Jon Stratton (2000) Coming Out Jewish: Constructing Ambivalent Identities.

London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415222087

Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg

Jon Stratton sets the tenor for his meditation on modern and postmodern Jewish identity formation with a comment from Hanif Kureishi, who writes from the thicket of late twentieth century identity politics: ‘These days everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay, Jew — brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human.’ (Qtd. in Stratton, 2000: 1). What Kureishi gets right here about identity politics – the aggression implicit in identity characteristics ‘brandished’ like so many clubs in the 1980s multicultural fray made famous in Kureishi’s own work; the trope of ‘coming out’ as relevant not simply for marginalized positions (gay), but for dominant ones as well (man); and, finally, the interpretation of such ‘tags,’ place markers as it were, as the very essence of the human – is at once both central and antithetical to Stratton’s project. Central, because Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish offers an ethical frame for the as-yet-not-fully-articulated position of Jewish identity in debates around multicultural pedagogies and policies, reaching deep into the wells of Enlightenment and modernist philosophies and histories to ‘suggest the complexity of a postmodern Jewish identity’ that is – if definable at all – defined, paradoxically, through its ambivalence and indeterminacy (Stratton, 2000: 35). Antithetical, because Stratton indulges none of the usual hegemonic gestures in working to claim space for, and to find terms with which to describe, Jewish identity in the contexts of academia, of nation-building projects, and of the lived experiences of Jewish people who maintain a variety of relationships with their Jewishness. The book is erudite, dense in a mostly positive sense of that word, and reaches, at times, peaks of genuine originality and timely vision in its claims

In the context of an over-arching exploration of the problems of migration, exile, and assimilation in the modern and postmodern periods of Jewish history, Stratton performs several crucial intellectual projects. First, he intervenes in the dominant conflation of Jewishness with the particular experience of Ashkenazi Jews of Western Europe, unsettling this monolithic reading of Jewishness by differentiating among the histories and traditions of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, as well as the Ostjuden (Jewish peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia, specifically the area called the Pale, from which mass migration to the U.S., Latin America, and Australia, and later to eretz Israel, originated as a consequence of late 19th-century pogroms). Parallel to this effort to problematize the homogeneous signification of Jewishness is Stratton’s insightful supplementary re-reading of various thinkers whose theoretical projects might be characterized as universalist -from Freud to Kafka, Lyotard to Zizek – through the lenses of either their largely repressed or disavowed Jewish identities, or their universalizing claims regarding Jewishness and anti-Semitism. Second, the book traces the presence of the Holocaust (Shoah) as a foundation for postmodern Jewish identity in ways that complicate standard readings of Jewish relations to the nuclear family structure, to individual nation-states, and to Israel itself. Finally, Stratton’s etymological work – defining, historicizing, and clarifying such terms as diaspora, exile, assimilation, immigration, and multiculturalism – provides a welcome intervention into the rather uncritical, decontextualized circulation of such terms in current academic and policy discourses.

The trajectory of Stratton’s argument begins at home, so to speak, in an assessment of the role – or relative lack thereof – of Jewishness in the development of the field of Cultural Studies of which he is an active practitioner. In his tightly-woven ‘Introduction,’ Stratton situates his endeavor in this context, drawing a parallel between the disciplinary ambivalence of Cultural Studies, and the definitional ambivalence of Jewish people: ‘Cultural Studies can be read as a postmodern area of investigation as equally reflexive and uncertain of its disciplinary status as post-assimilation Jews are of their status as Jews, or of their Jewishness’ (18). Appropriately, then, Stratton’s use of autobiographical anecdotes to support and create a meta-narrative for his theoretical work encompasses both his personal, familial life and his academic career. Indeed, some of the most engaging moments of the text occur as part of an autobiographical thread that is particularly strong in the book’s first section.

