Collective Otherness: Enclavement and Self-Essentialization in Jewish-American Communities

Presentation author(s)

Elsa Cournoyer ’21, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Majors: Religious Studies; Creative Writing


How is a Jewish identity conceptualized? And who should decide?

In an American context, with its emphasis on essentialism and identity politics, many Jewish individuals and communities have answered these questions by essentializing themselves and their Jewishness. The act of Jewish-American self-essentialization comes from fear of a loss of Jewish identity, and to some extent is a powerful tool to protect Jewish people and their lifeways and culture. However, self-essentialization is also informed by white, patriarchal power and is often used by those in closest proximity to that power to maintain norms. This paper explores the motivations for, and impacts and implications of, self-essentialization within the Jewish-American community, engaging with a variety of perspectives on Jewishness, the value of enclavement and its pitfalls, and the necessity of essentialism to maintain Jewish identity in a culture with a paradoxical obsession with the so-called “melting pot.” Ultimately, this project questions the efficacy of self-essentialization as a tool to keep the most vulnerable Jewish-American community members safe from violence and disenfranchisement.


Natalie Gummer

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