Author Archives: Josh Lambert

From the Academy: Modern Hebrew Literature

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Miryam Segal is Assistant Professor in Hebrew in the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures at Queens College of the City University of New York. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Miryam SegalHer first book, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (Indiana, 2009) has been praised by major scholars including Robert Alter and Dan Miron; Harry Fox of the University of Toronto calls it “an extremely impressive piece of literary and historical scholarship.”

What sorts of texts do scholars of modern Hebrew literature study? What are the boundaries of the field?

Scholars of Hebrew literature study poetry, drama, novels; they read poems closely and write about prose fiction as a part of a larger web of cultural production of a given period—including music and visual art; they teach Hebrew poetry in relation to works in other languages; they study Hebrew literature as a series of great writers. In other words they survey the field in almost every conceivable way—by genre, period, ideology, influence, style. Periodization usually has a bit of the arbitrary about it and historians mark a few beginnings for Hebrew literature in modern times: the publication of Avraham Mapu’s novel Ahavat tsiyon in 1853, Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s La-yesharim Tehillah of 1743 and Naphtali Wessely’s Shirei tiferet written at the end of the 18th century.

How does the study of modern Hebrew literature tend to differ from the study of Hebrew texts in earlier periods?

Hebrew literary scholarship is often seen as part of Jewish studies, but it is also a sister to other fields of literature—and is probably more directly influenced by trends in literary theory and criticism and critical theory than Jewish studies as a whole.

Modern works do not present the complex textual problems that are inherent to pre-modern multi-authored texts (e.g. midrashic compilations, the Talmuds). We have Bialik’s letters, the periodicals in which he published his poems; we know a lot about where and when he wrote his poems. The late Yehuda Amichai and Amos Oz are popular authors both here and in Israel, and their manuscripts and letters are preserved in archives at Yale, Ben Gurion, and Indiana University. Scholars rarely have this quantity of materials for non-modern subjects.

What do you see the field offering to Jews outside of the academy?

What does the literature itself offer? Great reading!

For anyone interested in Israel—as a state, a culture, a phenomenon—modern Hebrew literature is a way in. North American Judaism and Jewish culture project a lot on to Israel. They seem to expect it to provide some explanation, some critical piece of modern non-Israeli Jewish identity. Hebrew literature is an interesting place to start re-examining assumptions of the connection between Israeli culture and Jewishness.

How can the study of modern Hebrew literature influence the practices and choices of contemporary Jews?

There are many possibilities for how religious communities might use vernacular literature for inspiration. Hebrew poetry and prayer have always had a relationship—going back to the Bible where they overlap to a great extent. The relationship between prayer and poetic address is a fascinating one in general—and given the religious/theological/mystical poetry being written in Hebrew now, that is an especially interesting oeuvre in which to think about that relationship.

Does the study of modern Hebrew literature require approaches that are substantially different from those applied to other modern literatures?

You might say that Hebrew is different by degree—in seeming to invoke at every turn the variety of languages and literatures which have touched it, including Yiddish, German, Russian, Arabic, and English. And the history of Modern Hebrew literature is so condensed, so utterly subject to Jewish and Israeli history—and also marks and delineates it.

Hebrew has a long history with unique points of disjuncture, such as the so-called language revival, and surprisingly long stretches of continuity, including two millennia of literary creativity in Italy. I think these give Hebrew literature its personality, its fingerprint. They are part of what make it interesting. That and the great poem or superb novel one rediscovers.

What are some of the more pressing questions that remain to be answered by academic scholars of modern Hebrew literature?

In an introductory essay first published in 1947, Dov Sadan poses questions on the borders of the field. Perhaps in a living literature these can never be fully answered. Is Hebrew literature an entirely secular literature? Is the break with tradition in the period of the Jewish Enlightenment as definite, as clear cut, as some historiographies articulate it?

Then there is the question of Hebrew literature’s relationship to other literatures, beyond questions of influence, to parallel or divergent developments in genre, school, and their relationship to other historical and cultural developments. The entanglement of modern Hebrew literature with modernity—with secularism, capitalism—this remains an area with room for a lot more scholarship. In the last twenty years or so scholarship has begun to be critical of Zionist ideology, inspiring attempts to understand anew the history of literary developments in Hebrew.

What drew you toward this field?

I have always enjoyed the concise elegance of the Hebrew language, and am drawn to its sprawling history. Before graduate school I was far more familiar with classical Jewish texts than with modern Hebrew ones (in fact hardly at all with the latter!). What drew me to the field was a sense that there were so many exciting questions waiting to be asked, more so than other fields in the discipline. Small as the corpus of modern Hebrew literature is, it stands at the crossroads of modern Jewish history and has all sorts of unexpected takes on the clichés of literary studies: new-old, exile, postcolonialism, literary language and vernacular. Hebrew asks you to ask the usual questions but also turns them every which way—makes you ask them differently, funnily, sideways.

If someone wanted to know more about where the scholarly study of modern Hebrew literature is currently headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

In English, the journals Hebrew Studies, Prooftexts and BGU Review. In Hebrew, Mehkerei yerushalayim be-sifrut ivrit, mi-Kan, and some that have a wider focus: Teoriyah u-bikoret, Alpayim and the recently launched Yisrael. The newspaper Haaretz also has a useful culture and literature supplement as well as a popular book review section. The best way to start, though, might simply be to read a variety of authors and then follow your own individual reading trail. So much Hebrew literature is available in translation. Checking out an anthology to help you find your new favorite Hebrew authors. Consult your local librarian!

Posted on March 23, 2010

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From the Academy: Holocaust Studies

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Avinoam J. Patt serves as the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford, and also directs the George and Lottie Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization. He previously served as the Miles Avi PattLerman Applied Research Scholar for Jewish Life and Culture at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His first book, Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust appeared in May 2009, and his second, a volume he edited on Displaced Persons—We are Here: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany—will be published in February 2010. His research and teaching manifest the extraordinary vitality of the field.

What is Holocaust Studies?

Scholars of Holocaust Studies cover a tremendous range of topics and approach the field from almost every single discipline in the academy: History, Literature, Religion, Judaic Studies, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, Film, Architecture, Archaeology, Forensics, etcetera. As a tragedy of unprecedented proportions that in certain ways defies the human capacity for comprehension, the Holocaust has attracted scholars from all of these disciplines who seek to add to our understanding of human behavior. A scholar of the Holocaust might focus on the history of Germany or anti-Semitism; or literary responses to catastrophe; or theological explanations for the destruction; or Jewish responses to persecution; or the political appeal of the Nazi party; or the social dynamics of collaboration, resistance, or rescue; or the Holocaust on film; or the architecture of the death camps; or the legal theory involved in the post-war prosecution of war criminals. All of these approaches and topics fit within the field of Holocaust Studies.

Does the study of the Holocaust require scholarly approaches that differ from those that would be brought to any other catastrophe in Jewish or non-Jewish history?

Is the Holocaust so unique in history that it requires its own unique scholarly approach? As you can tell from my previous response, the answer is no: scholars from various disciplines must approach the Holocaust with the same scholarly approaches they would bring to other events in history in order to gain a true understanding of the aspect of the Holocaust they investigate. If we suggest that the Holocaust is so unique that it cannot be understood, then there is little purpose in studying it; instead of accepting that conclusion, we can seek to learn from the past in order to better understand the human capacity for evil (or, for that matter, resilience, compassion, and courage) and thus perhaps prevent future or contemporary acts of genocide.

What does scholarly research about the Holocaust—as opposed, say, to memorializing the events—offer to the Jewish community?

There is a tendency within the Jewish community to believe that we know everything there is to know about the Holocaust—that everything that needs to be uncovered has already been discovered, examined, and studied. This concerns me for a number of reasons: first, what we know about Jewish responses to the Holocaust only touches the tip of an iceberg. There is a vast amount of material that has not been examined from the war period, from which we can learn so much about how Jews responded to the threat of Nazism (at times successfully, but generally not so). Very few Jews know the story of Emmanuel Ringelblum, who devoted himself to documenting both Nazi persecution and Jewish responses in the Warsaw ghetto, and without whom we would know little about Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto.

I am currently working on a project that is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Jewish Source Study Initiative, called Jewish Responses to Persecution, that draws attention to the millions of pages of unexamined material that most people do not realize survived the war. These sources offer a window onto Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. If we view the history of the Holocaust as only fated to end in Jewish destruction, and merely memorialize the destruction by the Germans, but not the courage of those who resisted both physically and spiritually, or if we fail to examine the efforts of Jews to continue Jewish life during and after the war, then we miss much of the significance of these events for Jewish history and for the Jewish community.

Furthermore, there are still those who seek to deny the Holocaust, whether for political reasons (Ahmadinejad, for example) or out of admiration for Nazism or Hitler (like David Irving)—and the deniers know that time is on their side. As the survivor generation disappears, and the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust pass on, Holocaust studies must continue to gather evidence and establish the historical record to refute the claims of the deniers, whose numbers, I fear, will unfortunately grow over time.

What are the most pressing questions that remain to be answered by scholars of the Holocaust?

The field is moving in so many directions now. Twenty years ago, the field was largely focused on the intentionalist/functionalist debate, which focused on whether the Final Solution was always the intention of the Nazi leadership or whether it evolved over time as a function of factors related to the war effort and the search for other solutions to the Jewish question.

In the 1990s, much of the focus was on the Browning/Goldhagen debate over whether the perpetrators were “ordinary men” or “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” Scholars have now moved on to topics that in many cases focus on a number of developing areas not related specifically to German history: more localized research that focuses on the role of local groups in collaboration throughout Europe (in Romania, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland, or western Europe, for example); the role of the Church; research on the aftermath of the Holocaust (Jewish life in the DP camps); and research on comparative genocide. Recently opened archives, including the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and newly available materials that continue to emerge from Eastern Europe also drive new areas of research.

Are there particular challenges, whether institutional or intellectual, facing students and scholars of the Holocaust today?

