A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities

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Aaron J. Hahn Tapper
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , June
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Aaron Hahn Tapper has set a seemingly endless task for himself in Judaisms: to explain “what it means to be a Jew” (3) for an audience with little shared background. The book moves around in Jewish history, religion, philosophy, and politics from the earliest biblical sources to the present. And unlike most textbooks designed to introduce Jews, Judaism, or Jewish history, it refuses chronological ordering, and instead uses twelve themes, each in the plural—Narratives, Sinais, Zions, Messiahs, Laws, and so on, ending with Futures. While Judaisms surely could not cover all the evidence for what it means to be a Jew, the book is a resounding success in diversifying the picture of Jews and Jewishness.

Themes run throughout the work: a story may be “true,” that is, have deep meaning and resonate within a community, without being factual. And, related: Judaism and Jews are (and always have been) diverse, familiar stories notwithstanding. The pages engage Samaritans, the temple at Elephanta, Karaites, Sabbatai Tzvi, and African Hebrew Israelites right along with more typically central characters in “the” Jewish story, such as Abraham, the Talmud, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements, and Golda Meir. Hahn Tapper’s own voice begins and ends each chapter with personal reflection, a move that might sound indulgent, but in fact serves to humanize the ideas and provide a connecting thread between chapters.

Just this summer, the American Jewish newspaper The Forward has published “Growing up Latina and Jewish, I was a Contradiction” and “Finding My Home as a Jew of Color.” Readers of Hahn Tapper’s book will see these stories as obviously Jewish and see their exclusion from Jewish communities as a mistake. Hahn Tapper’s own commitment to social justice (he runs the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice) undergirds his attention to issues such as race, gender, and sexuality, but it does not preclude the book’s fair representation of nonliberal viewpoints and movements.

Judaisms answers many questions that students have, such as who wrote the Bible? Who is a Jew? And it even answers some questions that they didn’t know they had, such as, what is the relationship of ancient Israelites to modern day Jews? Do Jews believe in a messiah? And are Jews white?

As these vastly diverse questions suggest, Judaisms does not tell one consistent story. And this strength of Judaisms also poses challenges for any instructor who adopts it. This book does not teach itself; it is full of complex ideas, one after the other, and it needs an instructor to help students to get the most out of it.

The most challenging aspect is this: Judaisms has no controlling narrative here, and students crave controlling narratives. In fact, they often bring their own preconceived narratives to class, and it can be difficult to change these narratives—especially if the instructor isn’t providing a clear and unambiguous replacement narrative. Hahn Tapper wisely brings part of this narrative into his discussion. He paraphrases a popular understanding of Jewishness: “Contemporary Jews are descendants of the biblical Hebrews who, starting with Abraham, were the first people to accept monotheism… Throughout history Jews have been persecuted, oppressed, and murdered simply for being Jewish…. Though there have been many attempts to annihilate them, most notably the Holocaust of Shoah,” the Jews have persevered (18). It’s certainly a story many of my students have. And yet, it excludes many Jews (Ashkenazi, for example), flattens historical context, and claims communal myths as facts. This doesn’t mean it is a bad narrative, Hahn Tapper explains, just that we need to recognize the story for what it is and does. Judaisms, plus a dedicated instructor, makes the case that our stories about Judaism and Jewishness should be far more complicated.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Imhoff is assistant professor in the department of religious studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron J. Hahn Tapper is the Mae and Benjamin Swig professor of Jewish studies and the founder and director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.



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