Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism

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Sarah Imhoff
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , March
     2017.
     312 pages.
     $38.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253026217.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism by Sarah Imhoff tells the story of “how religion shaped American masculinity … and how masculinity shaped American Jewry” in the early 20th century (2). Drawing on a plethora of case studies—spanning themes from theology to agriculture movements to crime—Imhoff illustrates how acculturated Jews “made” their own versions of American masculinity. This creative, thought-provoking, and innovative book offers a fresh addition for scholars of gender and sexuality, religion, and American history.

Throughout the book, Jewish masculinity is portrayed as a “building site” where multiple ideas of masculinity were constructed, rejected, and resisted by different people, Jews and non-Jews alike. In the first part of the book, Imhoff looks at the ways acculturated Jews explicitly articulated the universal and rational aspects of Judaism to position it as a “good” American religion. The book subsequently turns to the analyses of case studies—ranging from the Galveston movement to Hebrew Christian missionaries to Jewish criminals—to demonstrate how Jewish masculinity drew on notions of American masculinity but also differed from it. Imhoff convincingly demonstrates how both Jews and non-Jews agreed that Jewish masculinity was somehow different from “normative” American masculinities. Instead of promoting a violent or aggressive masculinity, these experimental projects all saw bodily weakness and frail health as Jewish traits to be fixed through physical health, productive work and rational religion in America.

While this book may be celebrated for a myriad of reasons, two are worth special mention. First, while many scholars have focused on the social constructions of gender and religion by studying the social constructions of femininity, Imhoff’s attention to masculinity offers an important intervention by unravelling the making of the “unmarked” male body. To be completely honest, at first glance I was uneasy about the sole focus on men and masculinity. Yet, I found the concentration on the making of masculinity rendered these constructions visible, which is of utmost importance in a field in which men are too often portrayed as though they are genderless. More importantly, the innovation of this study lies in the author’s decision to search for multiple sets of gender norms in marginal and experimental moments in American Jewish life. By focusing the empirical lens on unexpected places and uncovering the social constructions of Jewish masculinity at the social margins, this book complicates the “binary of normative (“hegemonic”) masculinity versus deviance from the norm” (272). The result of this analytical and methodological choice is a landscape of multiple masculinities that puts theologians, criminals, Hebrew Christian missionaries, and agriculturalists together at a fascinating moment in history when acculturated Jews and newly-arrived immigrants were organizing themselves and thinking about what it meant to be American Jews.

While the breadth of this project may seem a bit overwhelming, the book is surprisingly well-structured, sharp, and written in an accessible style. Although it focuses on Jewish masculinity, the textincludes important material and insights relevant to a wide range of scholars. I have already recommended this book to a graduate student working on Jewish masculinity in Israel, a colleague working on Evangelical Christians in the US, and a criminologist working on Islam in the UK. Even though Imhoff declares that “[a] long history of the changes in American Jewish Masculinities remains to be written” (18), Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism makes an important move in that direction. Paving the way through excellent scholarship, creativity, and even a bit of humor.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lea Taragin-Zeller is Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute. She is also a postdoctoral affiliate at Newnham College and an affiliated researcher at the Reproductive Sociology Research Group (ReproSoc) at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Imhoff is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. Her research focuses on religion and the body, including work on gender and American Judaism both historically and in the present, the role of DNA and genetic discourse in constructions of Jewishness, and the history of the field of religious studies.

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