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A Culture of Tough Jews

Rhetorical Regeneration and the Politics of Identity

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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 3. The Vital Gangsta and Postmodern Blackface

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THE VITAL GANGSTA AND POSTMODERN BLACKFACE

In The Price of Whiteness, Eric Goldstein notes that Jewish assimilation failed to resolve persistent tensions of identity, “for the more Jews became securely integrated in white society, the more their impulses for distinctiveness emerged” (4–5). This cultural and intercultural tension reflects the broader evolution from modern to postmodern. Modernity’s dapper Jewish gangster has given way to postmodernity’s dogged Jewish gangsta. Whether White or Black, the gangster/gangsta uses performance both gendered and raced to respond to exigencies of successful assimilation. Though they may not hold much resemblance with each other on the surface, I suggest that the White-seeking gangster and the Black-seeking gangsta mark complementary responses to the same points of rupture in Jewish public culture. This chapter examines one example of the tough Jewish gangsta to reveal potential for the vital. The vital gangsta offers greater productive possibilities for rhetorical regeneration than his tough gangster predecessor.

As he appraises himself in the bathroom mirror one morning, Vincent (Vincent Cassel) rehearses Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) signature line from the 1976 American film Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?”1 Slowly and methodically, he pantomimes shooting a gun into his reflection while contorting his face into exaggerated menacing expressions. ← 71 | 72 → This Jew (“the name’s Vinz, not Vincent,” asserts one of his friends) seizes upon the symbolic power of Black gangsta culture to complicate “White” and “Black” renditions of toughness, which results in...

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