As I mentioned above, there is an acute sense of urgency regarding the passing of the survivor generation. The survivors not only constitute a valuable resource as eyewitnesses, but they also value and understand the importance of this field. While thousands of hours of testimony were painstakingly recorded by various groups over the past twenty years, we often discover that in many cases, this material is only partial or misses important subjects, such as the postwar experiences of the survivors.

Another issue, also related to time but in a different way, has to do with the increasing focus on contemporary genocide and the topic of comparative genocide. While I certainly believe that the mantra of “Never Again” remains vital in the aftermath of the Holocaust and with the continued acts of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries, I worry that with the passage of time and the loss of the survivor generation there will be less of a general agreement about the need to study the Holocaust as a historical event, and more of an effort to draw simple, basic lessons from the Holocaust that can be applied to the mission of contemporary relevance. As this happens, we will lose some of the nuance of what needs to be understood from this complicated history, and be left with an oversimplified understanding of this time period.

What drew you toward this field?

Like most Jews, I have family members who died in the Holocaust (great grand-parents, great aunts, uncles, and cousins), but this is not what drew me to the field. It was the realization that Jewish studies scholars had barely sought to investigate the Holocaust from the perspective of Jewish history—that is, that there has been little effort to understand the Holocaust within the broader scope of Jewish history, or to seriously investigate the troves of unexamined Jewish materials that had survived the period before, during, and after the Holocaust to give us a better sense for Jewish life in this period. This failure to study Jewish life during the war does a disservice not only to those who perished, but to those who sought to continue Jewish life under the most impossible of circumstances.

Truthfully, in my first book on Jewish DPs and Zionism, I was much more interested in the question of Zionism and the immediate events leading up to the creation of the state of Israel than I was in the topic of the Holocaust; I was drawn to a topic that looked at the resilience and rebirth of the survivors after the Holocaust rather than the destruction of European Jewry during the war. However, through my research on the Jewish Displaced Persons, I also discovered that this was a fascinating period of time that had barely been examined by historians.

If someone wanted to know more about where Holocaust studies are headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

It is hard to single out just one or two books from the many excellent volumes that are published in the field. However, a few recent works stand out: Saul Friedlander’s second volume, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II: The Years of Extermination, where he masterfully combines German, Jewish, and other sources in an extremely readable volume. Sam Kassow, in Who Will Write Our History?: Emmanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbes Archive (Indiana University Press) integrates the field of Jewish history into Holocaust studies through his focus on one of the most important but least known Jewish figures from the Holocaust, the historian, political and social activist, and educator Emmanuel Ringelblum.

My two books on the She’erit Hapletah (Surviving Remnant)—Finding Home and Homeland and We Are Here—are part of the larger field of developing research on Holocaust survivors after the war.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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From the Academy: Mysticism and Philosophy

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Elliot R. Wolfson is the Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where he teaches courses in mysticism, Kabbalah, and the philosophy of religion. Two of his books, Language, Eros, Being (2005) and Through a Speculum That Shines (1994) have been awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, and the latter volume also won the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Historical Studies. His most recent publications include Alef, Mem, Tau (2006) and Venturing Beyond (2006); Footdreams and Treetales (2007), a book of poems; and Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (2009), which was published last month by Columbia University Press. His work explores the rich, complex symbolic systems elaborated in mystical and philosophical texts. Elliot Wolfson

How do you define Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy? What’s the relationship between them?

Both Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy are complex and multifaceted phenomena that cannot be easily defined. In general terms, however, we could demarcate mysticism as an intensified path (encompassing both ritual and knowledge) that facilitates the individual’s communion with or direct experience of what is considered in a particular cultural context to be ultimate reality, whereas philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and truth about the world and the human through the mediated exercise of reason and logical argument (even irrationality is examined philosophically through the prism of the rational).

Moses of Burgos, a kabbalist active in the second half of the 13th century, famously said that the kabbalists stand on the head of the philosophers. This statement underscores the intricate relationship between the two worldviews, marking the point of their convergence and divergence. In my own scholarly practice, I have elicited mystical elements from philosophical works and philosophical insights from mystical sources.

How does the study of mysticism and philosophy complement historical or sociological approaches to the study of Jewish experience?

Jewish studies is eclectic but the predominant methodology remains the historical, which tends to examine phenomena from the vantage point of a linear chronology. More recently, a greater attention has been paid to sociological and anthropological approaches, but this has only reinforced the conception of time presumed by intellectual and social historians. The study of mysticism and philosophy provide an alternative orientation to comprehend the experience of Jews. In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson, I provide a striking example of how a philosophical inquiry yields an understanding of this hasidic master’s apocalyptic vision that ostensibly contradicts the view that has been informed by the ethnographic study of his followers. Previous discussions on the messianism of the seventh Rebbe of the Habad-Lubavitch dynasty have been informed by considering the movement and thus they have ignored the theological and philosophical dimensions of his teaching, which in my view, are precisely what fueled the movement.

