Rhine­stones, Reli­gion, and the Repub­lic: Fash­ion­ing Jew­ish­ness in France

Kim­ber­ly A. Arkin
  • Review
By – August 18, 2014

France, with anti-Semi­tism report­ed­ly on the rise — as well as the large num­bers of Mus­lims often liv­ing in prox­im­i­ty to Jews — is watched by any­one con­cerned for the Jew­ish future in Europe. 

Boston Uni­ver­si­ty anthro­pol­o­gist Kim­ber­ly A. Arkin stud­ied eth­nic prej­u­dice among young French Jews dur­ing field­work at Jew­ish schools. Many of the stu­dents dimin­ish the dif­fer­ences between them­selves and Ashke­nazi Jews despite what she calls an eco­nom­ic divide” and cul­tur­al dis­tinc­tions. (The author also speaks of bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences,” but dif­fer­ences in col­or­ing do not true biologi­cal dif­fer­ences” make; she does not go into genet­ic makeup.) 

The inter­vie­wees also exag­ger­ate the dis­sim­i­lar­i­ties between them­selves and French Arabs, though they often descend from Jews from Arab coun­tries, and some French offi­cials had begun to oppose both the wear­ing of kip­pot and Mus­lim reli­gious head­gear in pub­lic life. One day-school teacher com­plains to Arkin that Ashke­naz­im are an endan­gered race.”

Many of these young Jews see no future in France and are drawn to both Israel—aliyah is grow­ing — and Amer­i­ca. Arkin con­cludes that young Sephardim imag­ined Jew­ish­ness, Arab­ness, and French­ness as mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, pri­mor­dial­ized identities.”

Mar­got, a high school­er whose flashy way of dress­ing appar­ent­ly invokes the rhine­stones” of the title, describes Judaism and Mus­lim­ness as inescapable, inher­i­ta­ble essences,” even though Judaism sanc­tions conversion.

Arkin’s asser­tions that her find­ings about Jew­ish racism” and ambiva­lent iden­ti­ty led to her removal from two schools and even to attempts to block her future research may be one of the book’s more com­pelling aspects. 

Also inter­est­ing are the par­al­lels to Israel, with its dimin­ished but still-present con­flict between Sephardim and Ashke­naz­im and grow­ing fric­tion between Hared­im and more mod­ern Jews (even obser­vant ones). France con­trasts with the U.S. in its more suc­cess­ful mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, but is sim­i­lar in that in both coun­tries pub­lic schools are often seen as dan­ger­ous and flawed.” 

While Rhine­stones is rel­e­vant and techni­cally pro­fi­cient, the book is sim­ply dry, need­ing to be put down from time to time rather than leav­ing the read­er ask­ing for more. It comes to life most­ly in tran­scribed con­ver­sa­tions, with both teach­ers and stu­dents, and in anecdotes. 

Arkin tends to use words that may have to be looked up — lim­i­nal­i­ty” is one. 

This is very much an aca­d­e­m­ic book, which may not draw a large num­ber of gen­er­al read­ers. Yet, the sub­ject mat­ter might appeal to many more. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Relat­ed content:

Bar­bara Train­in Blank is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and arts previewer/​reviewer, as well as some­time play­wright based in Har­ris­burg, PA.

Discussion Questions