Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

by Ken Koltun-Fromm


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, September 20


Exploring how visual media presents claims to Jewish authenticity, Imagining Jewish Authenticity argues that Jews imagine themselves and their place within America by appealing to a graphic sensibility. Ken Koltun-Fromm traces how American Jewish thinkers capture Jewish authenticity, and lingering fears of inauthenticity, in and through visual discourse and opens up the subtle connections between visual expectations, cultural knowledge, racial belonging, embodied identity, and the ways images and texts work together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015747
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/28/2015
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 2.30(d)

About the Author

Ken Koltun-Fromm is Professor of Religion at Haverford College. He is author of several books including Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America (IUP, 2010).

Read an Excerpt

Imagining Jewish Authenticity

Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought

By Ken Koltun-Fromm

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Ken Koltun-Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01579-2


Seeing Israel in Bernard Rosenblatt's Social Zionism

It is conceivable that one could view the Zionists' deliberate mediation of the Jewish experience in Palestine as manipulation, or worse, exploitation. But that would misrepresent their deep-seated quest for, and sincere belief in, the authenticity of their claims. This was, in the Zionist imagination, one of the chief means of national liberation for the Jews: they had to be able to see their potential as a people and a nation, quite literally, before their eyes—preferably in the best possible light, as a blossoming flower—in order to perceive themselves as fully human.

—Michael Berkowitz, Western Jewry and the Zionist Project, 1914–1933

In an essay discussing Israel in American Jewish education, Walter Ackerman (1925–2003) recalls how every American kid attending Jewish schools of his generation, at one time or another, went to see the film A House in the Desert (1948). This now classic Zionist promotional film tells the story of the halutzim—those vanguards of a rejuvenated Jewish people in the land of Israel whom Arthur Goren and Mark Raider have explored in some detail. Building a kibbutz in the desert region known in Israel as the Arava, the halutzim produced their first crops and made the desert bloom. Ackerman acknowledges the heavy romantic propaganda, yet still recalls its visual impact: "But I have never forgotten the last frame of that movie—a fragile sliver of white bud bursting through the dry and dusty brown of desert waste." That frame holds its power for Ackerman in ways that Jewish education, focused on "the reliance on telling," can rarely capture with the same urgency and vitality. Images captivate the senses in ways such that even the most romantic of pictures seems right and fitting. A House in the Desert deploys images to make arguments—a visual form of telling that travels very deeply into historical memory.

Bernard Rosenblatt's Social Zionism (1919) is also a form of visual telling, with engravings of Palestine on every one of its pages. Originally from Poland but raised in the United States, Rosenblatt (1886–1969) was a leader in the American Zionist movement, at one time sat on the editorial board of the American Zionist journal The Maccabaean, and held the post of honorary secretary of the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ). His Social Zionism is a collection of earlier essays, some dating back to 1910, mostly from The Maccabaean. Rosenblatt has much in common with other American Zionists, especially Horace Kallen and Louis Brandeis, who each appropriated the ideals of the American progressive movement for the "upbuilding" of Palestine. This progressive agenda infused what came to be known as the Pittsburgh Program (1918), a document with six planks that Kallen drafted and Brandeis, among others, later modified. Although Rosenblatt characterizes his book as "an introduction to the study of certain planks in the Pittsburgh Program," it represents far more his vision of a Jewish state that promotes social justice, economic fairness, and agricultural independence. Working the land and making the desert bloom—the halutz ideal pictured in A House in the Desert and in Rosenblatt's text—revitalized the Jew to become, as Jeffrey Shandler and Beth Wenger describe this imaginary, "proud, athletic, activist, visionary." In Palestine a Jew could achieve "self-realization" (what in Hebrew was called hagshamah atzmit), and so transform himself, in what was mostly a male discourse, from the weak, Diaspora traveler to the authentic, muscular halutz.

These were widespread claims, and one finds them throughout early American and European Zionist depictions of the new Jew in Palestine. Indeed, much of Rosenblatt's political and social rhetoric fits well within what historian Anita Shapira labels as the "defensive ethos" of Zionist discourse: "The Jews have no aspirations to rule in Palestine—they are coming to colonize the wilderness and to develop regions that to date have gone unploughed. They bring tidings of progress and development to the land, for the benefit of all its inhabitants." To be sure, those other "inhabitants" are rarely acknowledged; Rosenblatt, like many of his contemporaries, imagines a land without a people—a land empty, barren ("the wilderness"), and awaiting its developers. Zionists like Rosenblatt never intended to colonize a people because they never fully recognized the existence of others on the land.

But Rosenblatt certainly desired to colonize the American Jewish self, and this because American Jews could only achieve authentic personhood through cultivating the barren land. The halutz ideal witnesses to Rosenblatt's anxious meditations on (in)authenticity: his fear that residing in America will emasculate Jewish vitality and creativity. Jews must travel to Palestine to find themselves, to become who they really are, and so prevent the inevitable weakening of American Jewish identity. Appeals to Jewish authenticity travel together with fears of inauthenticity, and tracking the one inevitably means to cross paths with the other.

