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.
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.
I’ve been in panels all day — four, including my own. And one lunchtime meeting that was really interesting (it was about audiences and who you write for when you write — an interesting-ish question for an academic/public intellectual/newbie blogger). And, despite my general cynicism, I love what I do, and I have deep respect for the people with whom I get to do what I do.
Short story: This stuff is really important â€“ itâ€™s not just eggheads sitting around either stroking or crushing one anotherâ€™s egos. There are conversations here that are critical and vital to Jewish life and Jewish people, and theyâ€™re not happening elsewhere.
Longer Story: 4:15 â€“ 6:00. This is one of the â€œheavy hittersâ€? panel. The closest you might get to a kind of â€œall-star teamâ€? of cultural/historical/academic types. A kind of lollapalooza of inter and trans-denominational leaders and thinkers. Some of the smartest, most well-informed, committed, thoughtful people from Reform and Conservative Judiasm (no Orthodox, no Reconstructionist here â€“ I donâ€™tâ€™ know why) weighing in on the issue.
But first, a preface: this whole issue of denominationalism and its post is certainly one of the most important conversations going on in American Jewish life today. The growth of independent minyanim, the looser connections between people in terms of civic commitments, and the generally weak desire to join anything (let alone anything ideologically based) â€“ this is the whole â€œBowling Aloneâ€? thesisâ€¦..
Many people deride Academic conferences (and I do, too, on occasion) for their irrelevance â€“ there are few other venues where conversations like this can and do take place. And it is important. And exciting. And aggravating. And vital, vibrant, and engaging.
Unlike our current president, I want to talk to the people who are going to ask hard questions, who are deeply informed, and who can articulate complexity and vision, who can weigh the hard facts and play creatively with theory. This conversation (while it still needs to be translated back into policy, action, institutional or behavioral changes), is important because it brings together leaders of two rabbinic seminaries (Arnie Eisen from JTS and David Ellenson from HUC) three of the most insightful scholars of contemporary American life (Steven M Cohen from HUC, Jack Werthheimer of JTS, and Riv-Ellen Prell from the University of Minnesota), along with one self-identified â€œoutsider,â€? Don Miller (a liberal Episcopalian who is also the director of the Center for Religion and Culture at USC).
Conversations like this do not happen anywhere else. And they need to happen more often, and in other circles and circumstances. And they donâ€™t. People all over the place get their knickers in a twist over denominations and their posts, and here are people trying honestly to figure out whatâ€™s going on, articulate what they think should be going on, and to fill in the spaces in between.
Moments like this one make me happy to be part of this Jewish scholarly world and to learn from people like this in situations like this. Would that more people could participate. Would that there were more opportunities for â€œpractitionersâ€? and â€œscholarsâ€? (I donâ€™t know where that leaves our panelists, exactly) to sit down, talk, and in the words of Leonard Cohen, get down to a Jewâ€™s business.
The AJS Conference 101 — a primer:
Not many people come to these conferences, so I thought, before I got into the guts of this experience, that I would offer up a primer on academic conferences, and specifically the Jewish Studies Conference, where Iâ€™m sitting now.
The Association for Jewish studies is a professional organization for (mostly) scholars who are involved in the study of Jewish, Jewish texts, Jewish phenomena, and other things Jewish.
This is the annual gathering of AJS members â€“ again, mostly academics and aspiring academics. It is a peculiar annual ritual, this flocking to far-flung cities (weâ€™re in San Diego, this year), to sit in hotel conference rooms and either give papers about our current research, or listen to other papers about other peopleâ€™s current research.
The basic unit of the conference is the â€œpanel.â€? This is a more-or-less organized group of three or four people who agreed to deliver 20-minute written presentations (and academics have, as you might imagine, not the finest performance skills) that are more-or-less thematically linked.
So, Iâ€™m sitting here in a panel called â€œOrthodoxy and the Internet,â€? and Iâ€™ll report more on that later. And I just finished my presentation as part of a panel called â€œstudies in synagogue change,â€? or something like that.
The panels vary widely in terms of attendance (my panel had about 15 people. This one has about 35), and in what I might call â€œgoodness.â€? Sometimes they are dreadfully boring, and if youâ€™re one of the 4 people in the audience, you often feel badly for leaving despite the painful boredom (this has happened to almost everyone I know. Often, sadly, more than once).
Other common experiences:
- sitting far from the door and having to go to the bathroom
- panelists speaking for longer than their allotted 20 minutes (this is, from my perspective, an unforgivable sin).
- Members of the audience, when given the opportunity to ask questions, just blather on about their own work.
- Seeing someone you want to talk to.
- Seeing someone you donâ€™t want to talk to.
- Seeing someone who looks familiar (all these Jews look vaguely familiar to begin with), and youâ€™re not sure if you know them.
- â€œStarâ€? sightings. Deborah Lipstadt just walked into this panel. (side note: itâ€™s interesting to me what other people are interested in, especially when people are further up the academic food chain that I, and whose perceived interests donâ€™t necessarily intersect with mine). Itâ€™s not quite like seeing Brad Pitt or Lindsey Lohan, but, within the small world of Jewish studies, well, you get the picture. Itâ€™s really an intellectual thrill than anything elseâ€¦. Funny. Academics are funny.
- The feeling that I should have left before this person started his/her paper. Itâ€™s bad form to leave during someoneâ€™s paper (and it feels crummy as a speaker, when someone walks out while youâ€™re talking).
- The experience: â€œWho knew?â€? this is actually a really good response â€“ itâ€™s a shade shy of â€œwowâ€? or â€œinterestingâ€¦.â€? But itâ€™s a positive response, nonetheless.
- The reaction â€œwho cares?â€? this is a negative response that is a touch on the tolerant side of â€œthis is inanity,â€? with an edging toward a kind of hope. And I am always surprised when my â€œwho caresâ€? is met by someone elseâ€™s â€œwho knew.â€? I actually love it when people express interest in things that do not interest me. And then, above that, when they actually know something about the subject at hand. Itâ€™s really amazing what people know.
The panels go from 8:00 in the morning until sometime in the early evening, when there are usually other meetings or â€œreceptions,â€? which provide snacks and drinks to weary attendees (generally thrown by schools or Jewish organizations). And, then, as with prom, the â€œafter partiesâ€? are where the real business goes down.
And, as with any conference or professional gathering, the most interesting conversations happen in the hallways.
Iâ€™ve gotta get to the hallway. After this speaker stops talking.