Schneerson, like his predecessors as well as a plethora of other Hasidic masters, is indebted to the kabbalistic notion that all that transpires in the physical world is a symbolic mirroring of what occurs in the supernal world of divine emanations. Based on this conception there is no way to understand Schneerson’s understanding of historical events without interpreting them symbolically. It is with regard to this insight that I think the philosophical study of mysticism can complement historical and sociological approaches to the study of Jewish experience.

What do you see this field offering to Jews outside of the academy?

The field can contribute immensely to Jews outside the academy by enriching their understanding of the complexities and profundities of Judaism as a religious and spiritual culture. But a gift cannot be received unless there is a recipient sufficiently engaged and willing to receive it. The delivery of a complex message demands a rhetoric that is commensurately complex and too often Jews outside the academy are not willing to be pushed to think harder and to expand their vocabulary. I would note, parenthetically, that the field also has much to contribute to non-Jews, as it delves deeply into the human condition more generally and the pursuit for truth and meaning. But let me be clear: I do not think an academic discipline plays the role of mandating behavior of contemporary Jews or non-Jews but I do believe that the more one knows of the past the better informed one will be of the multivocality of a particular tradition, which sometimes entails coming to terms with problematic aspects that need to be reformed.

What drew you toward this field?

I was raised in an Orthodox environment and thus was exposed to Jewish practices and texts from the time I was a small child. As a teenager, I started to read Hasidic sources, especially Habad and Bratslav, and through them I had my first encounter with the mystical dimensions of Judaism. In college I pursued the study of philosophy and started to become interested in Hindu and Buddhist sources, which led me to the intense study of Jewish mysticism. To this day, my work on Jewish mysticism reflects both my philosophical training in phenomenology and hermeneutics and my interest in Asian religions.

What are the most pressing questions that remain to be answered by scholars of Jewish mysticism and philosophy?

There are still dozens of texts buried in manuscript, so in some sense we are still charting out the different contours of the fields, especially in the case of Jewish mysticism. One of the most important issues to be explored is the relationship between the philosophical and the mystical approaches. The 19th-century pioneers of the critical study of Judaism bifurcated these disciplines and, to a great extent, they still are treated as separate. The most pressing question for the future is to determine to what extent this bifurcation is an accurate reflection of the past. I would also say that it is necessary to cultivate a comparative approach that does not neglect the specificity of each tradition but also is open to lines of commonality. As I write in the preface to Open Secret, my hermeneutic belief is that “by digging into the soil of a specific cultural matrix one may uncover roots that lead to others.”

Are there particular challenges, whether institutional or intellectual, facing students who are interested in studying Jewish mysticism and philosophy?

Both disciplines are extremely demanding, requiring mastery over several languages and a rather large corpus of material. In addition to the Jewish sources, a student must also become familiar with the philosophical and the mystical texts of other traditions, so it is quite a daunting task. I would say that this is the greatest intellectual challenge. Institutionally, the challenge is one of financial support for this kind of research, to convince donors that these subjects are worthy of study without any political or ideological agenda being served, but this is a larger matter that needs to be discussed in a different venue.

If a reader wants to learn more about the study of Jewish mysticism and philosophy, what would you recommend he or she read?

For the non-academic reader, I would suggest Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay “The Mystical Element in Judaism,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited by Susannah Heschel (1996); Louis Jacobs, The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies (1998); Brian L. Lancaster, The Essence of Kabbalah (2005); and Byron L. Sherwin, Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism (2006).

Posted on November 23, 2009

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From the Academy: Sociology

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Samuel Heilman serves as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and as the Harold Proshanky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CCNY’s Graduate Center. He has spoken and lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Israel, China, South Korea, and Australia, as well as throughout North America.

Samuel Heilman

His many books include Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (2006), When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son (2001) and Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century (1995). As the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Jewry, the leading journal for social scientific studies of Jewish experience, he helps to set the direction for his field’s development.

How does a sociologist’s approach to studying Jews differ from a historian’s?

The historical approach is interested in mainly what the factors are in the past that led to the present, whereas the sociological approach is more focused on the way things are in the present: what are the ongoing cultural, social, anthropological factors that affect how things are in the present? The focus is different.

We start from what we can see around us, often by surveying the scene, sometimes by interviewing people, doing observations, sometimes even participating. A historian can’t participate in what’s happened in the past, can’t ask questions of participants. In some ways, historians would do well if they had the material that sociologists and anthropologists have collected. If they had those kinds of testimonies and studies from the past, history would be fuller. I don’t think we’re doing competing kinds of things. I think they’re complementary.

Does the sociological study of the Jews differ in any particular ways from the study of other contemporary communities?

In every group, the social and cultural conditions play a part in how you study them. You use some of the same approaches, of learning about people, understanding the values that they have, and the behaviors by which they express them—enough so that you can talk about a discipline of sociology or anthropology—but also differences, so that you can’t assume that somebody who has experience studying the Jews would necessarily have the same facility in studying other groups.

On the other hand, just to add to the complication, if you’re studying German Jews, well, you really can’t study German Jews without having an understanding of German culture and society. German Jews very powerfully reflect German culture and society in ways that are different from Jews in, say, Morocco. All of those things come into play. No group of people is purely one thing or another: they’re a combination of ingredients, and you have to have a certain sense of cultural and social sensitivity when you’re looking at them and trying to learn something about them.

