A Culture of Tough Jews

Rhetorical Regeneration and the Politics of Identity

by David Moscowitz (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 183 Pages


From brutal Nazi killers to Hanukkah heroes in the ’hood, tough Jews refute images of doomed Holocaust victims, wandering Jews of exile before them, and the post-war ‘nice Jewish boys’ who followed. They foster belligerent responses to polemics of fear and self-hatred, and as such, materialize as a challenge for postmodern cultural identity. A Culture of Tough Jews reframes the tough Jew as an enduring act of rhetorical regeneration by reifying a related figure, the vital Jew. As corrective to the tough Jew, the vital Jew encourages robust cultural production and dialogue. For audiences of rhetoric and cultural studies, the book offers critical and theoretical study of rhetorical regeneration, including original constructs of postmodern blackface and transformative performativity, as a resource for contemporary rhetorical invention. It also constitutes a case study for the postmodern critique of identity by invoking concerns of (post)assimilation, gender and power, and the social construction of race, ethnicity, class, and power to advance conversations on fractious cultural exigencies. A Culture of Tough Jews is a spirited call for postmodern cultural vitality that responds to contemporary politics of identity and memory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Need for Regeneration
  • A Cycle of Tough Jew(i)s(hness)
  • Intercultural Identity + Politics: Can We Do Better?
  • The Case for Tough Jews: A Modern Rationale
  • Breaking the Cycle: The Vital Jew
  • The Need for Rhetorical Regeneration
  • Applying Productive Criticism to Polemics of Fear
  • Regeneration’s Theoretical Forerunners
  • A Culture of Tough Jews: An Overview
  • Topoi of Toughness
  • Centering Jewish Masculinity
  • Chapter Previews
  • Chapter 1. The Clout of the Defier: The Vital Jew in Shadow
  • Holocaust Residue and the Power of Memory
  • The Zakhor! of Defiers
  • Reading Tough Defiers: Montage, Metaphor, and Binaries of Identity
  • Complicating Binary to Complicate Toughness
  • The Power of the Reveal: Vitality and Self-Affirmation
  • Tough and Vital: Clout and Shadow
  • Tough Clout
  • Vitality in Shadow
  • Chapter 2. Gangsters, Assimilation, and Performative Paradox
  • “Gangster or Star?” Jewishness and Assimilation
  • Payback
  • Patriotism
  • Performance
  • Performativity and Regen(d)eration
  • The “Third Sex” of Constructed Jewish Masculinity
  • Finding the Vital
  • Chapter 3. The Vital Gangsta and Postmodern Blackface
  • Modern Race, Postmodern Play
  • “What Is This ‘Black’” in Blackface?
  • Postmodern Blackface in La Haine
  • Pale Paris and Phallic Fringe
  • Postmodern Vitality
  • Chapter 4. Heroism and Transformative Performativity
  • Heroism in Public Culture
  • The Vitality of Transformation
  • Performativity and Recognition
  • The Regen(d)erated Jewish Body
  • Escape from What?
  • Transformative Performativity and Postmodern “Recycling” of Identity
  • Chapter 5. Regen(d)erating Exile: Deterritorializing the Zionist Hero
  • The Vitality of Exile
  • Reclaiming Jewish Marginalization
  • Diaspora Dreams and Discontents
  • Negotiating Regenerative Identity
  • The “Bourgeois Zionist in the Diaspora”
  • Conclusion: Vital Identity + Politics
  • The Paralysis of Authenticity
  • Ambivalence vs. Uniformity: The Role of Definition
  • Projected Anxiety: The Role of Self-Hatred
  • The Jew as Trope: The Role of “Good P.R.”
  • Maximum Consciousness: The Role of Cultural and Rhetorical Production
  • The Agon and the Vital
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Films Cited
  • Index

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It is humbling to think about how acts of consequence are rarely performed in solitude. Sure, the act of writing, particularly the kind that comprises this book, is pretty hermetic, but the production of this writing (and its distribution) is not. Given how this project is fueled by a continual call for vitality in our discourse and a more robust understanding of culture and identity, that we are all in this together, it is gratifying to remember many folks who helped make this book happen.

Clarence reminds us at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life that nobody is a failure who has friends. So many have nurtured my wings across the stages of this project. This book began at Indiana University in conversations both serious and irreverent with my CMCL cohort, including Jeff Bennett, Cara Buckley, Tonia Edwards, Suzanne Enck, Claire King, Tom Mentzer, Jeff Motter, Jamie Skerski, Darrel Wanzer, and Isaac West. It has continued during my time with engaged, supportive colleagues at Butler University and College of Charleston. Chad Bauman, Claire Curtis, Katharina Dulckeit, Allison Harthcock, Terri Jett, Larry Krasnoff, Mike Lee, Tamara Leech, Leigh Moscowitz, David Parisi, Ann Savage, and Kristin Swenson have provided the gift of gab and shrewd, critical perspectives that challenge and enrich the work that I do. In particular, my years in Indianapolis began my career and fueled my research in manifold ways, from Rae Kridel’s generous ← XI | xii → invitation early on for me to speak at the Jewish Community Center to the spirited, vigilant, and passionate collegiality of my sandwich posse at Butler. All of these friends continue to be prodigious sources of love, laughter, and inspiration today.

