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Three Jewish Journeys Through an Anthropologist’s Lens, by Moshe Shokeid.

Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009.  399 pp.  $59.00.


Few anthropologists can compete with Moshe Shokeid’s array of fieldworks. He started his anthropological career in the 1960s as a doctoral student at the University of Manchester, studying a Jewish community from the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco which was moved in its entirety to a moshav (semi-cooperative village) in southern Israel. In the 1970s, he studied the tiny Arab community in Jaffa, the Palestinian town that was annexed to Tel-Aviv. In the coming decades Shokeid has found new research settings across the ocean: throughout the 1980s he worked with Israeli immigrants in New York City, documenting their attempts to cope with their peripherality and stigmatic identity (as yordim, “deserters” of the Zionist idea); and in the 1990s he shifted his gaze to Jewish homosexuals in New York City who sought to articulate their religious identity and spiritual wishes through a synagogue of their own. The chapters in this book, referring to the three Jewish communities studied by Shokeid, are mostly based on papers which have been published before in various scholarly arenas. Their alignment here provides a panoramic view of the work of one of Israel’s prominent anthropologists; and the diachronic framework accentuated by the author’s retrospective look highlights the transformations undergone both by Israeli society and American Jewish communities as well as the sea changes that affected anthropology as a discipline and a profession in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The volume’s title—“three Jewish journeys”—highlights the dynamic nature of Shokeid’s research trajectory, even though the gays’ voyage is more metaphoric than geographic: a journey of empowerment out of the closet to the synagogue’s bimah. The first two journeys embody the Zionist vision and its disruption: aliyah (ascent) vs. yeridah (descent), the gathering of exiles in the Jewish state vs. the establishment of an Israeli Diaspora in New York. The author has chosen this course of ebb and flow deliberately, viewing himself “as the narrator of a ‘true story’ deeply interwoven in the historical events initiated by the emergence of modern of modern Zionism” (pp. 341–42). The three journeys are inextricably interwoven in Shokeid’s own life course, also viewed by him as a journey, as indicated by the title of his autobiographical book in Hebrew, “An Israeli’s Voyage” (Masa Israeli, 2002).

The voyages of the three Jewish communities are filtered through the anthropologist’s journey to his research settings; and the issues of his place in the field, his positioning vis-à-vis his subjects, recurs in each chapter. In retrospect, it is surprising to find how explicitly and lucidly were Shokeid’s subjective experiences and doubts given vent even in the earlier texts, long before reflexive and experimental ethnographies became a trendy genre. Indeed, the voyage metaphor is particularly apt for the professional career of an anthropologist who has occasionally changed his research setting while constantly broadening his theoretical horizons and updating his conceptual tool kit. It is telling that the first chapter in the book, which sums up Shokeid’s professional biography, was titled “the anthropologist’s work between moving genres.” Shokeid started as a sociologist, but gradually became disillusioned with sociology’s grand generalizations, which could not depict the complexities of the moshavim’s social reality. The move to anthropology—to be exact, to the “Manchester School” version of British social anthropology, inspired by Max Gluckman and based on extended case studies—came as a reaction to this predicament. Still, the fact that all the members of the moshav he studied under Gluckman came from a single community in the High Atlas Mountains has made Shokeid sensitive to the historical context more then most of his contemporaries in British social anthropology. Shokeid has reconstructed the immigrants’ life in Morocco, in a Berber-populated milieu (Chapter 2), and accorded it a key role in their differential adjustment to the new life reality in Israel. The importance of the Moroccan past, reflected in the perseverance of the traditional meaning system despite the pressures of the hegemonic melting pot ideology, and the inspiring insights of anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner, interested in interpretation and phenomenology, pushed Shokeid toward American cultural anthropology. Conceptualizations derived from new cultural paradigms, such as “cultural performance” or “affective ethnicity,” have emerged in his work on Israeli and American Jews in New York. And his later works gave voice to anthropology’s growing interest in reflexivity, trans-nationalism, and globalization as well as to the recent preoccupation with collective memory and communities of remembrance. As against this flexible move between shifting genres, Shokeid has remained committed throughout his career to solid fieldwork and to ethnographic insights derived explicitly and directly from the robust data it yields. Allergic to heavy, high-brow professional jargon, Shokeid is suspiciously skeptical of post-modern ethnography, which enshrouds thin data with thick theoretical fuzziness.

It is quite challenging to re-publish works originally written 20, 30, and even 40 years ago. The test of time is ameliorated by the “soft,” context-dependent nature of ethnographic research; but it is still interesting to explore how Shokeid’s ethnographic conclusions of yesteryears have withstood this test. His findings regarding the upholding of the Moroccan Jewish family in Israel as the center of affective relations and the religiosity of Mizrahim (Jews from the Muslim orbit) as family and community-based appears to hold half a century later. But the relative success story of the transformation of the Moroccan immigrants from peddlers and craftsmen to farmers has evaporated with the collapse of agriculture in most of the moshavim. It is an historical irony that some of the best farmers in Shokeid’s village have resorted to their diasporic vocations as tiny merchants and hawkers in the neighboring town.

Shifting our gaze to New York City, Shokeid’s conclusions regarding the Israeli immigrants who failed to establish community-based organizations, to institutionalize ethnic solidarity, and to monopolize specific vocational enclaves, appear to hold as well. Still, Shokeid acknowledges in retrospect that the explanatory model he depicted—informed by the stigmatic status of immigrants-as-yordim—is not valid anymore; hence, an updated study is required to solve this puzzle. The gay synagogue Shokeid studied in the 1980s has grown and become quite popular; but the nuanced ethnography he wrote refers to a historical moment long gone, given the institutionalization processes and the gender revolution that the synagogue has undergone.

The concluding chapter, written especially for this book, constitutes a nice closure of Shokeid’s ethnographic voyage. He returns to the moshav where he started and meets with his old informants—some of whom have become friends for life. While reviewing the substantial changes that the moshav has undergone, he muses about the minor role that Israeli anthropology has played in the local cultural and social scene and tries to account for it. The tone of writing here is elegiac, accompanied by a sober acceptance of the unfolding changes, but the chapter becomes emotionally uplifting when Shokeid discusses at length the gesture he has made for his informants-comrades by adopting the name of the moshav, Shokeida, as his new family name. The move from Minkovitz to Shokeid was in accord with the erstwhile zeitgeist, which propelled many Israelis to substitute diasporic names for local, Hebrew-based (preferably biblical) names. Still, it serves as an indelible testimony of the impact of the encounter with the Atlas Mountains Jews on Shokeid’s personal and professional identity. “Like an intoxicated sailor who on leave has himself tattooed, you bear the name of your first professional love . . . an American friend commented humorously (p. 350). But this act should not be taken lightheartedly but rather as a token of long-range commitment and identification. Some of the criticism leveled at the older generation of sociologists and anthropologists sought to deconstruct their basic assumptions from the theoretical perspective of identity politics. The critics argued that the attitude of these researchers toward their n Mizrahi subjects was fraught with ambivalence, given their adherence to the Zionist ethos of nation-building based on the ingathering and integration of exiles. Shokeid’s work in Shokeida was also the object of such criticism. I would like to conclude by arguing that especially from the perspective of identity politics, the name that Shokeid adopted following his pioneer fieldwork points to a sense of commitment and empathy that hindsight critics have entirely missed.

Yoram Bilu

Anthropology and Psychology

Hebrew University of Jerusalem