How can sociology affect the practices and choices of contemporary Jews?

There are a whole variety of ways. Starting, first of all, with the quantitative. The community, or people who are interested in organizing and understanding Jewish life, need to know: how many Jews are there? What kind of Jews are there? Are Jews aging more quickly than the rest of the population? What is the nature of Jews’ marital patterns? What is the nature of their fertility, how many kids are they having? Those are important questions, which are in the domain of sociology.

Another kind of question that the sociologists have been able to explore is the nature of Jewish communal life. What constitutes Jewish communal life? How is the community linked together? Those, and many other kinds of questions, can help in understanding the nature of the Jewish population or the trends in the Jewish population, how best to serve the Jewish population.

Even such a basic question as, “Do people care about their Jewish identity at all?” is one of the questions to which Jewish sociology and anthropology can give us an answer. Sometimes it’s taken as a starting point that Jewish continuity is a value in and of itself, that it’s important to continue to have Jews as an identifiable minority.

Well, what if you have a significant number, a proportion of the population of Jews, that doesn’t feel that? What of those people for whom the idea of Jewish identity is something they seek to disattend in their desire to be assimilated by their other national identities? These are all the sorts of questions that Jewish sociologists and anthropologists explore, and have direct bearing on everything from fundraising to social welfare to planning for the future.

What drew you toward this field?

Well, I first of all became interested in sociology, not necessarily of Jews. Because I was Jewish, naturally many of the things I was familiar with, in terms of social life, background, and so on, drew on my understanding of Jewish life. When it came time to write a dissertation, for a variety of reasons that I talk about in one of my books, I did a study of a synagogue, which I didn’t necessarily think was particularly about Jews, but about social and symbolic interaction in a setting that happened to be a synagogue.

But from there, given the kind of things I had said and the people who read my work, and the interest people showed, I found myself being dragged more and more into talking about issues that were relevant to Jewish life and to Jewish society. But I continue to believe that while I write about the Jews, many of the things I write inform sociology in general and the study of human behavior. Franz Boas wrote about the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, or Margaret Mead wrote about the Samoans; these were not just studies for a particular group of people who were only interested in the Samoans or the Kwakiutl. These were discussions about a particular group of people through which you can learn something about the general condition of humanity.

As someone once put it: “Seeing heaven in a grain of sand is not something only poets can accomplish.”

Are there particular challenges facing students of Jewish sociology?

Yes. One of the great challenges is that you are looking at a community for which the question is: is it actually a community, or is it just an aggregate of people who are defined in a variety of ways? So you’re looking at a moving target.

Secondly, there is an economic problem, which is that the kinds of work that we do is often rewarded more when we’re in economic good times. This is not necessarily a field where people are going to get rich quick.

The third challenge is, of course, where the jobs are going to be. It’s a mad academic hazard whether you get a job or don’t get a job, and who you are going to teach. In the community outside the academy, as well, there is not always sufficient support for the work and insights of social science. Even such a basic thing as a National Jewish Population Survey, which was once a given at least every ten years—the community is increasingly seeing it as a luxury, rather than a necessity.

There are jobs out there. I always argue that if you really have a passion to do something and are really interested in it, and have the skill to do it, then you should go for it, and you’ll find a way to sell what it is you do. But if someone were asking me, “What’s a good field for me to go into because I want to support myself and a family and have a future of honor and good fortune?”, sociology and anthropology might not be on the top of my list.

If a reader wanted to know more about how the sociological study of Jewish communities is developing, what would you recommend he or she read?

First of all, I’d recommend the journal that I edit, Contemporary Jewry. It comes out three times a year and it shows you what people are thinking about, what they’re writing about, and what research they’re pursuing. Reading a journal like Contemporary Jewry would be a very good starter.

If I’m going to give a pitch for a book, I’d say that people should be on the lookout for a new book that I and Menachem Friedman have written called The Rebbe: The Life and the Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson which will be out from Princeton University Press in the spring; that will give you a sense of how we can study one of the more interesting phenomena in the contemporary Jewish scene, which is the Lubavitch movement.

Posted on October 23, 2009

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From the Academy: Law

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Suzanne Last Stone serves as University Professor of Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, where she directs the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization. As a visiting professor, she has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Penn, Princeton, Hebrew University, and Tel Aviv. She co-edits Diné Israel, a bilingual, peer-reviewed journal of Jewish law published with the Tel Aviv Law School. Her influential articles include “In Pursuit of the Countertext: The Turn to the Jewish Legal Model in Contemporary American Legal Theory,” published in the Harvard Law Review in 1993, and “The Jewish Tradition and Civil Society” published in Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society (Princeton University Press, 2002). As a pioneering teacher and scholar, she demonstrates the crucial relationship between Jewish and American legal thinking.

Suzanne Last StoneHow would you define Jewish law?

Jewish law is the term used in the American legal academy for the study of the normative texts of Judaism (the halakha) from the perspective of comparative law and legal theory.

