The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

The Making of Jewish Modernism

Karren Alenier

Most people who know of Gertrude Stein know she came from a Jewish background. Few understand that her work is infused with Jewish belief and practice and, furthermore, that Stein's identity was solidly Jewish. Gertrude Stein, born 1874 in what is now a suburb of Pittsburgh, belonged to a large extended family of German Jewish Americans who laid down their roots in Baltimore, home to many assimilated Jews of German origins.

Amy Feinstein brings Stein's Jewish writerly identity to the forefront in her groundbreaking new book Gertrude Stein and the Making of Jewish Modernism. She reports that Stein's parents, while coming from this Baltimore community, anchored their nuclear family of five children to a regular schedule of Jewish holiday observance and Reform Judaic religious classes as noted in her mother's diaries. Stein's father Daniel, while locating his family in Oakland, California, a community with few Jews, helped found the reform First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland, which served the family's needs for Jewish life.


In an interview with Feinstein conducted July 13, 2021, the Steiny Road Poet learned Feinstein's Making of Jewish Modernism began around 1995 when Feinstein, who was working on her PhD dissertation that dealt with the Jewish lineage of Mina Loy, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, came across a note that said Stein was erasing [in her work] mention of Judaism. Feinstein didn't believe this and it led to years of research, including Stein's cahiers (journals) held at the Yale Beinecke Library.

Feinstein's breakthrough premise is that Stein's interest in Jewish characterological types, which she explored in her novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress and which Feinstein details in her well documented argument about Stein's pervasive Jewish identity, was influenced by Matthew Arnold's theme of Hebraism versus Hellenism outlined in his essay Culture and Anarchy (1868). Feinstein writes:

"Like Disraeli, Arnold characterized England in metaphorically Jewish terms, calling its ascendant middle class 'Hebraic' Philistines even though these British strivers were mostly evangelical Protestants. Arnold's Hebraism was a foil, however, for promoting his 'Hellenism,' and ideal of 'culture' as the pursuit of knowledge and beauty."

Feinstein notes that Arnold found that the more rule-based Hebraism competed with the more free-wheeling Hellenism. However, Arnold, placing more emphasis on Hellenism, concluded that without pursuit of knowledge and beauty, society falls into chaos.

Feinstein pointed out in the interview that Stein's most famous teacher William James thought Arnold was "priggish and was extremely skeptical of his pretensions to scientific method." Stein was trained as a scientist and her attention to detail exhibits the importance she placed on scientific method. Among Harvard professors and students alike, Arnold had a favorable reputation as a top academic critic. Lewis E. Gates, Stein's English professor, wrote a long appreciation of Arnold in a book of Arnold's prose. What's clear is that Stein drew on her education at Harvard as she began her writing career.

Added to early influences on Stein was the anti-Semitic (and self-hating Jew) Otto Weininger and his book Sex and Character (Geschlect und Charakter 1903, English translation 1906). Feinstein illuminates how this misogynistic work which had a wide audience in Stein's day fits into Stein's period of looking at Jewish character types. Stein was particularly interested in what Weininger wrote since he addressed genius, saying Jews (males) were degenerate geniuses. Stein, like other artists of that period, was fixated on becoming a genius.

One important thread of Feinstein's study involves work done by Leon Katz who transcribed  Stein's illegible handwriting from her journals. Feinstein questions the accuracy of Katz's transcription and its completeness. This is tremendously important because scholars have relied on his transcripts since the 1960s. Feinstein also reports in Chapter 3 "So much like a yid: An Associative Genealogy of Jewish Types" that the idea Stein was erasing Judaism in her work came from Leon Katz. Feinstein states that according to Katz, Stein suffered from an inverted anti-Semitism probably influenced by reading Otto Weininger and furthermore based on an interview he did with Alice Toklas that "Stein was hard put to it all her life to reconcile herself to her own Jewishness." Katz interviewed Alice in 1952, some years after Stein's death. If anyone wasn't reconciled to her own Jewishness, it was Toklas who allowed their friend Bernard Faÿe to talk Toklas into converting to Catholicism, something he tried and failed to do with Stein. Feinstein documents that Stein recommended Weininger's book to her friends but also wrote in her journal that Weininger was a fanatic.


Feinstein takes on all the skeletons in Stein's closet, including the sorely misguided statement by Stein that Hitler should have won a Nobel Peace Prize. Many academics have countered that what Stein said was facetious. Feinstein explained in her interview that Stein's reference to the peace prize was tied to Stein's notion that in 1934 what was "peaceful" in Germany was due to the absence of Jews and other productive members of Germany, especially artists—Hitler was forcing Jews and others to leave Germany.
It should be noted that Stein was aghast about Hitler's expulsion of Jews because she felt he was, in effect, killing Germany.

In her book, Feinstein goes into detail to debunk the other World War II accusation that Stein was a collaborator because of her longtime friendship with French academic Bernard Faÿe, who was appointed head of the Bibliothèque nationale de France underPétain's Vichy government. This friendship resulted in Stein writing an essay (in French) for Patrie, a propagandistic Vichy magazine. The essay entitled "La langue française" ("The French Language") was a cultural appreciation of the French language. Furthermore, Feinstein writes that Patrie also published people "who were or would become prominent figures in the intellectual resistance [of Hitler and Nazism]." Barbara Will who wrote in depth about the Stein Faÿe relationship, a relationship that was unfavorable to Stein (Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿe, and the Vichy Dilemma, 2011) blurbed Feinstein's book as follows:

"Will become the defining analysis of the question of Jewishness in Stein's writing—a question absolutely crucial to understanding this great modernist writer. An important and long-awaited contribution to Stein studies."

Reading Feinstein's book requires time and astute attention due to the density of details. The details are necessary because Feinstein is setting the record straight regarding controversies and innuendo that have long plagued Gertrude Stein's reputation. When asked what Feinstein wants her readers to take away from Gertrude Stein and the Making of Jewish Modernism, she said that,

—Stein was a Jewish writer, not just a writer who happened to be Jewish.

—Stein's individual works need to be read in the context of history and Stein's overall work.

—she (Feinstein) wants more people to have access to Stein. 

Send Us Your
Comments On This Article

Share This Page

View other readers' comments in Letters to the Editor

Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2021 Karren Alenier
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine - Karren Alenier - The Steiny Road To Operadom | www.scene4.comWritings
Index of Karren Alenier's
columns in Scene4
Click Here for Access



August 2021

   Sections Cover · This Issue · inFocus · inView · inSight · Perspectives · Special Issues 
  Columns Adler · Alenier · Bettencourt · Jones · Luce · Marcott · Walsh · Letters 
  Information Masthead · Submissions · Prior Issues · Privacy · Terms · Books · Archives
  Connections Contact Us · Your Comments · Subscribe · Advertising · Your Support 

| Search Issue | Search Archives |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine–International Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2021 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine