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A Culture of Tough Jews

Rhetorical Regeneration and the Politics of Identity


David Moscowitz

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.
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Chapter 2. Gangsters, Assimilation, and Performative Paradox


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One subplot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) develops the identity confusion faced by Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), a nice Jewish girl married to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a nice Irish-Italian boy aspiring to reach the upper ranks of the Italian Mafia. The intercultural pairing invites the audience to watch Karen immerse herself into an underworld filled with what she sees as crude and crass Italian wives who apply too much makeup and wear second-rate fabrics. Karen’s parents also react incredulously to Henry’s late-night habits and dubious career trajectory. One would hardly know from watching the critically acclaimed film that Jews also have a history of gangsters in the family. A year later, however, Hollywood’s culture industry presented films both praised (Bugsy) and panned (Billy Bathgate) that filled movie screens with representations, usually glorifications, of tough Jewish gangsters. Many books, including two with the same main title, Tough Jews (1990 by Paul Breines, 1998 by Rich Cohen), also seek to set the record straight: Jews were gangsters, too.

Today, Jewish gangsters are not so hidden. Mainstream, critically and popularly praised constructions of past gangsters, such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, include Jewish ones with the rest. And yet, true to the form of this book, that’s not enough for some folks. Tablet, an online magazine that bills itself as “A New Read on Jewish Life,” often features pop culture readings ← 53 | 54 → that reify Jewish content on...

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