A Stage for a Bima: American Jewish Theater and the Politics of Representation

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2004-06-08

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This dissertation examines how contemporary American Jewish playwrights and performers have presented Jewish identities in light of multiculturalism. Although American Jews have by large been supporters of the multicultural movement, in practice multiculturalism has been problematic for Jews because of its privileging of race and gender: are Jews different enough to be included in a multicultural portrait? Jews see themselves as outsiders to an American establishment, but are viewed as insiders. I investigate how contemporary Jewish voices in American theater have portrayed "Jewishness" as a permanent attribute of Jewish identity. In doing so, they articulate Jewish difference through the rhetoric of multiculturalism so that Jews are clearly positioned as distinct from an American mainstream. Contemporary Jewish playwrights have responded to popular culture's schizophrenic representation of Jews, questioning its portrayal of Jews as everymen figures while revisiting its stereotypical representations of Jews that were intended to mark Jews as different from mainstream America. Though Jewish American culture has sought to escape stereotypes, Jewish playwrights continue to evoke them, even as they debate the value of such tropes. If stereotypes disappear, does an articulated Jewish difference disappear with them? In chapter one, I discuss my theoretical approach and the difficulties in defining stereotypical "Jewishness." In chapter two, I discuss how Jewish playwrights and performers have responded to the shifting definitions of race in their presentations of Jewish identity by portraying contemporary Jewish identity through the model of the African-American experience. In chapter three, I look at how Wendy Wasserstein has presented complicated female Jewish characters by rooting them, ironically enough, in the gender-based stereotypes that have surrounded Jewish women, stereotypes initially designed to differentiate Jewish women from idealized genteel American women. In chapter four, I discuss how playwrights Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner have linked Jewish and gay stereotypes and experiences in order to complicate contemporary political paradigms that tend to lump all traditionally disenfranchised groups under the same umbrella. Finally, in chapter five, I discuss how stage portrayals of Judaism have been associated with the body, a connection that denotes the problematic nature of defining Jews solely as a religious group.

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