So, the Association for Jewish Studies conference wrapped up yesterday, and I’ve been ensconced in a post-conference conference until now. More on the post-conference conference in a bit, but for now, some tail-end scraps from the conference.
1. I know that for most folks, the goings-on at the AJS are not exactly front-page news, and that’s cool with me. There is something freeing in not having to speak to policy or immediate application that allows good ideas to brew, develop, and mature.
2. this is often mistaken for being “irrelevant.” not so, not at all.
3. On the last night of the conference Laura Levitt and Miriam Peskowitz threw a little shin-dig for whomever wanted to come, and beatboxer Yuri Lane performed a beat-box re-cap of the conference. He’s genius and quite talented. I went to bed at 12:30, and other folks were still going strong….
Sticking with my sense that the best stuff happens outside the panels, on the last morning of the conference I planned to go to a panel about the Palmach, but I ended up speaking to Rabbi Rebecca Alpert about her work on Jews in sports. She related to me the following: All but one of the owners of the Negro League teams was Jewish, and that Jewish boxers Barney Ross and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenblook owned teams in the All-Girls’ professional Baseball league.
This is really interesting, and reminded me (to relate back to question #1, above) of a paper that Jonathan Karp (professor, SUNY Binghamton) is working on about Jewish-owned “black” record labels. Which is to say, there is a whole network of complex things going on “behind the scenes” as it were, in the production of black popular culture, too. and the Jewishness of the characters in question is of some debate, too. This is neither something that can be “solved” quickly nor, I think, understood easily. it will take a while to get at what those performances and those relationships mean.
Speaking of time, the most exciting and urgent stuff (for me) went down at the post-conference conference, a working group gathering convened by Synagogue 3000. It was a chance for a bunch of us (about 15) to sit down and think through some research interests and potential research that we want to either undertake or see undertaken soon. these were not easy questions: questions of diversity (in all its diverse stripes), of worship/spirituality/music, of leadership, and of motivations. Fortunately, we had some brilliant people there, and we came out with a good-looking, provocative, and loose research agenda for Synagogue 3000.
Sadly, perhaps, this is about as exciting as the life of an academic gets. I’ll see you all next year in Toronto.
From San Diego, I’m out like a rabbinical student at JTS.
We were looking for signs of a media and/or publishing cabal, and while we did spot many dorky writers, they could hardly be said to be cabalistic. (Sorry, bad joke!) But we did notice that the brownies on the table had been baked with the blood of Christian children, so perhaps that Regan was onto something. Merry Hanukkah, everyone! (MORE)
If you look carefully, you may spot a certain MJL editor lurking in the background of one of the pics.
This is a reminder to all MyJewishLearning.com visitors that this weekend will mark the end of our promotion with Craig N Co. For those that do not already know, this Hanukkah , with your $36 or greater donation to MyJewishLearning.com, you can receive Craig & Co.â€™s newest release, The Shabbat Lounge. Or, with your $72 or greater donation, you can choose from either The Shabbat Lounge or The Best of the Celebrate Series, a 2 CD set. These CDs are an excellent Hanukkah gift for yourself or your loved ones.
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So I was looking through our blog stats (how many people are visiting, where they’re coming from, etc) and I found a couple of funny search engine referrals.
Someone out there came to the MJL blog last week by typing the following into Google: “joel roth” “in the closet”
Joel Roth is, of course, one of the Conservative movement’s leading experts on Jewish law and the author of the recent responsum on homosexuality that argued to maintain the bans on gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies.
So what was this reader doing typing those phrases into Google? Searching for some dirt on Rabbi Roth?
The runner-up for best Google search of the week: informative masturbatory jewcy
UPDATE: I thought it was funny enough that Yeshiva University President Richard Joel was nominated for MSNBC’s Boomer Hall of Fame (for Religion & Education), but get this: In fan voting, he’s leading the pack by a country mile.
You need to vote to see the up to the minute tally, but here’s the current count:
Richard Joel, Yeshiva University president – 35%
Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Atlanta – 2.3%
T.D. Jakes, minister – 2.9%
Susan Hockfield, MIT president – 6.1%
Sandy Kress, force behind No Child Left Behind – 6.6%
Joel Osteen, minister – 5.4%
Margaret Spellings, secretary of Education – 2.4%
Larry Summers, former Harvard president – 4.1%
Rick Warren, minister – 7.3%
Tom Vander Ark, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – 19%
Marianne Williamson, spiritualist – 3%
Cornell West, professor – 5.9%
Yeah, they share a name, but televangelist Joel Osteen and Yeshiva University president Richard Joel have something else in common: They’ve both been nominated for MSNBC’s (Baby) Boomer Hall of Fame in the field of Religion & Education.
