New York

“Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities”

The small room that served as the entrance to “Too Jewish?” contained: Deborah Kass’ Triple Silver Yentl (My Elvis), 1992, a sly homage to Warhol’s “Elvis” series in which Streisand packs a Talmud instead of a pistol, flanked on the right by two vintage Barbies and a Midge doll, and on the left by a female mannequin, resplendent in Jean Paul Gaultier’s faux-fur hat with synthetic pais. This immersion in popular culture was both surprising and welcome. It didn’t seem to matter that Gaultier’s 1993 Hasidic line never worked for me; that my response to Streisand posing as a young Talmudic student in Yentl was tepid; and that I never gave Barbie the time of day when I was growing up. Gazing at the icons of a popular culture I knew, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of the familiar, which was followed almost immediately by the realization of how rare that feeling is.

As a secular Jew born after the Holocaust, the Jewish exhibitions I have seen unfailingly address the history of Jews, but not my history as a Jew. The surprising juxtaposition of objects seemed to embody the very problems inherent in constructions of Jewish womanhood. Barbie (invented by a Jewish woman) and her friend Midge read as paradigmatic expressions of the assimilationist model. Yentl and the high-fashion “hasida” also denied Jewish womanhood, but rather than proffering the elusive possibility of passing for a WASP, they embraced the equally elusive one of passing for a Jewish male. Though cross-dressing does nothing to erase the real imbalance of power between men and women encoded in the tenets of traditional Judaism, the preposterous gender reversals in Kass’ three Yentls and Gaultier’s couture do explode the presumption of heterosexuality that accompanies rigid gender roles. By alluding to a cross-dressed woman as “My Elvis,” Kass’ Triple Silver Yentl makes lesbian desire an integral part of a Jewish female narrative. Barbie, appearances notwithstanding, is no stranger to cultural subversion either. In fact, her roles as ideal woman and girl-toy of choice have spawned numerous meditations of quite a different nature, such as Erica Rand’s Barbie’s Queer Accessories or Rhonda Lieberman’s “Jewish Barbie” columns in Artforum, republished in this show’s catalogue. Who better, then, to serve as the opening salvo for a show that brought popular culture, consumer culture, questions of assimilation versus difference, and intersecting identities into provocative dialogue?

Indeed, one of the major contributions of “Too Jewish?” is its exploration of the mired relationship between identity and stereotype. Its organizers—Norman Kleeblatt (curator), Maurice Berger (consulting curator), Robin F. White (video curator), and Mira Goldfarb (assistant curator)—along with the museum’s director Joan Rosenbaum had the courage to confront stereotypes at full tilt. The exhibition’s stated goal of “challenging traditional identities” was enhanced by the installation, remarkably successful despite cramped spaces, and by the division of the work into three main sections: “Reconsidering the Ethnic Body,” “Representing Popular Culture,” and “Re-inventing Ritual.” The multidisciplinary catalogue, with an introduction by Linda Nochlin, essays by Kleeblatt, Sander L. Gilman, and others, constitutes an important addition to the relatively recent scholarship on Jewishness and visual culture.

In the show’s introductory section, the questions “Who represents us? How are we represented? How do we represent ourselves?” stenciled on the wall were answered by a sidesplitting, if heartbreaking, compilation of television clips drawn from shows as wide-ranging as The Goldbergs, Saturday Night Live, and Northern Exposure. By posing the question of how we represent ourselves, the curators automatically triggered its very tough corollary: Can those who are the target of stereotypes overturn them merely by deploying those stereotypes themselves? If, admittedly, such a tactic risks reinforcing what it hopes to critique, certainly one of the most effective strategies for calling bigotry’s bluff is to expose it as reductive. The most pervasive, and persuasive, ploy used by artists in this exhibition was the humorous reinscription of stereotypes—in tongue-in-cheek representations of clichés (the Jewish American Princess, Jewish noses, Jewish humor itself); in the unexpected assertion of difference in assimilationist scenarios; and in occasional full-blown parodies.

Much of this work, so densely interwoven with postwar popular culture, might seem frivolous given the place of the Holocaust in Jewish experience and memory; yet by examining the tension between “passing” and ethnic identification, this exhibition inserts Jewishness into a world that attempts to eradicate it. Works such as Kenneth Aptekar’s Albert. Used to be Abraham, 1995; Adam Rolston’s representations of tour-de-force nose jobs; Susan Moghul’s video The Last Jew In America, 1984–; and (with its perfect New England interiors and “correct” summer vacations) Elaine Reichek’s A Postcolonial Kinderhood, 1994, underline the absurdity of seamless assimilation while linking Jewish identity to a larger, secular realm.

Signs of Jewishness also take the form of ritual objects and texts. Matzoh emerges as the Ur object, the subject of Adam Rolston’s huge Pop icons, Rhonda Lieberman’s matzoh-meal box cum objet de luxe, Nurit Newman’s bejeweled matzoh-meal crowns, and two works by Neil Goldberg, including his homage to the kings of comedy (Shecky Greene, Jack Carter, Alan King, Dick Capri, London Lee, and Freddie Roman). Hannah Wilke’s rarely seen Venus Pareve, 1982–84, forces the Jewish female body to conform to gentile ideals of beauty, while Lieberman’s Barbra Bush, 1994, and Ilene Segalove’s audio performance Hanukkah, 1985, each addresses the strange but common conflation of Hanukkah and Christmas.

Although not the central theme of this show, the Holocaust haunts works such as Rona Pondick’s Little Bathers, 1990–91, a mound of whimsical yet chilling waxen pink heads fitted with plastic dentures, and Seth Kramer’s video, Untitled, 1994, in which he counts 6 million grains of rice. Its spectral presence becomes unmistakably concrete in Art Spiegelman’s final drawings and preliminary sketches for Maus, 1983–86. In what Kleeblatt calls an “Orwellian parody” of the Spiegelman family’s experience of the Holocaust, Spiegelman avoids stereotypical representations by casting Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Nazis as cats, and Americans as dogs. Nowhere is the instability of identity more wittily addressed than in the page of studies for Spiegelman’s French-born wife, alternately rendered as a moose, a rabbit, a poodle, and a frog. (Thanks to her conversion to Judaism, Françoise ends up as a mouse, albeit one whose origins are evident in her striped T-shirt and neck scarf.) Goldberg and Gregg Bordowitz, who wed personal history to political activism, use the historic persecution of Jews as a metaphor for the victimization of people with AIDS. Referring to an incident in 1992 at a gay rights meeting when several Hasidic men applauded the announcement that a gay activist had recently died of AIDS, Goldberg’s untitled piece of hinged matzohs of the same year makes it especially clear that Jewish identity is in no way monolithic. In Liberation of G-d, 1990–96, Helene Aylon makes a similar point by highlighting, in pink, sections from the Five Books of Moses in which patriarchal attitudes are projected onto God. Both these works pose the question of who has the power to speak for Jews while arguing for a more inclusive definition of Jewishness and Judaism.

Given that the artists whose works are on view are primarily third- or fourth-generation American Jews, the conspicuousness of the Jewish American Princess, the quintessential stereotype of Jewish femininity in the postwar period, is perhaps not surprising. But if one counts works in which there is cross-dressing or an element of gender-bending, both for women (Kass’ Triple Silver Yentl, Gaultier’s Hasidic wear, even Aylon’s Liberation of G-d), and for men (Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass’ Untitled (4 jewelled Yarmulkes), 1992, Sandi DuBowski’s video Tomboychik, 1993), one might argue that images of femininity are in fact more prevalent than those of masculinity. This imbalance has much to do with the discomfiting stereotypes on both sides of the fence that are explored in catalogue essays by Riv-Ellen Prell and Maurice Berger. Prell, an anthropologist, emphasizes how Jewish women since the war have come to be seen exclusively as bodies obsessed with consumerism and adornment. Berger traces the pernicious stereotype of the feminized Jew in American television to internalized anti-Semitism as well as anxiety about public perception of Jewishness. The rarity of the hypermasculine Jew finds an echo in this exhibition. Only Goldberg’s Workout Tallis, 1994, and Kass’ Sandy Koufax, 1994, directly confront the physical dimension of Jewish masculinity. If postwar stereotypes of Jews help explain the emphasis on femininity and drag in this show, their ubiquity also bears witness to the strong performative component in the construction of both identity and stereotype. The emphasis on fashion in so many of the works on view, including Barbara Nuddle’s video Coping with Clothing, 1995, is thus not simply the product of middle-class consumerism, both Jewish and American, but the supremely self-conscious reflection of personal and collective identity.

Comprised mainly of work by secular Jews, “Too Jewish?” marks the entry of Jewishness into the arena of identity politics. Its debt to feminist, race, and queer studies is fundamental. That Jewishness is a relative newcomer to the multicultural debate says a good deal about the origins of identity politics in the 1960s. For while Jews contributed to the rich political activism and scholarship of those years, they enjoyed a socioeconomic status and potential for assimilation that kept them from being perceived as marginalized, despite their oppressive history of persecution. With its rich, and often hilarious, commentary on the melding of Jewishness, gender, sexuality, and class in postwar American culture, this exhibition makes one of the most compelling cases to date for the irreducibility of identity.

Carol Ockman is professor of art history at Williams College. Her book Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line was published last year by Yale University Press.

“Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities” is on view at The Jewish Museum in San Francisco, from 16 September 1996, to 5 January 1997, and travels to UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center from 27 January to 23 March 1997, and The Contemporary in Baltimore from 20 April to 29 June 1997.