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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 4. Heroism and Transformative Performativity

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HEROISM AND TRANSFORMATIVE PERFORMATIVITY

[Bernard Kornblum] had never had so naturally gifted a student, but his own discipline—which was really an escape artist’s sole possession—had not been passed along. He didn’t tell them what he now privately believed: that Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons. Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains—walled in, sewn up in layers of batting. For them, the final feat of autoliberation was all too foreseeable. (Chabon 37)

The feeling of imprisonment by “invisible chains” motivates the creation of heroism in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), a contemporary novel set within the historical context of World War II and the Nazi Third Reich. In Chabon’s novel two Jewish cousins create a popular comic book hero, the Escapist, who repeatedly performs heroic feats of autoliberation. Escape functions not only as a motive for Jewish heroism, but also as its heuristic, embodied in both literal and “dangerously metaphorical” ways. By offering a therapeutic release from the trauma of Holocaust victimization, as Lee Behlman observes, Chabon’s narrative explores how both heroic creators as well as their creation transform themselves by self-reflexively casting attention toward their own liberatory performances.1 ← 91 | 92 →

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