Michel S. Laguerre. Global Neighborhoods: Jewish Quarters in Paris, London, and Berlin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. 276 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-7551-5.
Reviewed by Sarah E. Wobick-Segev (Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Life in the Global Ghetto
Michel Laguerre's recent book seeks to overturn previous sociological understandings of urban ethnic neighborhoods. By using the examples of four Jewish neighborhoods in three cities (the Marais in Paris, the Scheunenviertel in Berlin, and Stamford Hill and Golders Green in London), Laguerre argues for a move away from assimilation theory, a paradigm still prevalent in the social sciences, in favor of the perspective of globalization. He posits that these neighborhoods (or "enclaves") should be understood as global social formations, and not as local points of contact between an ethnic group and its host society. Laguerre concludes that "these quarters have emerged as global social formations because of the Jewish immigrants from the diaspora that inhabit them, the links with other diasporic sites and Israel that are maintained for religious, patriotic, commercial, and familial reasons, and the relations they have with the city government that regulates their social actions. [The book] further argues that these global entities are a fundamental component of the globalization of the cities with which they share urban space" (p. 2). In short, not isolated ethnic neighborhoods, these four spaces are important sites in a global and globalizing world and should be studied and understood as such. Conceptually, the work is promising--both thematically and methodologically. Yet, this particular study is riddled with a number of shortcomings that distract from the overall thesis and argument. For instance, the book is poorly organized; only at the very end do we learn of the larger context and Jewish communities in the three cities, material that ideally would have come earlier in the book.
With his thesis in mind, Laguerre has divided the book into eleven separate chapters (including an introduction). A preface and conclusion bookend the chapters. Topics vary and include a chapter dedicated to the role of information technology in the neighborhood's global character, another on heritage tourism, and also a chapter that concentrates on the business aspect of these global nodes. The first chapter introduces the reader to the theoretical foundations upon which the argument is based and significant terms employed in this analytical context. This introduction is certainly useful for non-specialists who might be unaware of the existence of a specifically sociological definition of terms such as "quarter" (p. 5). The next three chapters delineate the post-Shoah history of each neighborhood. Using secondary sources and a significant number of interviews, Laguerre offers in these chapters a historical survey--with a strong human touch--of the four quarters. They thus serve as background for his larger argument, which is discussed through a number of perspectives in chapters 5 through 10.
Beginning this section with a chapter on business, perhaps an obvious starting point in a tale of globalization, Laguerre looks at the distinct ways in which the four Jewish quarters served as global sites. He examines "the types of transnational relations entertained or forged by Jewish shops in Jewish quarters" (p. 84) and concludes that these neighborhoods "must deploy a global logic to reflect the reality they represent and to the realization of which they contribute" (p. 99). In chapter 6, Laguerre explores how time is felt and experienced within these urban enclaves. "Time is a factor of globalization," Laguerre concludes, "because it links diasporic units dispersed throughout the globe in the practice of their faith" (p. 115). In other words, Jews in these quarters live according to a religious time common to other Jews across the world, but distinct from and out of synch with the religious time of their immediate neighbors in each city. Chapter 7 breaks from the comparative model to examine disagreements between elements in the Jewish quarter of Paris and the municipal city hall after municipal authorities suggested renovating the quarter. The debate not only pitted members of a community against municipal authorities, it also caught the attention of observers around the world, globalizing an ostensibly local matter. In essence, these points of global contact in local matters, events, or spaces become the proof texts in his narrative of globalization, transmitted to the reader through transcribed interviews. In the final three chapters, Laguerre continues his search for the global and for interconnectedness across space in these quarters as they serve as tourist sites (chapter 8), as points in migratory and diasporic relations with members of the four quarters and the state of Israel (chapter 9), and in residents' day-to-day use of modern technology to connect across the globe in real time (chapter 10).
One major concern with the book stems from the unclear logic behind the choice of the four neighborhoods. The Marais is chosen for its long and continual Jewish history and settlement. It is an ideal, almost paradigmatic example of a Jewish neighborhood in Europe. The Scheunenviertel in Berlin, too, has historical roots, even though it housed no appreciable Jewish population after the Shoah. This fact alone should not discourage comparative analysis. After all, we conduct comparative surveys not only to determine similarities, but also differences. Yet, in his explanation for the selection of Golders Green and Stamford Hill over the earlier but now significantly less central Whitechapel area, a very odd contradiction emerges: the author rejects Whitechapel precisely because it is no longer the center of Jewish life in London, although this same logic is ignored in his choice of Jewish neighborhoods in Berlin. Thus, in the end, Laguerre chooses to study three lively and active Jewish neighborhoods and one neighborhood more or less absent of Jews, with no explanation for this choice. We should recall that Berlin is not without other Jewish neighborhoods. The author himself admits that Charlottenburg had a long history of Jewish settlement that continued after the Shoah. It would have been a far more fitting comparison within this group, even if, in many ways, it remains somewhat distinct from those neighborhoods in Paris and London.