Here too, appeals to authenticity and their related fears are common motifs in early Zionist literature. Rosenblatt is not alone, and not even distinctive in many of his claims for a new, American self. Yet I am not concerned about what Rosenblatt argues but rather about how he argues it. This chapter focuses on the multiple ways that images interact with texts to produce a more nuanced, rhetorical argument for authentic personhood. In Social Zionism we can actually see how these claims to authenticity work with images, for Rosenblatt ties progressive calls to social justice and the authentic self to what Jonathan Sarna describes, somewhat mutedly, as "romantic sketches of Holy Land scenes." These images make arguments and interweave with Rosenblatt's written text to produce the kind of lasting "frame" that so captivated Walter Ackerman, even as they remain part of a rich history of the Zionist adoption of "Jewish art" and the "symbolic return to Jewish selfhood and authenticity." The sketches reshape, alter, and expand Rosenblatt's arguments concerning Zionism and the authentic Jewish self. This blending of text and image constructs Palestine as an empty wasteland (like Ackerman's "desert waste") inhabited by wandering, primitive Bedouins. It is a land waiting for Jewish colonization and the rebirth of Jewish authenticity." But it is also the American frontier—one that underlies the American dream of ever expansive space to begin again, once more. A new, authentic self beckons to replace the old. This is a visual authenticity in the making, and we can see it in the ways that images complicate, and sometimes even contradict, textual claims.

Rosenblatt's Social Zionism

The romantic sketches in Social Zionism reveal how images function with textual claims to produce the rhetoric of visual authenticity. I follow David Morgan's suggestion "to explain what the picture does," but Zionist images too often become examples of textual arguments rather than (in my analysis) features of those arguments. Note, for instance, the excellent work by Mark Raider in his The Emergence of American Zionism (1998), in which he includes compelling images of the halutz ideal. Raider discusses one striking set of images that grace the cover of the Hebrew journal Shaharut (Youth)—one scene from 1918, the other from 1920. For two years Shaharut displayed the image of three youths in a small boat "rowing toward the Palestinian shore." Raider describes this image as a "straightforward nationalist message," but Shaharut displaced this message with another in 1920 to contrast Pharaoh with Moses: the one symbolizing enslavement, the other freedom and redemption. For Raider, this new image "represents a return to more traditional forms of Zionist mythologization." The Zionist reading of this exodus story is clear, for "behind Moses, a winding path leads toward a Palestinian landscape and a radiant sun." Both images for Raider represent ideas or claims, for each "synthesizes the ideas of homecoming and a new beginning," or "implicitly reflects the impact of Ahad Haamism' in the American context." They are mere "expressions of Zionist mythology," or "reflect vastly different approaches to the concept of Zionist self-realization." These Zionist representations indicate or represent, but they do not actively make claims. They are examples of Zionist discourse rather than producers of it.

But to see these images as active producers of knowledge, as I hope to do for Rosenblatt's Social Zionism, we must recognize how written texts and visual images work together to construct, maintain, and sometimes complicate arguments. Images are more than "expressions of" something; they do things—as they certainly did for Ackerman's memory of A House in the Desert—and we do things with them. We should not read texts first, and then turn to images as "proof" or "evidence" of those written arguments. Images and texts work together as creative forms of production to offer combative, less linear, and more nuanced modes of argumentation. Black-and-white sketches function with written inscriptions in Rosenblatt's Social Zionism to become constructed narratives, and so operate within registers beyond mere supplemental visual evidence.

By recognizing images as constitutive features of arguments, the notion of a "text" expands to include visual acts of persuasion. My focus on what we do with images, rather than what they merely reflect, parallels a growing trend in literary studies to read texts as political actors. Poetry, for instance, does not reflect the dilemmas of an age so much as it helps constitute and configure them. Eric Zakim's critique of Anita Shapira's political history elucidates this stance well. In his literary history of the Zionist slogan, "To Build and Be Built," Zakim focuses on Shapira's tendency to read poetry as a representative source of political events. Although Zakim justly praises Shapira's Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force 1881-1948, he finds that she chooses "only those literary texts that explicitly thematize conflict and what she calls a 'defensive ethos.'" Shapira limits her perspective "to a thematic reflection of conflict," and this, according to Zakim, brands poetry "as reflective proof of the ethos Shapira describes." Zionist poetry never emerges within this methodological view as "constitutive of the history Shapira is describing." And it is this sense of constitution—the active creation of an ethos rather than a reflective description of it—that Zakim wants to trace in poetic works, and I discover in Rosenblatt's Social Zionism.