The field engages the entire rabbinic legal corpus and is a pure academic discipline. The theoretical and interdisciplinary focus of the American legal academy is having a major impact on the study of Jewish law, expanding its range from doctrinal to jurisprudential studies and stretching its boundaries. This approach views law as a cultural activity to be analyzed in light of philosophical, religious, emotional, and literary dimensions that undergird it. So, scholars in the field of Jewish law often deal broadly with Jewish thought, asking how legal texts both illuminate and reflect larger worldviews.

Still, there are scholars outside the legal academy who question whether there is such a thing as “Jewish law,” which can be studied. The dispute centers on whether halakha, especially in its formative period, counts as “law,” let alone a “system.” Rabbinic texts do not easily fit the popular notion that the word “law” should be reserved for rules imposed by officials and backed by sanctions. Fortunately, this definition of law is not the only one possible and, in fact, the fascination with Jewish law in the American legal academy arises precisely because it departs from the model of official state law.

What drew you to do this field?

I did my undergraduate and graduate studies in Judaism in late antiquity before jumping ship to law school. I envisioned for myself a pleasant but conventional legal academic career as a specialist in the constitutional relations between state and federal courts. But when it came time to set pen to paper, I rediscovered my passion for early rabbinic texts. The reality of needing to secure tenure—and therefore appeal to an American legal audience—propelled me to create a new field of comparative Jewish and American legal theory.

In what ways is Jewish law relevant to contemporary American legal scholarship? Is it more relevant than, say, Chinese or Muslim legal traditions?

American legal scholarship, like American law, used to be notoriously insular, but globalization and multiculturalism have made it far more receptive to other legal ideas. In this context, Jewish law is one of many legal systems that may offer enlightenment.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Jewish law occupies a special place in American legal scholarship. Historically, it is the intellectual source of many Western legal ideas. In fact, the Puritans consciously modeled American legal culture around the Hebrew Bible and the idea of a covenantal society. And there are structural affinities between the two systems that facilitate fruitful comparison: both are primarily common law systems and both are organized around an authoritative text with an ongoing history of interpretation that has inspired great allegiance over time.

The most prominent example of this turn to Jewish law in American legal theory is the late Robert Cover’s celebrated essay in the Harvard Law Review, “Nomos and Narrative.” The essay described two ideal-types of legal systems: the imperial, in which law is a system of social order, and the paideic, in which it is a system of meaning. Cover’s paideic model, as I analyzed in a later article, was fashioned around his understanding of halakha. His creative attempt to reconstruct American law along the lines of the paideic model vividly demonstrated the relevance of Jewish law for generating new ideas in American legal thought.

To what degree can the study of Jewish law complicate or expand our sense of modern Jewish history and contemporary Jewish culture?

Jewish law was fashioned and took its characteristic shape against the backdrop of cohesive, semi-autonomous Jewish communities living under foreign rule. As an ongoing legal tradition, however, it continues to address itself to the dramatically new political formations in which Jews are set here and in Israel. Modern democratic statehood and Jewish sovereignty raise new questions about the coordination of religion and state, about Jewish norms of war, and the capacity of the Jewish legal tradition to address a mixed civil society, to name but a few.

Halakhic responses to these new situations are not premodern relics; they are part of contemporary Jewish culture, both reflecting it and shaping it. For example, contemporary jurists addressing the new reality of war have interpreted the tradition’s sparse sources on the subject as a signal that war is forbidden, or as an invitation to create a new Jewish law of war, or as a license to incorporate international norms of war. These varying responses, each citing precedents, reflect different contemporary ideologies and also reveal longstanding tensions within the legal tradition itself. So the study of Jewish law is not only a fascinating window onto contemporary Jewish culture but also an opportunity to see the continuities as well as the ruptures between premodern and modern Jewish history.

Are there particular challenges facing students and scholars of Jewish law?

The institutional challenges are formidable. There are only a handful of people in the field. And although American law schools are receptive to the subject matter, they are not sufficiently invested to dedicate a professorship to the subject. With rare exception, those who teach Jewish law in American law schools are either short-term visitors or professors whose fields of expertise lie elsewhere. Those wishing to pursue a doctorate related to Jewish law must do so outside the law school setting.

To fill this gap, we have a part-time Graduate Program in Jewish Law and Legal Theory at Cardozo open to students pursuing doctorates elsewhere in the various fields of Jewish Studies. We now have close to twenty students who are becoming a unique interdisciplinary community. From an intellectual, as distinct from an institutional perspective, then, this is a thrilling time for the field of Jewish law.

If someone wanted to know more about where the study of Jewish law is headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

There are very few books in English because of the infancy of the field. And American law professors have a tradition of writing articles rather than books. Yair Lorberbaum’s In the Image of God will shortly be out in English, however, and it exemplifies the interdisciplinary direction in which the study of Jewish law is headed.