Stratton’s intervention with regard to the disciplinary concerns of Cultural Studies (particularly, as he notes, ‘that strand of it which has a history in the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ [35]) involves disrupting the binary opposition of whiteness to its Other — blackness – inscribed, according to Stratton, foundationally in the work of Stuart Hall. As Stratton asserts with regard to Hall’s assessment of the difficulty of getting race–meaning ‘”Blacks,” to some extent “Asian” “Blacks” but, centrally, “West Indian,” Afro-Caribbean, “Blacks”‘ (35)–on the agenda of the BCCS, ‘. . .the lack of problematisation of race leads to a collapsing together of racialisation and “blackness” which elides those colourised differently, or, as is in the main the case with Jews, racialised but not colourised at all. The ambivalent situation of “Jews” in the nation-state unsettles the binary use of “race” in the construction of national identity’ (36). While we might do well to heed reviewers of Stratton’s text who have argued that Stratton’s remarks here ought to be more clearly contextualized in terms of police and government actions targeting the ‘Black’ population specifically at the historic moment from which Hall writes,[1]  thereby better understanding the urgency around that intractable signifier of race classified by W.E.B. DuBois as ‘the color line’,[2]  what Stratton’s chapter achieves is a highly principled historiographic retrieval of Cultural Studies from its origins in Matthew Arnold’s nationalist agenda. Stratton locates the origins of this agenda in Arnold’s desire to construct a sense of a homogeneous English culture that would form the basis for a strong, coherent nation-state.[3]  Interestingly, Arnold made the rhetorical move of celebrating ‘Hebraism’ as a tradition as great as that of ‘Hellenism’ (both claimed as foundations for the mythic Englishness he sought to disseminate) while consciously eliding the presence of actual Jewish people within national borders, who, while slowly gaining political enfranchisement, were simultaneously being racialized as an Other who could not be assimilated within the nation-state. Stratton traces the lineage of this Arnoldian tradition of exclusivity through the work of T.S. Eliot and – more importantly for the discipline of Cultural Studies – Raymond Williams. If we assume that the agenda of BCCS was primarily to dismantle the Arnoldian idea of a homogeneous national culture that threw down the assimilatory gauntlet at the feet of its racialized (and, to borrow from Stratton, ‘colourised’) interlopers, then the obvious move, as with most emancipatory movements of this period, was to include those who had most visibly been excluded: ‘Black’ people. Stratton’s analysis here might have been deepened by attention to the complexity of the Jewish position to privilege. While calling attention to Hall’s binarization of race in the discourse of Cultural Studies and historicizing the social and political disenfranchisement of Jews in England, Stratton obscures the function of class and color privilege – the ability to ‘pass’ that the color line precludes – in the Jewish relation to whiteness and power. This omission in this particular moment of the book feels more glaring given the book’s desire to complicate the relationship between passing and assimilation in the context of Jewish identity, and also given that Stratton does devote several pages in his ‘Introduction’ to a semi-autobiographical discussion of the practical and theoretical implications of ‘passing’ in terms of the trope of ‘coming out’ which structures the book.

This point aside, the sum of arguments advanced in the rest of the text (divided into three sections with a total of ten chapters) about the consequences of this ambivalent categorization of the Jews comprise, in a sense, the theoretical and historical ground for the powerful intervention Stratton proposes at the end of Chapter One: ‘Now, perhaps it is possible for the Jewish voice to speak out from within its “European” and nation-state-based history, unsettling the mantra [race, gender, class] on which British cultural studies has evolved and marking a further deconstruction of the Arnoldian project’ (48). Over the course of the next nine chapters, Stratton thoroughly untangles the skein of identity classifications – ethnic, racial, religious, cultural – applied to and tried on by Jewish people during the nation-building moments of the modern period. In the process, Stratton demonstrates that, regardless of an individual’s desire to identify in a certain way, the postmodern (post-Holocaust) Jewish identity will always already be defined by its awareness that full assimilation is impossible, arbitrarily invalidated upon the transitory whim of the nation-state.