In a book of some one-hundred-and-fifty-one pages, Social Zionism contains a bit more than thirty sketches. Since each page displays one image, many of these scenes repeat in patterned sequences. There are four sketches in Social Zionism that originally appeared in The Maccabaean during the years 1918–1919, but a number of images maintain striking similarities. Yet the function of these sketches differs significantly in the two published venues. In The Maccabaean, images appear as decorative appendages to articles, surfacing as fillers at the end of a page to offer an aesthetic accessory to the article's content. Images in Social Zionism, however, function as constitutive features of Rosenblatt's arguments in ways that move beyond their aesthetic value in The Maccabaean, and perhaps even beyond Rosenblatt's own intentions. In this sense, the sketches in Social Zionism are different kinds of images than those found in The Maccabaean, even if they are artistically comparable. The context within which these images appear decidedly informs the work they do. In The Maccabaean, they show elegant taste; in Social Zionism, they make claims about Jewish authenticity.

Within the argumentative structure of Rosenblatt's Social Zionism, images make claims about personal identity in ways that constitute authenticity as a visual practice. We can see what authenticity looks like in and through the juxtaposition of writing and image in Rosenblatt's text. Again I want to emphasize that many, if not all, of his ideas became common currency in early progressive visions of Zion, and one can readily glean from his later biographical work, Two Generations of Zionism (1967), just how much he follows the intellectual and administrative efforts from Brandeis and others. Yet Rosenblatt produces a uniquely visual account of social Zionism and Jewish authenticity, and so his text helps us to see how images rhetorically work with and against texts. His narrative interweaves romantic sketches with his own prose to perform the kind of compelling account that so moved Walter Ackerman in his viewing of A House in the Desert. This visual-textual focus appears on the very first page of his book, and continues unabated throughout.

Social Zionism is an extended argument in support of the Pittsburgh Program as the natural heir to the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. If Herzl had won the day with his political Zionism, then Rosenblatt seeks to do the same for his American brand of social Zionism. The Basel Platform declared political independence for the "Jewish race who had determined to build a Jewish state." Herzl informed the world about the Zionist political agenda; the Pittsburgh Program, by enunciating how "social justice" underwrites this agenda, "gives us a picture of the kind of state for which the Zionists are striving." From the outset, Rosenblatt locates the Pittsburgh Program as the necessary progressive model to enact Herzl's political vision. Social Zionism as visual text seeks to reduce the tension between political and practical Zionism, as they were often labeled, through a developmental process from a state directive to a "picture of the kind of state." Rosenblatt turns from Herzl's visionary rhetoric to the actual vision of a national homeland.

Yet this notion of a movement's natural evolution concedes too much. Later in his book, Rosenblatt fuses his social Zionism with Herzl's political campaign, situating his account of social justice at the very heart of Zionist discourse:

Herzl, however, was not a crafty politician, but a social prophet, and it is high time that we begin to appreciate the "Social Zionism" of the author of the Judenstatt and Altneuland. Social Zionism comprehends both Practical and Political Zionism, and supplements the two by the concept of a Jewish Commonwealth in Zion which would serve as a model for the nations in the age-long battle for social justice.

As Zionists often quoted the biblical prophets, especially Isaiah, to ground the legitimacy of their movement in biblical origins, so too Rosenblatt appeals to Herzl to establish authentic roots for American Zionism. Still, the anxiety of the inauthentic lingers dangerously in the background. Rosenblatt feels compelled to ground his social Zionism in the original architect. He seeks a foundation upon which to root his progressive vision. This move to origins belies his own anxiety that his socialist program might not seem genuine, or might perhaps appear too progressive. Where Zionist history recovered biblical foundations, traversing and thereby silencing the intermittent two thousand years of Jewish heritage, Rosenblatt also links foundations with progressive visions, fashioning the "age-long battle for social justice" as the authentic source for the Jewish Commonwealth in Zion. His social Zionism is authentic Zionism. It is a claim borne out of an anxiety of inauthenticity.


Excerpted from Imagining Jewish Authenticity by Ken Koltun-Fromm. Copyright © 2015 Ken Koltun-Fromm. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Visual Authenticity in the American Jewish Imaginary

Section I. The Anxiety of Authenticity in Image and Text
1. Seeing Israel in Bernard Rosenblatt’s Social Zionism
2. Seeing Things in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath
3. Seeing Food in The Jewish Home Beautiful and Kosher by Design

Section II. The Embodied Language of Visual Authenticity
4. The Language of Jewish Bodies in Michael Wyschogrod’s The Body of Faith
5. The Language of Gendered Bodies in Adler's Engendering Judaism
6. The Language of Racial Bodies in Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s The Colors of Jews

Conclusion: Imagining Jewish Authenticity in Every Generation

What People are Saying About This

University of Virginia - Asher Biemann

Sure to strike an immediate nerve and to be a springboard for lively scholarly and public discussions, especially as it tackles highly timely issues such as gender, conversion, and race.

New York University - Elliot Wolfson

By turning his attention to how American Jewish thinkers appealed to visual metaphors to affirm Jewish authenticity, Ken Koltun-Fromm sheds new light on an important topic. This is, as far as I know, the first attempt to take the matter of visual discourse in the context of American Judaism seriously.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews