I came to Jewish Studies not because I was in the right environment for studying Jewish culture and history—for instance, my native New York and the Yiddishkeit of my extended family—but rather because I found myself in the wrong one—Iowa, where "Jewish" is still a somewhat exotic adjective, and where seemingly banal encounters can bespeak, not anti-Semitism exactly, but a kind of benign obliviousness to the history of anti-Jewish rhetoric. In this agreeably unconducive environment, I have become a Jewish Studies scholar who studies non-Jews, or who studies the ways in which Jewishness can be misinterpreted or misspoken.
A brief example: at Passover a few years ago, I went to the local Co-op (an enclave of liberalism and cosmopolitanism) to buy matzos, only to find they had discontinued their line of Passover products. I wrote a letter of complaint, emphasizing the Co-op's importance to its Jewish shoppers. In response, I was told politely that the store could not cater to "individual communities" and that they could only purchase "clean product lines." Incidents like this one make me suspicious of politeness; in my work I seek a vocabulary for describing sociable behaviors that disguise or belie more insidious forms of prejudice. I am especially intrigued by smart and self-reflective people who still don't know what to do with Jews (this includes many of my favorite writers, for instance, Djuna Barnes and Virginia Woolf). I theorize what I call "civil anti-Semitism," a form of anti-Jewish rhetoric that can easily coincide with a disdain for outright bigotry. I treat such "civil" hate speech as a form of rhetorical argumentation, one that may be "useful" or "productive" despite, or because of, its complexity and subterfuge.