Obituary: Deborah Lynn Steinberg:

Leading feminist academic who questioned whether Jewish identity could be “captured by a gene”


The feminist cultural theorist Deborah Lynn Steinberg, who has died aged 55, was Professor of Gender, Culture and Media Studies at the University of Warwick. Her theories were the result of robust and penetrating research into the contemporary challenges of the day.

Her many publications include a paper for Warwick questioning the concept of a Jewish gene.

The daughter of radiologist Irwin and lawyer Maxine Steinberg was born and brought up in Los Angeles, USA. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a BA in Women’s Studies, later gaining an MA from Kent University and a PhD at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

She was inherently drawn to feminist cultural theories, which culminated in her professorship at Warwick in 2008. Steinberg’s friend and colleague Debbie Epstein, whom she met as a fellow doctoral student at Birmingham, described her as a brilliant scholar who was also generous to her students, even though some may have found her reserve and prodigious scholarship intimidating and combative.

Her challenging paper for Warwick, Search for the Jew’s Gene, Spectacle and the Ethnic Other, was based on the TV National Geographic documentary, The Sons of Abraham, in which anthropologist Tudor Parfitt attempted to deny or authenticate the South African Lemba tribe’s claim to Jewish ancestry. Her study focused on Jewish identity characteristics within the history of racial science, partly in the 19th Century when Jews, she argued, became figures of debased whiteness – “the depraved product of interbreeding of white and its reviled Other.”

Jews, as “hybridised” Blacks,” were considered members of the “ugly” race – culminating in the Holocaust. In conclusion, Steinberg asked whether the diverse complexity of cultural identity could be “captured by a gene,” and whether what was “formerly reviled can be redeemed.”

Her final paragraph is most telling: “The possibility of a redemptive science speaks not only to post Holocaust and post colonial discourse of reparation, but – to the imagined possibility of finding an ethical life out of the ashes of human atrocity.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, she was cleared of the disease in 2013, but it returned a year later. Steinberg’s cancer odyssey includes a personal blog, poetry, and an analytical study. She co-edited Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief. Her last book Genes and the Bioimaginary: Science, Spectacle, Culture (2015) was highly acclaimed. She is survived by her partner Gershon Silins, her parents and brother David.

Deborah Lynn Steinberg: Born May 17, 1946. Died January 31, 2017



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