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

By Kimberly A. Arkin1

Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014. 306 pp. Print.

Reviewed by Chelsie May

Not capitulating to scholarly research’s positivist facade, Kimberly A. Arkin’s interrogation of Sephardic Jewish identity in modern France with Rhinestones, Religion, and the Republic: Fashioning Jewishness in France, begins with a candid personal account. Arkin’s privileging of a thoughtful, precise and experientially driven epistemology is apparent as she describes her banishment from the sites of her primary research. Able to placate the gatekeepers of three private Jewish day schools enough to obtain relative acceptance, the author had her belonging revoked when authorities became aware of the central predicates and contours of her work: mainly, Jewish marginalization in French society has encouraged a racialization of Jewish identity.

While initially disruptive, this claim about racialization, when texturized with historical delineation, cultural anthropological analysis and subjectivity theory went on to constitute the main thrust of Arkin's work. This thrust being that the predominantly Sephardic Jewish response to the hardships of a subculture existence begins by insisting upon a racialized difference; a difference oppositional to France’s chronically discriminated Muslims and actualized through conspicuous consumption. Disappointingly, it follows that this endeavor, historically and presently, stymies the actualization of any genuine acceptance in the form of unqualified national French identity. As demonstrated by this multi-layered thesis, perhaps most noteworthy about Arkin’s honesty, perseverance and assertions are their ability to catalyze and substantiate the scholarly community focused on Arab Jews and beyond.

The evidence supporting Rhinestones, Religion and the Republic includes Arkin’s extensive interviews, observations and field notes from her time spent at three private Jewish day schools: Beit Abraham, Beit Sarah and Beit Ya’acov as well as a thorough implementation of historical narratives and analysis. The latticework made possible by such evidence includes first, the history of Jewishness, in colonial North Africa and postcolonial France. Such an existence is portrayed as un-Islamic enough to nod towards French identity, but too ostensibly different to eventually turn there (Chapters 1 and 2). This construction of the past is followed by the trajectory of private Jewish day schools in France, from institutionally sanctioned, multicultural ideals to insular enclaves (Chapter 3). Finally, Arkin’s observational skills are honed towards her fieldwork. These observations render possible the analysis that Sephardic Jewish adolescents’ self-presentation is made legible and particular by way of both a specific understanding of Judaism and conspicuous consumption (Chapters 5 and 6).

The extrapolations and structures, as the strongest features of this work, are what most position it as engaging. Many of the threads of logic that are corollaries to the author’s methodology and astuteness are lucid and contextualized. For example, attention is paid to parsing out the specificities of Jewish experience in colonial and postcolonial Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, respectively and not monolithically vis-à-vis Frenchness. Such attention substantiates the complexity of Jews’ liminal position. As Arkin reveals, there is differentiation in Jewish assimilation even among particular North African Jewish communities. Algerian Jews, formerly subjected to the dictates of settler colonialism, exhibit French identification that is on par with Ashkenazi French Jews, whereas Moroccan and Tunisian Jewry had their French identification diluted by their countries' less codified relationship with the Republic.

It thus follows that the difference-making mechanism of racialization as path to French benevolence is numerously a sensitive endeavor; a sensitivity that is further buttressed, when Arkin parses out its twenty-first century iteration. As she notes, adolescents in post millennium France exhibit at least a keener intuitive anxiety about what they perceive as their Arabness. They then have a counteractive intentionality to deny this quality through consumption choices rather than resign themselves to it. When Arkin relays with precision Sephardic adolescents’ attempts to radiate genuine, rooted Jewishness through clothing patterns, she offers an archetype so parochial, even if always self-conscious, it must be reckoned with by future scholars.

It is perhaps the fact that Rhinestones, Religion and the Republic is often times noticeably deliberate and unflinching in its offers and claims, that highlights its shortcomings. In other words, when the work lapses in this assertiveness and depth, it is rather apparent. A most crucial example stems from the interplay between Arkin’s primary source evidence and the implications she posits as effect. Mainly, there is certainly a cognizance of the Jewish day school case study’s particularities e.g. ethnicity and class. Despite these possible hindrances, Arkin is determined to persevere with conclusions antithetical to a France self-descriptively multicultural enough to be beyond race. Yet she is counterintuitively reserved in what she eventually extrapolates.

Certainly, she reserves blame for ultimately hollow and futile societal structures predicated on postracial and postidentitarian platitudes. Further blame is also issued at the void between Judaism’s potentials and its lived understanding. Most crucially though, Arkin never fully exonerates the individual Sephardim plagued with identity crises. This is because she falls short of naming nation state nationalism as the culprit with the utmost reverberation and debilitating influence. As Sephardic Jewish difficulty in circumstances such as Israel and the United States foreshadows, attempts at assimilation are relatively often corrupted in the face of a venerated ideal type of citizen. It thus seems that futility lies not in a Sephardic conception of Jewish interpolation in which stylization reveals the ex nihilo Jewish self whose destiny in France is always other. Rather, more devoid of productivity is not realizing that divestment from capricious nationalistic demands is itself an option.

Figuring the individual vis-à-vis nationalism as just noted would first reinforce Arkin’s originality throughout Rhinestones, Religion and the Republic. Second, it would further buttress Arab Jewish scholarly discourses that challenge nation state nationalism more than Jewish subjectivity. In any case, Kimberly Arkin’s case studies, methodology and historical aptitude render the work most fascinating. Rhinestones certainly positions her as a scholar worthy of our heed and future attention.

1. Kimberly Arkin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University.

Chelsie May is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations where she focuses on Arab Jewish subjectivity and Modern Middle East history.

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