Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Cynthia M. Baker
Key Words in Jewish Studies
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University
    , January
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cynthia M. Baker’s Jew successfully synthesizes over two millennia of the contentious term’s history into a succinct and instructive read. Baker exclusively italicizes the term, Jew, to suggest the plurality of negative and positive connotations it carries, an idea she develops in her preface and introduction, but I will refrain from doing so except in quotes. Baker sets out to “offer a coherent and sustained study of this key word, Jew, that lies not only at the heart of Jewish experience and Jewish studies but, indeed, at the heart of Western civilization and beyond” (2). Baker’s Jew is part of the series Key Words in Jewish Studies and she effectively adapts the prescribed three-chapter structure to proceed in a loose chronological fashion from antiquity in chapter 1 to the 20th and 21st centuries in chapters 2 and 3. In the introduction, Baker explores the historically uneven usage of Jew, emphasizing that the word has been traditionally used by outsiders, non-Jews, to conceptualize the "paradigmatic 'other,'" and that the reclamation of the word for self-identification by insiders, Jew, is a recent development.

Baker’s first chapter, “Terms of Debate,” critically analyzes the etymology and historiography of the term “Jew” to demonstrate the supersessionist and artificial nature of the scholarly division—between ethnicity and religion—in understanding Jews in antiquity. After surveying the usage of the word in the Hebrew Bible and antiquity, Baker examines Paul’s binary in Acts between a Jew “outward” and “inward,” demonizing ethnicity and emphasizing religion (21). She reveals how this Christian historiographical lens has resulted in  modern scholarly debate over when to transition from translating Ioudaioi as “Judaean” (emphasizing ethnicity) to translating Ioudaioi as “Jews” (emphasizing religion). Baker demonstrates that in scholarly debate, “the theological pattern of religion/spirit supplementing or superseding ethnicity flesh is immediately evident” (25). Furthermore, she challenges the existence of this shift outside of scholarly imagination. Baker deconstructs the ethnicity/religion dichotomy through gendered and class lenses. She focuses on the scholarly disagreement over the biblical figure Ruth, and women’s ability to convert prior to Rabbinic Judaism—one element of the larger ethnicity/religion debate—to suggest that only free men have the luxury to become a Jew. Baker’s deconstruction of the ethnicity/religion dichotomy and her diagnosis of it as a Christian dichotomy serves as an important corrective not only for scholars of Jews in antiquity, but for any scholar of religion to reinforce the idea that religion and ethnicity were hardly inseparable until Christianity.

Baker moves into the early modern and modern eras in chapter 2, “State of the (Jew[ish]) Question,”  where she explores the role of Yiddish in Jewish identity formation, discussing the unique meaning of Yid in Yiddish to the repercussion of internal and external bilingualism. Baker also examines Jewish Studies in relation to Jews, discussing both how the field shapes conceptions of the Jew and how Jews use the field to understand themselves. At the end of the chapter, Baker surveys different post-World War II Jewish intellectuals, including Zionists and anti-Zionists, and their reclamation of Jew as self to demonstrate that “Jew remain[s] an open and irresolvable question” (96). This chapter would have benefitted from investigating the rising interest in Yiddish in the diaspora as a subversive non-Zionist form of identity construction, particularly among millennials, since she investigates Zionism—a form of identity construction—in this and the following chapter.

In her final chapter, “In a New Key: New Jews,” Baker discusses how, in the past century, vastly different conceptions of new Jews emerged in different cultural contexts. Baker provides a  historical overview of how Zionism conceives of a new Jew. Her key contribution is diagnosing the post-Holocaust Genomic Jew as a mutation of the racialized Jew and linking both conceptions of new Jews to the disturbing legacy of European race science. Baker continues to explore the discourse, suggesting Muslims are the new Jews in post-Holocaust Europe, given they are the victims of racialized violence and persecution and the dominant minority in Christian-dominated Europe. Baker concludes by discussing different groups of new Jews in the New World, exploring the experiences of Black Jews, descendants from conversos, and Jews by Choice to imply that identifying as a Jew is now attractive, both for Jews and gentiles. While there may be truth to this positive trend, the optimism of Baker’s final words, “Jews no longer look like the other” (148), harshly contrasts the recent rise of public anti-Semitism in the years before and after the publication of this book. It is my opinion that while many old prejudices have deteriorated, the line between Jew and Gentile is blurred, and it may be attractive to identify as a Jew, anti-Semites and bigots will continue to conceptualize Jew as the paradigmatic other.

Overall, Baker effectively outlines the history of this word in clear, accessible English. This book should be required for undergraduates studying Jewish Studies but may not be accessible enough for an Introduction to Jewish Studies course, particularly when Baker speeds through a litany of scholars and concepts in her section, “Thinking with Jews,” in chapter 2 (78-96). Chapter 1, “Terms of the Debate,” should be required reading for any scholar interested in Jewish antiquity and religion for her deconstruction of the ethnicity/religion dichotomy. Since her chapters on Jew in the ancient world and Jew in the modern world are so robust in terms of historic summary and scholarly arguments, the dearth of discussion of the Jew in the medieval era is apparent. Comparing ancient Jews with their medieval counterparts, especially juxtaposing Christian Europe with the Muslim world, could further support her deconstruction of the ethnicity/religion dichotomy as a Christianized historical lens. Given the constrains of the Key Words series, both in size and structure, Baker’s work successfully narrates the rich history of a contested term.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Malamud is a doctoral student in Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cynthia M. Baker is a professor and the chair of religious studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She is the author of Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity. 



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.