Mentors are friends, too, and I have had amazing ones along the way. My doctoral advisor, Robert Ivie, offered gentle advice and fierce encouragement for the spirit and purpose of this project in its initial dissertation form as well as my committee members, Robert Terrill, Joan Hawkins, and Eva Cherniavsky. Journal editors Eric King Watts and Bruce Henderson, as well as anonymous reviewers, helped me develop and refine this work. In the project’s final leg, Tom Nakayama’s enthusiasm always picked me up when I started to drag. I also adopted mentors over the years in Laura Lindenfeld, Terri Carney, and Alison Piepmeier who have vibrantly reminded me to keep my intellectual options wide open while simultaneously keeping laser focus on the task at hand. They truly lead by example and have given me strength, hope, and boundless encouragement.

I can’t thank enough Mary Savigar, Sophie Appel, and the team at Peter Lang Publishing, all of whom were fastidious and eager with advice and direction. I also want to thank Jonathan Kesselman, Tablet magazine, and Taylor and Francis/National Communication Association for allowing me to reprint screen shots and published work here. The screen shots from Tablet and the film The Hebrew Hammer are reprinted by permission of the publishers. All rights reserved. Portions of chapters 3 and 4 were published in the articles “‘You Talkin’ To Me?’ Mediating Postmodern Blackface in La Haine” in Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (2009) and “‘A Question of Transformation:’ Michael Chabon’s Postassimilatory Jewish Heroism” in Text and Performance Quarterly 27 (2007). I also appreciate Indiana University, Butler University, and College of Charleston for the financial support that facilitated this project’s development and completion.

Ultimately, my family drives the whole thing. Though this project is more for readers that I don’t know, it wouldn’t matter as much if it weren’t for my family’s love and care. My parents, Ray and Barbara Moscowitz, have always put me first, front and center, which gave me the permanent gift of confidence and wherewithal. My extended family in the Midwest and California, including James Stickler, Beverly and Richard Mehrlich, Barbara and Leon Benon, Sharon and Ron Hasson, and Bob and Gerry Moscowitz, have always been eager to talk more about not only this project, but also what I’m working on next. ← XII | xiii →

And then of course, there are the ones who have to live with me. My partner Leigh is really the most incredible person I know. I perhaps will never fully understand how she can both give and demand so richly to and from the rest of us who populate her life. My own love for her takes many forms, and is uncompromising in each one. Two of those forms are our children, Amelia Sage and Elijah Edward, who are, to put it simply, ridiculous. They are formidable reflections of their mom, all vital compassion and vigorous determination to get to the marrow of this life. I marvel at how often they open my eyes, how much they instruct, how frequently they model, and how fluently they demonstrate ways to live a rich life. Meelie and Eli embody this book.

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The Need for Regeneration

In Quentin Tarantino’s WWII film Inglourious Basterds, it’s the good guys who act like thugs. That’s a terrible idea. (Mendelsohn 73)

Jewish vengeance, like any other reprisal, requires rationale. Violent, lawless, anarchic retribution is not acceptable without it, particularly for a film that vies for Academy Award Best Picture recognition. When a rationale is offered, it often goes something like, “Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims … I want to see something different,” which is how Quentin Tarantino described his motivation for making his Oscar®-nominated World War II revengefest Inglourious Basterds (2009). Newsweek reified this logic by devoting the cover of its Culture section to Tarantino’s sentiment in the form of a bold-print pull-quote superimposed over the iconic black and white image of railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz. Turn that page and the headline for Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of the film screams, “When Jews Attack” (72).

Inglourious Basterds offers a depiction of “tough Jews.” Like many tough Jews who preceded them, the Basterds generated interest and buzz in 2009 and 2010. Vanity Fair presented a lush photo spread and script outtake months before the film’s premiere (“Tarantino”). Maxim’s interview with Eli Roth, whose character “The Bear Jew” bashes Nazi skulls with a baseball bat, expressed his own interest in punching his third-grade Hebrew teacher ← 1 | 2 → in the face (“Eli”). Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman declared in a posting to the ADL’s web site and the Huffington Post that the film should win an Oscar®. Senator Joe Lieberman called it “cathartic” (Alter 18).

Regeneration is both in effect and in order here. It is in effect simply by the juxtaposition of Holocaust-era tough Jews with the all-too-familiar image of doomed, victim Jews. It is also in order, though, as Mendelsohn indicates in his review of the film: Good guys acting like thugs is “a terrible idea” (73). But why so terrible? Hasn’t the representation of World War II Jews long been overdue for some robust cultural and rhetorical reinvention? Isn’t it—or shouldn’t it be—a good thing to complicate and enrich the stale trope of the pathetic Holocaust victim?

Though human beings cannot physically regenerate in the manner of snakes and worms, a person or a people can mitigate a troubling aspect of identity and regenerate it in a new way. Identity regeneration is consistent with Stuart Hall’s notion of articulation, which urges us to recognize subjective, often idiosyncratic, linkages of ideas and ideologies.


XIV, 183
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
vital Jew cultural production transformative performativity cultural vitality rhetorical regeneration
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 183 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

David Moscowitz (Author)

David Moscowitz (PhD, Indiana University) is Assistant Professor of Communication, Associate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, and a faculty affiliate in film studies, Jewish studies, and African American studies at the College of Charleston.


Title: A Culture of Tough Jews