This postmodern Jewish identity poses serious challenges to the validity of Enlightenment foundations of the modern democratic nation-state, challenges that Stratton introduces in his first chapter by exposing the different relationship to the social contract experienced by Jewish citizens than that which pertained to white settlers of and immigrants to Europe, the U.S., and the other settler state of import to this study, Australia. For if the Enlightenment ideal of social contract is based upon individual consent to that contract in exchange for protection of the rights of personhood by the state, Jewish participation hinged instead upon securing enfranchisement in exchange for silence – or assimilation. Stratton’s second chapter, ‘European Jews, Assimilation and the Uncanny,’ traces the history of Jewish silence and invisibility in contemporary discourses of identity: the long experience of ambiguous construction by dominant culture as ‘both the similar, that is to say, as a version of “us,” and Other, as another group of “them”‘ (53). In a fascinating exposure of the disavowed presence of Jewishness in various tendrils of psychoanalytic theory, Stratton relocates in Freud’s universalizing thought the seeds of Jewish concern, evidence of Freud’s ambivalence toward and resulting disavowal of that part of his identity – a suppression not incidentally coincident with the rise of anti-Semitism around the turn of the century and into the First and Second World Wars. Stratton’s technique is to identify the possible reversals in Freud’s thought: where Freud universalizes the fear of castration for Jews and Gentiles alike as the foundational moment of the inscription of the father’s authority through the Oedipus complex, for instance, Stratton muses, ‘. . .what if castration is, in fact, the universalisation of the, in European Christian terms, Jewish specificity of circumcision’ (65)? It is circumcision (displaced within the theory of castration) that marks Jewish difference as Difference, rendering Jews unalterably Other. This Difference is the source of great anxiety for Freud, who naturalizes that anxiety in his theory of the uncanny, the return of the repressed, or unheimlich (unhomely–that which is out of place, uncannily familiar yet at once unfamiliar). Stratton’s reading of the uncanny as the unassimilable excess of ethnicity, the part of one’s ethnic heritage that cannot be suppressed or acculturated, leads to a discussion of Jews as ‘the uncanny excess to the Western nation-state-building project’ (72). Later, Stratton’s analysis – by way of Sander Gilman – of Gregor Samsa’s transformation to a dung beetle as a return or exposure of his disavowed Jewishness in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ provides a fascinating point of synthesis for accumulated readings of Freud, Lacan, Zizek, and Derrida on the return of the (ethnic) repressed as the moment of discovery of Jewishness by a hostile outside world, the discovery of the Jewish lack of national origin. If the origin of the Jews, according to Derrida, ‘lay in their circumcised differentiation’ (qtd. in Stratton, 2000: 80), then assimilation would always already be impossible, and Jewish people must needs remain uncanny, literally without a home. It is this homelessness that would leave the Jewish people vulnerable to that most concrete confirmation of centuries of anxiety, the Shoah.

For this reader, it is Stratton’s work on the implications of the Shoah, or Holocaust, as the marker of a postmodern Jewish identity and as the foundational ‘text’ of the state of Israel that is most insightful, original, and important. The apex of this thought is reached in Stratton’s third chapter, ‘Ghetto Thinking and Everyday Life,’ wherein he asserts the important and often unacknowledged claim that after the history of persecution in the form of the pogrom and – far more significantly, particularly with regard to modernity – the Holocaust, ‘Fear is experienced as the banal, normative attitude to the world’ for Jewish people, and that ghetto life (the shtetl) is both a response to and perpetuator of that fear (85). Stratton reads the Jewish nuclear family structure through this lens, articulating that the stereotype of the dominating, anxious Jewish mother has its roots in the displacement of the part of the social contract having to do with protection by the state into the family unit as a mode of protection from the state. Stratton identifies the distinction between the pogrom and the Holocaust as a temporal one, separating the pre-modern from the modern eras:

Pogroms and the local massacres that had accompanied ghetto and shtetl life for European Jews throughout the Middle Ages were never intended to destroy the entire ‘race’ of the Jews. Such a way of thinking is modern. It depends on the consideration of groups of people as unitary, exclusive, and distinct . . . the kind of thinking epitomized in the discourse of race, and naturalized in the practice of the modern nation-state. (92)

It is in the context of this violence straddling two distinct epochs that Stratton identifies the Jewish relationship to the home as a place of sanctuary, as well as the inter-generational experience of fear, anxiety, ‘ghetto thinking.’ And it is through this exploration that Stratton reasserts one of his central claims, that of the diversity of the Jewish population, and the way in which that diversity structured assimilatory processes. Indeed, as Stratton skillfully shows, new arrivals became threatening to those Jewish people who had ‘successfully’ assimilated (read: become invisible) within the nation-state. The hyper-visibility of new, often Yiddish speaking, migrants, exhibited through speech, dress, food, and ritual, threatened the invisibility of ‘assimilated’ Jews, thereby structuring the relationship between assimilated Jews and recent migrants as an ambivalent and even hostile one.

The exploration of fear is also the site of one of the most poignant and significant examples of Stratton’s use of the autobiographical. Relating an anecdote about early moments in which his own Jewishness, repressed at home by a highly assimilated mother and Christian father, seemed on the verge of being exposed, Stratton’s text performs a meta-exploration of the trope of (in)visibility, making visible in this academic context what is most often elided, silenced, or repressed within the text: the personal raison d’etre for the theoretical exercise of the text itself. In spite of the sweeping postmodern challenge to, and seemingly successfully dismantling of, the myths of total objectivity and distance in academic discourse, a suspicion of personal ‘motive’ continues to lurk around auto-biographical incursions within otherwise ‘theoretical’ or ‘historical’ texts. Stratton’s ability to theorize and critique his personal narratives as rigorously as he does the more traditionally historical and theoretical strains in the book is heartening for readers who perceive this kind of exposure – particularly in a text which takes as its major trope the project of coming out – to be a worthwhile endeavor.

