Judaism and Anthropology

Jews and Judaism have influenced--and have been influenced by--modern anthropological inquiry.

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He and his student, David Mandelbaum, who wrote the first ethnography of the Jewish community in Cochin, India, would often discuss the particularly Jewish nature of the anthropological quest. In a tribute to Sapir, Mandelbaum wrote that Sapir had remarked that Jews are "natural ethnologists," by virtue of the cultural sensitivity they must develop from belonging to both the Jewish nation and the nation in which they reside.

In his work in India, Mandelbaum studied the syncretism between Hindu religious belief and the caste system with Jews who arrived in India after the destruction of the second temple in 72 AD. His research added to Landes' quest to broaden common understanding of the cultural background of the Jewish people.

Other prominent Jewish anthropologists of the 20th century include Marshall Sahlins, a student of Levi Strauss, and now emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and Sol Tax, who founded the academic journal, Cultural Anthropology, and pioneered the study of differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic culture. Tax was also instrumental in studying the culture of assimilation among American Jews, and he was also the first to document the cultural practices of Jews living in Algeria.

In Recent Years

Because of the political controversy surrounding anthropological theories of race and culture, the discipline has had two positions with regard to Jews and Judaism. While many of the founding anthropologists were interested in the Jewishness of their intellectual predecessors, they were not amenable to studying Judaism and Jewish communities, partially because the discipline had a tradition of studying the far-away, remote "Other."

Thus, until the 1970s, anthropological studies of Jewish communities were relatively rare. However, with the publication of Barbara Myerhoff's ethnography about retired Jews in a Southern California beach community, many more Jewish ethnographies have been produced.

Notable studies include Jack Kugelmas' The Miracle of Intervale Avenue (1986) about Jews in the Bronx, and Jonathan Boyarin's Polish Jews in Paris (1991). In the 1990s, the discourse about Jews in anthropology focused more on questions of power and Jewishness, Israeli social analysis, and the hybridizations of Jewish culture created as a result of various progressive social movements: civil rights, feminism, and queer studies.

Jewish representation and memorializing the Holocaust also have become key areas for anthropological investigation, as seen in Jonathan Webber's "The Future of Auschwitz" (1992) and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's "Destination Culture" (1998). Karen Brodkin's How Jews became White Folks and What that says about Race in America (1998) has extended Franz Boas' research on Jewish assimilation into the present day.

What anthropology has brought to the understanding of contemporary Judaism is an appreciation of the marginalized and often unrecognized cultural groups that claim to either be Jewish or to practice Jewish law and ritual. From the Jamaican Rastafarians to the Jews of Ethiopia, India and China, to the modern American sects of Jews for Jesus and the international phenomenon of Chabad, anthropologists who describe and analyze the social practices of these groups grant them a voice that broadens our notion of what it is to be Jewish today.

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.