Richard Joel’s a great guy and all, but his presence on this list is almost as mysterious as the fact that Religion and Education are clumped together here. It’s hard to imagine how of all the Jewish religious leaders of the Boomer generation Joel was the one selected.
Does he have a friend at MSNBC?
Ultimately, this list is of little significance, but that won’t stop some from rallying behind President Joel.
My sister, who tipped me off to this quirky poll, just forwarded me this email from a West Orange, NJ synagogue listserve:
Date: Monday, December 18, 2006 3:58 pm
Subject: [WestOrangeShuls] Newsweek – vote for Richard Joel
Vote for YU President; Save The World
Richard Joel is on this list for Newsweek’s Baby Boomers at 60, so I encourage everyone to vote. Next stop: Cover of Newsweek. Takes 5 seconds of your time, literally. Forward to everyone you know!
Lets make this a great Kiddush Hashem!
In discussing the “Next Big Jewish Idea” question, I cited Douglas Rushkoff’s writing on business innovation and noted his book on Judaism, Nothing Sacred, which caused a bit of a stir a few years ago, and prompted significant criticism.
This criticism was echoed in our comments when I suggested finding a way to, once again, bring Rushkoff back into Jewish communal conversations.
Now it’s Rushkoff’s turn to respond. Douglas sent me an email response last night, which he’s graciously allowed me to post here.
Hi Daniel, and thanks for the post. It’s always nice to be invited into a conversation – or even to be considered for inclusion. The responses to your suggestion in the comments section kind of tell the story, though. Not the true one, but the one that keeps a lot of smart people from engaging in anything but truly local, face-to-face forums.
As for my own real recent history with Judaism: yes, I wrote a book called Nothing Sacred, after about four (adult) years of what I’d consider to be intense study – both of Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and history, as well as the current condition of Jewish culture. Like many of today’s Jewish writers, I was bemoaning what I saw as organized Judaism’s solipsism, and suggesting that Judaism was indeed interesting and relevant enough to stand on its own merits. No need to make it “cool” or to do things “just to get people in the door.”
Focus on the genuine inquiry at the heart of the practice, and we’d attract more people than by demanding “fidelity” in the form of allegiance to Israel or prevention of intermarriage.
Indeed, one of the main arguments of the book was that Judaism transcends race and place.
The theological argument of the book – the “nothing sacred” part – was based on the idea that Jews get their specific idols out of the way (iconoclasm) in order to gather around a more abstract notion of God (monotheism) all for the real job of social justice. So I made the point that Jews who were resorting to civil liberties or social activism instead of synagogue worship shouldn’t be seen as failures – especially when their experiences of synagogue didn’t offer them the opportunity to engage with ego-smashing inquiry or the rethinking of society’s dangerous underlying structures. And I offered examples from Torah of people taking the gods off altars – or creating empty tents – in order to engage with God. Protecting the empty space, because out of this engagement with one another – devoid of all idols – emerges the sacred. The “nothing” we get after all that difficult work is actually sacred.
Iâ€™m at dinner (at a mexican restaurant). I canâ€™t reflect on any of the dayâ€™s events as I spent all of today in a meeting. No kidding. No exaggeration. I was in a meeting from 8:30 until 3:00, With a lunch break. So I missed all of the panels, but not going to panels is actually a long-standing tradition (of some level of honor) among attendees to these affairs. Because this is the only time that all/most of my colleagues get together, itâ€™s a good time to meet and take care of business, which is what I spend the whole day today doing (I was meeting with Steven Cohen and Isa Aron about our Synagogues project).
So, the following is going to be mostly from a loose survey of my friends at dinner, who spent much of the day dutifully attending panels.
Most of my dinner companions had attended the panel on Jews and Communism, which sparked a lively discussion about its strengths and shortcomings. Mostly, people were happy that Jewish studies was talking about Communism as an important chapter in American Jewish History (and not just like â€œOh look! There are Jewish Communists, and isnâ€™t that cool,â€? but really working with through more serious, sustained analyses of what Communism meant to the Jews who were involved in it.
And then the conversation devolved thusly:
Me: â€œSo what was the best part of thus-and-such panel?â€?
Person X: â€œSo-and-so [the personâ€™s name is hereby withheld] is hot.â€?
Person Y: â€œWhat did you say?â€?
Person X: â€œI said â€˜so-and-so is hot.â€™â€?
Person Y: â€œSo-and-so IS hot.â€?
Academics are funny that way — and conversation vacillates wildly from serious debate about scholarly issues to conversations about looks, dress, and other such nonsense.
The â€œWomen in Sportsâ€? panel featured a film called â€œThe Jewish Woman in Sport,â€? that was a pretty good intro to some lost women in American sports, including a woman who travelled around with Bobby Jones on a celebrity/patriotic golf tour.â€? pretty cool, no? But they left out Tiby Eisen, one of the women who played in the â€œAll Girls Baseball League,â€? as seen in the film â€œA League of Their Own.â€?
Rebecca Alpert gave a great paper about Jewish women in baseball — not just about players (like the aforementioned Tiby Eisen) but also fans, wives, and owners, too. And she did a good job of putting these women in historical perspective, and putting the issue of gender to the phenomenon of baseball, which extends far beyond the foul lines.
The conference is something like the combination between the brilliant and the sublime, the important, the seemingly important and the inane, and the ways in which all of these things somehow find places to converse.
Panels are where the business of the AJS conference happens. At worst, theyâ€™re dry presentations of old research. At best theyâ€™re engaging conversations about vital issues and ideas. Often, theyâ€™re just somewhere in the middle. Here are some highlights from yesterday and this morningâ€™s panels â€“ mostly quotations.
My panel (where I presented with Steven M. Cohen and Isa Aron about a project weâ€™ve been working on about synagogue transformation) was a good combination of presentation and conversation. I mean, I speak to Isa and Steven all the time about our research and writing, and the conversation that followed was really productive â€“ people asked good questions (â€œwhatâ€™s wrong with congregations that are full of â€˜dwellersâ€™ as opposed to â€˜seekers?â€™â€? or â€œIsnâ€™t change generally more of a Reform thing than a Conservative thing?â€?).
As a presenter, it was actually really helpful, and helped Steven, Isa and me articulate ourselves better.
Later, I went to a panel about â€œOrthodoxy and the Internet.â€? Three papers â€“ one about Orthodox womenâ€™s blogs (â€œdomesticity and the home page: blogging and the blurring of public /private space for orthodox Jewish womenâ€?), another about the opposition to the internet among ultra orthodox communities, and a third paper about frumster.com, and the ways in which spouse-seekers identify themselves.
The Frumster paper (given by Sarah Bunin Ben-Or) gave the third paper, and it was brilliant. Statistics, supplementary questions that Frumster might want to think about adding (â€œwhat do you want to name your children? How many children do you want to have? Do you watch Television?â€?) It was a beautiful analysis and a great powerpoint and it revealed the ways that a seemingly homogeneous population makes many fine-grained distinctions among themselves.
Later that day, was the postdenominational conversation. Here are some highlights:
Steven M Cohen: Reflecting on the sociology of American Jews, and the weakening of denominational affiliation:
1.â€œThis could be bigger than the havurah movement, or bigger than Jewish feminism.â€?
2. â€œOrthodox Jewry is American Jewryâ€™s China.â€? Itâ€™s big, itâ€™s coming, and the remainder of the Jewish continent doesnâ€™t know what to do with it.
Arnie Eisen gave a â€œschematic-theological sketchâ€? of Conservative Judiasm in the 21st Century.
1. â€œYou canâ€™t imagine [Rabbi Joseph] Soleveitchic writing a book called â€˜Folkways Manâ€™ instead of â€˜Halakhic Man.â€™â€? And it is precisely the Halakha that keeps Conservative Judaism vibrant and allows for the existential growth of Judiasm in modernity.
â€œWe need to ask: what are the intellectual stakes in this conversation.â€? For those who use this research to structure policy or direct change: we need to understand the relationships of people to their institutions better. â€œour greatest challenge is to understand what exactly we are studying.â€? Is post-denominationalism just the evolution of things already in motion, or is it something new?
This morning at the â€œJewish Cultural Studiesâ€? panel, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett wanted to ask whether or not Jewish Cultural Studies needed to be, at all. She clearly doesnâ€™t think so and said pointedly: â€œIt seems like the train has left the station 15 years ago, and I donâ€™t know where the train is or where itâ€™s going.â€?
Stuff like that makes conferences like this great. Iâ€™m going to get lunch.
To dichotomize: Rushkoff is advocating some sort of disengagement from traditional God talk, whereas Bachman is defending God as “the point of our struggle.”
This conversation obviously feeds into my earlier post today about bringing ideas, talk of ends and means, back into Jewish discourse. So kudos to Jewcy for that.
In terms of ends/means, Rushkoff is clear: “The object of the game is to carry out social justice, and to experience a connection to a greater reality through these acts.”
Though I’d like to hear more about Bachman’s “end”: “God is the end. Thatâ€™s the point of our struggle. The mitzvah system is the means to the end. Understanding this is the ultimate challenge of faith. It is what people wrestle with their whole lives — from the most pious to the most skeptical.”
What does it mean to say God is the end? Knowledge of God? Union with God? Love of God? And does he mean the end? Or an end?