Modern Jewish History (UCLA Spring 2018)

By Jackie Davis

Today we'll be talking about particular ways the mutable American Jewish identity has been formed by (and forms) race.


Do you know that sound? The heartbeat rhythm, the call to Zion… What comes to your mind when you think of Bob Marley? Jamaica? Rastafarianism? Reggae? Judaism? I’m willing to bet that last one was a bit of a surprise. As it was for me. Iconic Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley (born in 1945) was in fact the son of Norval Marley, a white British-Jamaican with reported Iberian/Syrian Jewish ancestry. His mother was Cedella Booker, an Afro-Jamaican descended from Akan slaves of the African Gold Coast. To be clear, Bob Marley was certainly not a practicing Jew, as far as I can tell, or technically Jewish under matrilineal Halakha law, but his family story does tell an integral tale of Jewish history related to changing conceptions of race in the Americas. And when I say race, I will particularly focus on the construction, performance and utility of whiteness in modern times.

So often in today’s racial discourse race is defined in terms of People of Color, but race is also about whiteness. All people are raced. And when it comes to Jewish identity, with its own complicated, ambivalent connection to race (Think: Is Judaism a race? Is it a religion? A culture? An ethnicity?), looking at Jewishness in relationship to whiteness makes manifest certain aspects of what Jewishness, whiteness and even race mean in specific times. More importantly, differing Jewish histories in the Americas point out what Jewishness, whiteness and racial identity do in certain contexts. Let us think of both Jewishness and whiteness not as static identities, but as elastic categories.

In this podcast we will explore differing attitudes towards race throughout colonial histories, and how the racially malleable Jewish identity is a prime example of an identity that resists a fixed racial categorization. From here we can come to understand subtleties around race, and particularly whiteness as a process. We will compare Laura Liebmans’ research on multi-ethnic, creolized Caribbean Jews to Eric Goldstein’s research on how Jews became white over the course of the 20th century in the United States. By looking at these two scholar’s works side-by-side, we can see, through Jewishness, how whiteness is, first of all, an unstable category and then secondly a homogenizing mode of social control.


Ben-Ur, Aviva. “Atlantic Jewish History: A Conceptual Reorientation.” (2014), from the Selected Works of Aviva Ben-Ur, University of Massachusetts—Amherst (

Casteel, Sarah Phillips. Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Goldstein, Eric. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Laura Leibman interview (

Sorkin, David. “The Port Jew: Notes Toward a Social Type.” Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol L,
No. 1, Spring 1999.

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