Posted on September 8, 2009

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From the Academy: Musicology

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Judah Cohen serves as The Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and as an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University in Bloomington. His first book, Through the Sands of Time (2004), explores the history of the small Jewish community on the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His second book, The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment, will be published by Indiana University Press this fall with an accompanying CD. Cohen’s research impressively combines ethnographic and historical approaches to the question of how sound enriches modern Jewish life and culture.

What counts as Jewish music?

To me, people are what make music—or anything—Jewish. I begin with the assumption that people can bring ideas of Judaism to any kind of music or sound they deem appropriateJudah Coheniate. Once they do that, however, people then often need to justify their choices by building up historical, Biblical, cultural, or musical explanations for their actions. (And consequently, people will often use the same criteria to explain why competing forms of Jewish music are less authentic.) What’s most useful, I’ve found, is asking why people feel it’s important to define certain forms of musical expression as Jewish. Understanding the values involved in making music “Jewish” opens up a rich and vibrant window into the life of a community and its own sense of Jewish identity and history.

How does the study of Jewish music differ from the study of other musical traditions?

Theoretically, studying Jewish music mainly requires an open mind and a willingness to learn how to see the world through the eyes (and ears) of others. That’s not as easy as it seems, though, since our ears are often trained from early on to accept certain sounds as good, elite, or profound, and other sounds as bad, popular, or superficial. Jewish music poses particular challenges, since most of the scholars who study it identify as Jews themselves (this is less the case with Chinese music or Javanese music), and face some sort of personal stake in their projects. Developing the skill to stay true to one’s own beliefs while effectively studying and describing the closely held beliefs of others as represented through sound poses for a significant challenge for Jewish music study.

Pragmatically, Jews’ status as both insiders and outsiders to Western culture requires music scholars to straddle a combination of fields, including historical musicology (the study of Western art music), ethnomusicology (often associated with non-Western music), and Jewish studies. As a result, I need to maintain a palette of cross-cultural analytical techniques (musical and non-musical) that I can apply to my work as the needs arise. In actual research, it’s mainly a process of listening carefully, and then using (or learning from others) the forms of analysis best suited for the music or population studied.

What insights can the study of music provide into Jewish culture more generally?

Music, at its most basic level, is just a succession of traveling sound waves. That makes it a dazzlingly pliant canvas upon which to apply ideas of Jewish identity and practice: any kind of sound can mean anything, and that meaning can change from one moment to the next. Sensitively exploring how people determine the sounds they make to be “Jewish,” therefore, or how they link sounds to certain images, ideas, or senses of history, can lead to remarkably intimate portraits of Jewish culture.

At the same time, music provides an ever-present soundtrack to Jewish life that surviving texts hint at, but often miss. That soundtrack has helped Jews pray, accompanied Jewish celebrations, and pervaded Jews’ everyday lives. It’s a different mode of communication that is more vibrant than language, yet much more complex to pin down.

Are there particular challenges facing students who want to study Jewish music?

In Western society, music tends to receive the status of a leisure activity, a realm reserved for specialists, and a form often intellectually subservient to the written word. Many scholars have adopted similar attitudes: often pegging music as the “fun” topic, professing non-musicality as an excuse for avoiding engagement with sound, and relying heavily on texts as a determinant for scholarly rigor. Many simply don’t know how to incorporate music meaningfully into the pursuit of knowledge. Students who want to study Jewish music consequently need to be ready to build interdisciplinary bridges with sound: demonstrating compellingly to non-specialists how sound factors profoundly into ideas about Jewish life and culture.

Among music specialists, meanwhile, Jewish music study holds an ambivalent position between “Western” and “non-Western” music (quite like Jews themselves, historically). Jewish music as a hiring category thus falls between the cracks of the already small musicology job market: too exotic for historical musicology, often too Western for ethnomusicology, and yet acknowledged as important to both.

How did you find yourself attracted to this field?

I grew up in a family that loved to sing; my parents led children’s services at my synagogue; my cantor inspired me to take on musical challenges during services; and I excelled at piano and musical theater in high school. In college, my focus shifted to a non-performance music major, which I combined with a separate major in religious studies. During my junior year, I was roped into the musical directorship of a new a cappella group devoted to Jewish and Israeli music (Yale’s Magevet): my research on Jewish music of all genres for that group, combined with my music professors’ encouragement to apply to programs in ethnomusicology, led me to start my graduate training at Harvard University. I do not for a day regret my decision.

What do you see as the future of the field?

Jewish music study faces a wonderfully bright future. The field is lucky to have both a venerable, active group of senior scholars, and a young, dynamic cohort of junior scholars. Together, they are reframing the field to create a more effective interdisciplinary dialogue with scholars in other fields, while taking on a vibrant range of research projects that provide exciting new insights into the relationship of Jews and musical expression.

If someone wanted to know more about where the study of Jewish music is going, what would you recommend he/she read, or see, or listen to?

