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Sander Gilman

Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question, by Eliza Slavet.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.  200 pp.  $28.00.

Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies


              The literature on Jewish thought and identity in the life and work of Sigmund Freud is extensive and complex. Arising early in Freud’s lifetime, this topic was of interest to his contemporaries, friends and foes, and has continued to engage readers ever since. The most recent contribution to this is the clearly written and comprehensive study by Eliza Slavet. Resting on the earlier work and engaging critically with it, Slavet looks at the central question of racial memory as a means of measuring Freud’s understanding and critique of Jews, Jewishness, Judaism, and Zionism.

              The tensions among and between such categories of analysis pointed out by Slavet are real, and they reflect themselves in Freud’s own writings—both in the most literal sense (he writes about them) and in the most complex sense (he does not overtly address them but critical readings can show how they shape his arguments). Focusing on Freud’s “last” book, Moses and Monotheism, Slavet places herself in contrast to psychoanalytic readings of Freud’s Jewishness as well as historical and critical ones. Neither Yerushalmi nor Derrida, neither Gilman nor Boyarin, neither Assmann nor Grubrich-Simitis (the anti-genealogy presented in her opening chapter) provide an adequate reading of this text nor of its implications for her. Slavet’s reading is truly different, for in her attempt to see cultural memory at the center of Freud’s project she provides a clear paradigm for a non-religious definition of Jewry as a people and as a culture. Such a reading is Freudian in its very nature without being psychoanalytic in its methodology.

              Slavet provides a solid critical reading of why in the nineteenth century and again in the twenty-first the racial model of the Jew—a model rooted in a biological definition with all of its critical and, one may add, scientific difficulties — proves attractive both to antisemites and Jews alike. She reads Freud against the sort of work that Tudor Parffit and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. employ to prove the authenticity of a shared cultural experience. The irony is that Parffit, in his 2000 Journey to the Vanished City: the Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel and in the TV coverage on Nova and Channel Four, sought to prove the “Jewishness” of the Lemba tribe of southern Africa through a DNA analysis, while Gates in 2005 presented a multiple-part public television show on “African-American Lives” to stress their “African” origins. Profiled were a series of African American celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Gates himself. The first two-hour show used the traditional genealogical tools to trace the ancestry of his subjects back into the world of American slavery. The second, much more contentious, used the tools of DNA research to pinpoint their African genealogy before the experience of the “Middle Passage.” Each uses DNA to prove the opposite; the fact is that DNA evidence only proves the complexity that is demanded in the analysis of all genealogical evidence, no matter what its provenance.

              Biology is again TRUTH in the twenty-first century in our second age of biology. Freud contended with such arguments in the first age of biology and conceived of psychoanalysis as a universal approach to all human psychic experience (from the “primitives” of Totem and Taboo to the Jews of Moses and Monotheism, with his contemporary Viennese somewhere in the middle). For Freud, as Slavet illustrates elegantly, the tripartite division of psychoanalysis as a science of human experience, as a treatment of mental disorders, and as a model for understanding historical change was a comprehensive answer to biology, even though it was clearly rooted in the universal claims of the biological models of brain science (neurology) of his day. All human beings are alike in their processing of information through their neural network, the neurologists of the time claimed and claim again today.

              Slavet’s readings often debate with the existing critical literature of Freud and the Jews in constructive and insightful ways. Her questions are solid and resonate today. How do the Jews see themselves as different? Slavet’s reading of this complex and contested question brings its contradictions into clear focus. Is descent central? Yes. But is descent limited to the biological notions that inhabited even the very theories of memory that informed Freud’s work, as Laura Otis has well illustrated? Can one engage in and thus enter into this world of memory from outside or is it hermetically sealed to “outsiders”? On the other hand, can one ever flee from this world of memory or does it inhabit every Jew until the ninth generation?

              Slavet’s book is certainly of interest to Freud scholars. It sets the next stage of the argument about Freud’s identity. But it is also a central text for the ongoing discussion of Jewishness in the contemporary world. Early in her text Slavet notes that a search of “Jew” on the Internet turns up a remarkable array of antisemitic sites that might signal that both anti-semitism and Jewishness remain ever newly present topics. But the same search also turns up a wide array of new post-identity politics and post-Zionist views of being Jewish that are at odds with older views and that cannot as easily be subsumed to antisemitic labels. Slavet’s book is smart and engaging. Many of us will be engaged with it in the near and distant future.

Sander L. Gilman

Director, Program in Psychoanalysis,

Director, Health Sciences Humanities Initiative

Emory University