Stratton’s conclusion to this chapter was – again, in this reader’s opinion – the highlight of the work. In it, Stratton applies the concept of ghetto thinking to the policy of Israel toward Palestinian territories and refugee camps, arguing that ‘Israel, the uncanny other home of the Jews, an ex nihilo self-creation by Ashkenazi, and particularly Yiddish, Zionists, who remain the most powerful group there, takes on the fantastic characteristics of inverted ghetto thinking’ (109). This inverted ghetto is Israel itself, constructed through the ‘politics of everyday fear’ (111). As Stratton forcefully asserts, the transplanted, internalized, repressed fear of the Holocaust has been displaced onto the Palestinian territories, which are themselves ghettos – though not the safe havens of the shtetl, but rather the terrifying threat to the Jewish free zone, Israel. Applying this analysis to Ariel Sharon’s positioning during the current Intifada (not to mention to the U.S. led war against Iraq, only just begun as I write) offers welcome insight, perhaps a theoretical lever, for thinking a way out of the intractable crisis there. One wishes that Stratton would send Sharon a copy.

The Holocaust remains central to the second and third sections of Coming Out Jewish, which examine the history of Jewish people within the modern state in general terms that situate diaspora, exile, and immigration, and then through specific histories of Jewish people in Australia and the U.S., respectively. Part II is essentially an etymology, long overdue in intellectual circles, of the related terms diaspora and exile. Given the dubious distinction of the Jewish people as the seminal ‘diasporic’ group, it is fitting and indeed most welcome that such definitional work should be undertaken from this perspective. Indeed, Stratton notes the nebulous usage of the term diaspora in a variety of contexts as a ‘descriptive, and rather under-theorised, term for the massive population movements that are one aspect of the development of global capitalism’ (137). His work, then, provides a kind of antidote to such under-theorization, tracing the usage of the term in several languages and regions over time. Stratton complicates the understanding of diaspora in the Jewish context in that, as he notes, theirs was a ‘diasporic consciousness without a home’ (117). For the Jewish people before the creation of the state of Israel, the diaspora was home, and a home, or homeland, existed only in the future. Further, Stratton identifies a shift from the idea of galut (an idea of divinely ordained exile derived from the Old Testament), which implies a nostalgia for the past, the lost homeland of Babylon, to the experience of diaspora, which he characterizes with the provocative phrase ‘nostalgia for the future,’ looking toward a future homeland. Given this paradoxically nostalgic, sentimental construction of eretz Israel, then, the real, material experience of Israel could never measure up, and would always be marked by disappointment, a gap between ideal and reality (153). Stratton explores similar claims with regard to Jewish migration to the U.S. and other ‘sites of migratory desire’ in his chapter entitled ‘Migrating to Utopia.’ Here, in a virtuoso synthesis of psychoanalytic theory with theories of the nation and of narrative alongside readings of an extraordinary range of primary and secondary texts, Stratton shows how the utopic dreams of die goldene medinah (the golden land) were crushed in the dystopic reality of sweatshops, tenement houses, and ever-evolving expressions of anti-Semitism by the state.

The Holocaust continues to shadow Stratton’s delineation of changing conceptions of diaspora and migration in the Jewish context throughout the book. In a chapter entitled ‘Jews, Representation, and the Modern State,’ Stratton supplements his earlier discussion of the forced assimilation of Jews as the homogeneous nation-state’s Other with an argument that genocide became the paradoxical flip side of the assimilationist coin: that is, effacement would be achieved, and when assimilation through silence/invisibility proved inadequate to the demands of a nation-state’s rabid self-formation, genocide, justified on the basis of a conspiracy theory founded, ironically, upon the Jew’s ‘characteristic’ invisibility and silence, became thinkable. Finally, in a later chapter on ‘Jews and Multiculturalism in Australia,’ Stratton’s arguments regarding Jewishness and the Holocaust in Israel, Europe, and the U.S. culminate in a claim that ‘The Holocaust has become the key site, not bounded by the Jewish community’s self-regulating definitions, for identification as Jew’ (241). Following the arguments of Saul Dubow and analysis by Frida Freiberg, Stratton also shows how the Holocaust provided a surrogate national origin for Jewish migrants to Australia: identifying the Holocaust as a Western European event, the claim followed that Jewish refugees from that event shared a Western European national origin.

