Jewish Studies Race and American Judaism
Sarah Imhoff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0233


Several perennial questions animate the study of race and American Judaism. One is about how to understand Jewishness: it is race, ethnicity, religion, nation, something else, or none of the above? How have Jews in different times and places expressed their ideas, how have those shifted over time and space, and what happens when scholars use one or more of these as their own analytical categories for conceiving Jewishness? The answers are neither fixed nor exclusive, but the process of investigating both historical actors and contemporary scholarship is illuminating. Scholars and community members alike have wrestled with the question of whether Jews are white. But the better question, as Matthew Frye Jacobson argues, is “how have they been both white and other?” The answers will vary according to historical moment, economic situation, religious dynamics, and geography. But some generalization is still possible. From the 1790s onward, Jews were able to enter the United States and become citizens. And going even farther back into colonial history, unless they were Black or multiracial, Jews could not be enslaved. So, by many salient measures, they were white. This did not mean, however, that Jews would never face race-based prejudice or exclusion. Additional questions revolve around internal Jewish difference. Jews of color make up a substantial and growing percentage of Jewish communities across the Americas. Through descent, intermarriage, adoption, and conversion, the Jewish community is multiracial—and yet the discourse of whiteness still pervades. Moreover, Judaism also contains other descent-groups, which are sometimes racialized. How do Ashkenazi (descended from Central or Eastern Europe), Sephardi (descended from the Iberian Peninsula and its environs), and Mizrahi (descended from North Africa or the Middle East) Jews describe themselves and each other? And what is the place of Jews who do not seem to fit one of these categories easily? The following resources center on Judaism and the United States, but they also include some discussions and analyses from other countries in the Americas. Ethical questions about belonging and Jewish difference also remain pertinent. What claims can and should Jews make about the ethics of race and racial difference? How does Judaism provide resources—or stumbling blocks—for anti-racism or racial justice? Finally, a note on Judaism versus Jewishness: our key term here is Judaism, and so the works listed in this bibliography are those that either center religious analysis or lend themselves to such analysis even though it is not explicit in the work.


Several authors have undertaken state-of-the-field style overviews, seeking to describe how scholars have used race to think about Jews and Judaism. Glauz‐Todrank 2014 notes that religion, ethnicity, and race have each been used to analyze Jews and Judaism, but the analytical framework shapes what kinds of observations and normative judgments can be made. Mehta 2018 places the sociological and historical observations about changing Jewish relationships to whiteness alongside the contemporary demographics that show increases in the percentage of Jews of color. Eichler-Levine 2018 centers historical questions of whiteness and relations with other groups alongside contemporary observations about multiracial Jewry. Others offer primary research that nevertheless offers an overarching narrative or set of investigations. Goldstein 2006 offers a historical overview concentrating on the discourse of race, but also noting how it is engaged in religious spaces and by religious authorities. Crane 2020 collects a multidisciplinary group of authors to investigate Judaism, the formation of its claims, and racial constructions of both Jews and other racialized groups.

  • Crane, Jonathan K., ed. Judaism, Race, and Ethics: Conversations and Questions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020.

    Contributors to this edited collection analyze Judaism, race, racism, and possibilities for racial justice from a variety of locations, including the civil rights movement, the “Yiddish gaze” as aimed at African Americans, Jewish racialist understandings of DNA, the 2007 Shaare Tefilla Congregation v. Cobb case, and the 21st-century events of Charlottesville. The volume also includes “classic” Jewish texts and questions for consideration at the close of each chapter.

  • Eichler-Levine, Jodi. “American Judaism and Race.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History. Edited by Paul Harvey and Kathryn Gin Lum, 191–204. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190221171.013.17

    This essay looks at the history of American Judaism and race through three lenses. First, it explores how Eastern European immigrant Jews “became white.” Second, it asks how Jewish interactions with other racialized groups has shaped Jewish self-understanding. Third, it notes racial diversity within Jewish communities.

  • Glauz‐Todrank, Annalise E. “Race, Religion, or Ethnicity?: Situating Jews in the American Scene.” Religion Compass 8.10 (October 2014): 303–316.

    DOI: 10.1111/rec3.12134

    The article surveys scholarship that situates Jewishness through three frames—race, religion, and ethnicity—and characterizes the most common groups to which Jews are compared. The article ultimately argues that the extent to which scholarship engages race indexes the willingness to analyze power, privilege, and the role of whiteness.

  • Goldstein, Eric L. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691207285

    The book provides a historical overview from the 1870s through World War II of the ways Jews in the United States have both claimed and resisted categorizing Jewishness as a race. Goldstein also explores the implications of this complex relationship to race for historical understandings of Jews and whiteness.

  • Mehta, Samira K. “Race and American Judaism.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by John Corrigan, 197–209. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    The article reviews literature documenting the complexity of Jewish relationships to whiteness in the United States, with particular emphasis on how economics, as well as how Jews’ social instability, shaped relationships to others, especially African Americans. Mehta also analyzes how a majority Ashkenazi Jewish population combined with discourses of whiteness can lead to a failure to recognize the increasing racial diversity within American Judaism.

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