Feeling Jewish

(A Book For Just About Anyone)

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Devorah Baum
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) by Devorah Baum is a rich and versatile exploration of feelings, modern Judaism, and contemporary society. The book investigates seven different feelings that have often been associated with modern Jews as a way of looking at how modernity has made not only Jews, but everyone, develop a splitness in their subjecthood that is necessary to be able to deal with the complex, fragmented, and constantly shifting reality we are living in today.

Through looking at feelings of self-hatred, envy, guilt, over-the-top, paranoia, mother love, and affectedness, Baum convincingly argues that such feelings, which are (stereo)typically common to the diasporic, dispossessed, and uncertain Jews, have, to a greater or lesser extent, become common to us all. This experience of a splitted subjecthood, in which the search for the self that cannot be found, often leads to strong feeling of estrangement. But Baum also makes a case in favor of such feelings. For to feel is also to give oneself away, to expose oneself. Feelings reveal that we can only exist in relations to others. An awareness of this creates the possibility of extending our feelings to others in mutual acknowledgement of each other’s subjecthood. Yet, and this seems to be the core of Baum’s argument, in order to do this, we must learn to allow our feelings to exist in the first place: without restriction, without suppression, we must feel.

However, this argument, though important, does not represent Feeling Jewish in its totality. Baum’s exploration of Jewish feelings of dispossession and anxiety are rich and varied. Looking at the lives and works of authors like Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, Marcel Proust, Anne Frank, and Amy Levy, Baum lays bare the feelings of anxiety these authors and their characters have toward their Jewish identity and subjecthood. But Baum also takes examples from other, non-Jewish authors, philosophers, feminists, as well as from film, popular culture, and current events to illustrate how such feelings manifest themselves extensively across borders and populations in the modern era.

As such, Baum not only effectively demonstrates the universality of such Jewish feelings, but also provides the reader with a treasury of material from which to delve into their complexity. Her use of psychoanalysis and comparative psychoanalytic literary theory plays a major role in this. Theories from Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, and Jacques Lacan are extensively discussed and equipped in order to unravel both individual and shared feelings of anxiety, dispossession, and splittedness. The style in which Baum writes varies: it is sometimes light and witty and at other times deeply analytical and, depending on one’s own knowledge on that particular subject, cryptic and dense. Structure-wise, the seven emotions discussed are put in order such that each builds upon the previous feelings discussed while simultaneously adding a new approach to its exploration of Jewish feelings.

Yet at the same time, the work is also deeply fragmented. As a reader, you do not have the sense that you are following someone’s argumentation from introduction to conclusion. As such, Feeling Jewish is not solely an intellectual exercise, a study designed to teach you something about modern Judaism or psychoanalysis. Rather, its fragmented nature and unforeseen leaps into new, different, and diverse case studies invites the reader to connect to the work on an emotional level rather than only an intellectual one. While some passages or chapters will intellectually stimulate, others will invite one to emotionally connect to the examples displayed or analyzed on a personal level. This fragmented form, a collage of diverse research and examples, is in itself characteristically modern. The reader, rather anxiously, wanders through it as if at the museum: some things will stir you while others will not.

The best representation that can be given to Feeling Jewish is, in the end, its very title. As spelled out on the cover, the title reads “Feeling jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone).” The emphasis on –ish in jewish (or Jewish? Its capitalization is irregular), is an insightful reference to how feelings assigned to the Jewish people have become common to all. At the same time, -ish reflects the anxiety and uncertainty that is so characteristic of those very feelings.

The same goes for its subtitle: a book for just about anyone. Who is “just about anyone”? The word “just about” can signify both “simply” or “almost,” again representing feelings of doubt and uncertainty. Yet, in many ways, “just about anyone” seems to aptly capture whose feelings are being discussed. What a reader will take away from the book, intellectually but especially viscerally, will depend on all kinds of things: whether you consider yourself Jewish or not, or to what extent; whether you are a mother, or grew up with a mother; whether you feel you are an immigrant, or have a strong sense of “home”; how you perceive others and how you feel others are perceiving you; what language you use, how you use it, and how you relate to it; when and where you were born; whether you feel you are a cosmopolitan, global, local, or glocal citizen. Or what does citizenship even mean to you?

Feeling Jewish should be considered, in the end, as an inexhaustible source of intellectual and visceral stimulation. Its fragmented form stimulates a personal and asymmetrical exploration of feelings of displacement across a variety of representations. At the same time, it should be considered as an expansive and rich contribution to ideas on Jewish perception of the self and of others in the modern and contemporary era. “Feelings are like Jews, Jews are like feelings” (249), concludes Baum in her final chapter. It is through learning about one that one can get to know the other.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michiel van der Padt is a graduate student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Devorah Baum is lecturer in English literature and critical theory, University of Southampton, and affiliate researcher with the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the codirector of the creative documentary feature film The New Man. She lives in London.


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