These insights are welcome nuggets in an especially dense, somewhat repetitive sequence of chapters that historicize the particular experience and identification of Jews within Australian racial policy. Indeed, the idea of a group with the complex identifications – racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, geographic – that Stratton has so painstakingly documented consolidating around this exceptional, unspeakable event in the act of collective identity formation has such rich critical implications that the lack of its development feels like a loss. Especially given on-going, highly sensitive debates around exceptionalist attitudes toward the Holocaust and its representation, introduction of a term such as ‘Holocaust-Jewishness’ (241) becomes an unfulfilled promise in its ultimate lack of development.[4] If there is a critique to be made of Coming Out Jewish, then, it is this: that the density of historicization of Jewish identity and experience, especially in the book’s last four chapters that deal with specific policies and representations of multiculturalism in Australia and the U.S., obscures the potential of powerful theoretical claims introduced in the first half of the book, and sometimes embedded in one or two paragraphs in these later chapters. Perhaps this is a matter of expectation, given the early part of the book’s compelling theoretical and auto-biographical work. The book’s last chapter, provocatively entitled “Seinfeld is a Jewish Sitcom, Isn’t It?” provides a case in point: the title and thesis of this chapter lead the reader to expect a tightly woven, textually-grounded analysis of Seinfeld as a kind of case study of the various strains of Jewish identity construction that Stratton has articulated throughout the book. I will reproduce Stratton’s compelling thesis here:

In short, I will argue that Seinfeld is ambivalently Jewish; that it is the most

sophisticated example of the surfacing of American-Jewish identity as an ethnic identity in the entertainment sector of the American public sphere in the 1990s, and that it evinces a preoccupation with what has always been the Yiddish dynamic with modernity, the problem of becoming civilized, in the most fundamental sense. (283)

Stratton rounds out this claim by arguing that Seinfeld‘s presentation as an ‘American’ rather than a Jewish or Yiddish program allowed it to use its interrogation of civility to expand the topics typically considered ‘appropriate’ for public discussion in ways that account for its massive popularity outside of the Jewish or Yiddish communities (283). Given this focused and compelling thesis, it is disappointing that the reader must wait a full twenty pages before Seinfeld itself is addressed, only to have just eight pages of textual analysis delivered. Two things are important here: first, the intervening twenty pages do set up Stratton’s particular claims about Seinfeld by historicizing representations of Jews and Jewishness in popular culture. Indeed, they perform the important task of de-essentializing the category of Jewishness by arguing that the program is ‘jewish’ rather than about ‘Jews,’ a move that simultaneously de-essentializes the field of Cultural Studies itself in a way that fulfills the program set out by Stratton in his first chapter. This, in turn, provides a working example of the important theme that structured much of the text; that is, the move from the modern to the postmodern understanding of Jewish identity. Second, the criticism I offer here is a rather backhanded way of praising Stratton’s theoretical and analytic work, which, for this reader, is much more gripping, original, and thought-provoking than its moments of deep historicization.

Additionally, the autobiographical, meta-narrative thread woven through the first half of the book all but disappears in its second half, lending credence to the concern that constructing a book from a series of separate essays – as Coming Out Jewish was – can compromise the integrity of the whole. The experience of reading this text was one of imbalance in this sense, marked by gaps and repetitions that might have been smoothed over or eliminated with perhaps more rigorous editing. Still, I have turned back to Stratton’s pages since the onset of the War on Iraq, thinking and thinking again about his ideas regarding Israeli and Jewish identities in the historic contexts of Jewish diaspora, exile, and assimilation. The points that Stratton makes so thoughtfully in these pages provide fodder for an increasingly imperative dialogue capable of moving beyond the walls of academe and its alcoves, Cultural Studies and multiculturalism; capable of advancing an intellectual intervention into the intractable identity crises currently informing a dangerous new world (dis)order. Somewhere in this dialogue lies the reintroduction of the human beyond the sum of its parts, beyond banal identity politics and the identity cards that have been alternatively inscribed upon and brandished by their bearers to the exclusion of identification, connection – and peace.


1 See, e.g., Melanie J. Wright.

2 DuBois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folks.

3 The nineteenth-century Arnoldian project might productively be compared with 1980s backlash to multiculturalism in the form of works by cultural critics such as Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch.

4 See, for instance, Friedlander and Finkelstein.


Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

DuBois, W.E.B. (1903; 2003) The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Modern Library.

Finkelstein, N. (2000) Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. New York and London: Verso.

Friedlander, S. (1992) Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage.

Wright, M. J. (2001) ‘Review of Jon Stratton, Coming Out Jewish: Constructing Ambivalent Identities.’ Centre for Jewish Christian Relations: A Forum for Study and Dialogue, August.

Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of English at Babson College, Wellesley, MA, USA. Specializing in postcolonial literatures of the African diaspora, she has published in the areas of multicultural literature and pedagogy, gender studies, and human rights.