribed on the Jew­ish col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. The author ana­lyzes the influ­ence and impact of these artists’ works at the time they were pro­duced as well as on the con­tem­po­rary viewer. 

Zemel then moves to North Amer­i­ca and the mod­ern era, con­sid­er­ing stereo­types, gen­der issues, and images in film and oth­er media in terms of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in main­stream cul­ture. Fol­low­ing the for­mu­la­tion of his­to­ri­an George Mosse, she treats a stereo­type — whether of the Jew­ish moth­er, the Jew­ish Amer­i­can princess (JAP), or the greedy Jew­ish man — as a use­ful cat­e­go­ry for analy­sis.” She notes how the blur­ring of gen­der roles as in Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Reb­bet­zin Hadas­sah Gross ampli­fies our under­stand­ing of its pres­ence, espe­cial­ly in Jew­ish humor in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture — the neg­a­tive effect notwithstanding.

Enti­tled Dias­poric Val­ues in Con­tem­po­rary Art: R. B.Kitaj, Ben Katchor, Vera Frenkel,” the con­clud­ing chap­ter gives an aca­d­e­m­ic per­spec­tive on three artists of dif­fer­ent media: painter Kitaj, graph­ic nov­el­ist Katchor, and Frenkel, an instal­la­tion artist. Zemel dis­putes R. B. Kitaj’s claim that for artists, liv­ing in more than one soci­ety has a kind of moral pow­er or destiny…a mod­ern con­di­tion”; she sees this con­di­tion as def­i­nite­ly Jew­ish rather than uni­ver­sal, as Kitaj would have us believe. In her exten­sive dis­cus­sion, she states that in his work Kitaj has become both Jew and artist as provo­ca­teur, pulling artist and Jew clos­er togeth­er to con­tin­ue the hero­ic pos­ture of the mod­ernist avant-garde.” 

Zemel’s case stud­ies” are a well-illus­trat­ed (although regret­tably in black and white) con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­a­ture of Dias­porism — a con­ve­nient term for con­sid­er­a­tion of Jew­ish ele­ments in visu­al images in the mod­ern era.

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions