Consuming Jewishness; Or, Can Man Live On Gefilte Fish Alone?
Our mini-course “American Jewishness” began today with a spirited discussion of two essays: “Packaging Jewishness,” Elliott Weiss’s sharp analysis of kosher food marketing; and Staci Boris’s lively introduction to “The New Authentics,” the daring exhibit of “post-Jewish” art she curated in 2008 (you can read my take here). Read side by side, the essays hint at a tension that underlies many discussions of ethnic identity: what is the value of cultural consumption versus production?
As Weiss points out, innumerable products, from Oreo cookies to Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, sport the seal of kosher approval, yet some companies choose to amplify the nostalgic or symbolic value of their products to add to their appeal. Take, for example, Mother’s Gefilte Fish, a familiar staple of many Passover tables. Shoppers know from the Orthodox Union symbol on the left that the fish is kosher. The rest of the label—the logo, the name, the tag “Old-Fashioned”—do what the seal itself cannot: it makes this gefilte fish more than a rabbinically-approved food; it makes it a symbol of Jewish tradition itself, of the “old country,” and of the devoted gefilte-fish-making mother we may have never known. To consume nostalgically packaged products like Mother’s gefilte fish, Weiss writes, “is not merely a physiological act, it is a semiological one as well: the consumption of Jewish signifiers.”
And yet where does this consumption of signifiers get us? What does it actually mean to enjoy Mother’s Gefilte Fish, or, to take one of Weiss’s younger examples, the punnily named He’Brew, “The Chosen Beer.” Virtually everything about the beer’s packaging strives to make it more than your everyday ale. No, to drink He’Brew is a Jewish act, even if its meaning remains unclear. To quote Weiss:
Using quasi-Chagallian pictorial conventions, the image on the front of He’Brew features a “rhino-centric” caricature of a Jewish immigrant (nasally well-endowed and myopic) rising above a fabled skyline, part San Francisco, part old Jerusalem, and part European shtetl… Caricaturing the triumphant arrival of the chosen people to the Promised Land, He’Brew transposes the ironic image of the poor, bearded, and disheveled immigrant upon entry to Ellis Island to modern-day California. Here, the Promised Land is conceptualized as both a place (Northern California) and an idea (mainstream, middle-class America).
The label, in other words, consolidates and blurs a variety of journeys. And still it teeters between irony and earnestness. To drink He’Brew is at once to claim a Jewish affiliation and to laugh about it. It is Jewishness performed as camp, in Susan Sontag’s old sense: Jewishness in quotes.
This campy consumption of Jewish signifiers stands in contrast to the artistic works surveyed in Boris’s “New Authentics.” Most of the artists Boris selected come from the same generations of post-baby-boomers who presumably represent the target market for He’Brew, and yet they do not only consume the culture around them: they produce it. In fact, in a striking departure from the groundbreaking 1997 exhibit “Too Jewish,” The New Authentics artists rarely engage directly or primarily with traditional Jewish customs and signifiers. Still Boris suggests, that very indirectness can itself become a mode of affiliation. “In fact,” Boris writes, “one could even speculate that it is through their art that these artists most profoundly connect with an express their Jewishness.” Here the performance of Jewishness is as much about the process of production as it is about the final work.
But where does that leave those of us who aren’t artists? How can we produce “Jewishness” in an authentic and meaningful way outside the realm of art? And is production ultimately a more meaningful performance of identity than consumption? Is it “more” Jewish to make gefilte fish from scratch rather than spoon it out of a jar?
The performance theorist in me suspects that much depends on repetition, or as Judith Butler put it, the “stylized repetition of acts.” It’s not that either consuming or making gefilte fish is in and of itself an authentic act of Jewish identification. Rather eating or cooking gefilte fish every Passover, year after year, just might make it a significant act for a given person. But I’ll stop there, since that hints at tomorrow’s topic: ritual.