Even more problematic for the study is the lack of a standard and explicit definition of "globalization." As a result, the term comes to stand in for any number of processes and global relations. Globalization is understood as international trade (chapter 5), as instant communication and networking beyond national borders (chapter 10), and even as conflict between inhabitants and city planners (chapter 7). Perhaps globalization is all of these things, but a definition or set of limits would be useful to the reader. Without it, we are left wondering what is particularly modern or novel about contemporary Jewish neighborhoods and their relation to the world around them. In the first chapter, Laguerre spends two pages explaining the meaning of a "quarter" and a further two pages on the notion of "cloistering a quarter," but a solid definition of globalization is lacking. This problem is especially apparent in the chapter entitled "The Jewish Quarter as a Global Chronopolis." Here, one of the author's central arguments is that the Jewish calendar results in a sense of syncopation for diasporic communities (because the day of rest is "off" by a day from that of the surrounding, Christian majority), which provokes a separation of the chronological rhythm of the neighborhood from its surrounding city. In short, Jewish neighborhoods in the diaspora are nodes in a global network because they are linked together through a common time out of sync with their immediate surroundings. If this is the case, however, it is difficult to see how the entire history of the Jewish diaspora would not be a history of globalization, since the same argument might have been made about Jewish ghettos several hundred years ago. While the author does convincingly demonstrate global interconnectedness in each neighborhood, it is unclear if this is interconnectedness is the same as globalization. After all, the fact of being linked over time and space is not new for the Jewish diaspora. Because the author does not explain why globalization is an ideal or even relevant trope of analysis that offers us new perspectives in these cases, it is difficult to understand how it might have changed the nature of Jewish neighborhoods over the last fifty or even hundred years.
Finally, the book is poorly organized and edited in a way that prevents the author from exploiting interesting material. Apparently extraneous comments made by his informants (such as those about cell phones on p. 68), for instance, often gain meaning only substantially later (in this case, in the chapter on information technology, chapter 10). The author relies heavily, particularly in the early chapters, on quotations from oral interviews he conducted while in Europe. Unfortunately, he often simply inserts quotation after quotation without offering additional explanation, interrogation, or analysis. Quotations are frequently presented as if they are self-explanatory. The thus absent analysis suggests that the author does not question or seem to notice the frequent outbursts of nostalgia on the part of the interviewees (especially in chapters 2-4, which introduce the four neighborhoods). He does not question assumptions or prejudices among his informants, either. To offer one example, we read about the French Jewish community in the wake of the massive immigration of Sephardic North African Jews. The author writes, "One thing that struck the Ashkenazim [who lived in the neighborhood] about the Sephardic way of life was their sincere friendship with Arab immigrants" (p. 30). To illustrate this point, he quotes the following passage from an interview with a resident Ashkenazi Jew: "If I can refer to the Sephardic Jews of North Africa, it must be acknowledged that there was hardly any racism between Jews and Arabs in North Africa. They tell me about the lives that they had and friends who were Arabs. We see that friendship here with the Arabs that they employ.... They literally brought a number of Arabs daily to the neighborhood to work in the stores and even as a janitor for one of the synagogues!" (p. 30). No further analysis is offered, no further interrogation of loaded statements like these is made. Finally, not only are the quotations very uneven in terms of content, they are also uneven in length. One particular quotation extends a full eight pages (pp. 52-59).
The book's premise is promising and in some sections the author succeeds in demonstrating the global interconnectedness of the Jewish neighborhoods he examines. Laguerre's analysis of the security concerns of the communities, of information technology and its impact on these global villages, and his own take on "the Jewish quarter as theme park" (à la Ruth Ellen Gruber) make much more persuasive cases for why we should examine ethnic neighborhoods as global spaces. Unfortunately, due to editing and analytical limitations, the argument is far weaker than it could be.
. Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
of the book
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Sarah E. Wobick-Segev. Review of Laguerre, Michel S., Global Neighborhoods: Jewish Quarters in Paris, London, and Berlin.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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