There are many wonderful works out there now. For a study of music in central European Jewish life, Philip Bohlman’s Jewish Music and Modernity offers a brilliant discussion both historically and theoretically. Edwin Seroussi and Motti Regev’s book Popular Music and National Culture in Israel offers fascinating insight into the development of Israeli popular music. Kay Shelemay’s Let Jasmine Rain Down provides a wonderfully nuanced exploration of music and memory among Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, New York. Mark Slobin’s Fiddler on the Move opens a key discussion of the new klezmer scene. Ellen Koskoff’s Music in Lubavitcher Life sheds important light onto the use of nigunim (sanctified melodies) within Chabad Lubavitch. And Jeffrey Summit’s The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land asks important questions about why people choose the melodies they choose in a synagogue setting. All these works portray music as intricately woven into the social, historical, and cultural fabric of Jewish lives; and Shelemay and Summit include listening examples with their studies. Within the last year or two, moreover, a new generation of Jewish music scholars have begun to add to this literature—so there is much more exciting work still to come.

Posted on August 3, 2009

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From the Academy: Art History

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Samantha Baskind is Associate Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. Her first book, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (2004), studies the life and works of a major American artist and considers how his work reflects his Jewish background. Baskind’s more recent publications include the Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists (2006), a pioneering reference work that presents short essays on 85 figures, and, co-edited with literary scholar Ranen Omer-Sherman, The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches (2008). Engaging fascinating artists in a range of media, Baskind’s scholarship grapples with the vexing questions of how works of art can be considered Jewish and what that Jewishness means.Baskindheadshot_1.jpg

Josh Lambert: What is “Jewish art”?

Samantha Baskind: Some scholars define any work of art by a Jew as Jewish art while others believe that the artwork must divulge something about the Jewish experience. But what is the Jewish experience? There are polymorphic Jewish experiences—both religious and cultural. Jewish art is far from monolithic in style, form, and subject because the Jewish experience is vast. Jewish history differs in each country or continent, not to mention that each generation has a different experience. And what of different levels of Jewish worship? There is no sole definition of Jewish art and over the years I have found many art historians reluctant even to try to discern one. In my classroom, an examination of the controversies around the question “What is Jewish art?” serves a valuable purpose in setting up the poles of artistic identity to be discussed.

In what ways does Jewish art require scholarly approaches that differ from those that would be brought to other traditions in art?

On the most basic level the discipline of art history attempts to discover how art influences and is influenced by cultural, religious, and sociopolitical events. This approach would not differ for the subject of Jewish art. However, it is important not to analogize the study of Jewish art to the study of Christian art. Christian art describes artistic endeavors from Carolingian manuscripts and Byzantine icons, to a French Gothic church like Chartres Cathedral, to famous paintings of the Italian Renaissance like Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. In other words, art made for Christian worship.

So if Christian art provides our model then Jewish art would mean all art made in the service of the synagogue. In actuality, what we think of as Jewish art encompasses a wide variety of subjects, including secular images, while Christian art is identified primarily by religious iconography. That is to say, comparing Judaism and Christianity can be slippery because of the Jewish people’s peculiar position as a religion and a culture.

What does Jewish art tell us about Jewish history?

Like art as a whole, Jewish art tells us about the past as well as the present. By examining why a work of art was made we can learn about religious practice or politics or sociological issues associated with a particular time and place. For example, by looking at a painting of Queen Esther done in the 1960s by a Jewish American female artist, we might learn about the Jewish position in the feminist movement. Understanding the artist’s attraction to the subject of Esther and her approach to it, or the patron’s motives and ideas, if there was a commission, as well as the public’s reaction to the canvas, reveals more about Jewish motivations to create than a mere retelling of the Bible story.

Are there particular challenges facing students of Jewish art?

In the United States, as opposed to Israel, the biggest challenge is finding a mentor and then an institution that offers a wide variety of classes in this subject. Jewish Studies programs might have one faculty appointment in Jewish culture, as opposed to multiple historians, and that slot might be in music, not even art. An art historian specializing in Jewish art would most likely be placed in an art history department and maybe teach one Jewish art class a year—designated as a specialized interest—while more frequently teaching basic classes like an art history survey spanning the Renaissance period to the present or 20th-century art.

How did you find yourself attracted to this field?

As an art history graduate student I discovered that, comparatively speaking, there was little scholarship on Jewish art and I recognized that lacuna as a great opportunity to make a contribution to both art history and Jewish Studies, one of the newer disciplines in the academy. As a Jew, there is a personal component, too, that compels me to study, teach, and write about a history and culture that is dear to me.

What do you see as the future of the field?

There are still many Jewish artists that need to be discovered. Also numerous well-known artists, who explored their Jewish identity but are better known for their non-Jewish work, require further attention. For instance, some of the greatest American photographers are of Jewish descent but how that background played out in their work has either not been explored, or only briefly discussed. I am thinking, for instance, of Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon, Weegee, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, and Arnold Newman, to name only some!

If someone wanted to know more about where Jewish Studies and art history are going, what would you recommend she read, or see?

Gabrielle Sed-Rajna’s Jewish Art is comprehensive but expensive. My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish Art and Culture, a slimmer volume by Edward Van Voolen, has good plates and discusses some major accomplishments, especially from the modern era. I am currently working on a coauthored project, with Larry Silver of the University of Pennsylvania, titled Modern/Jewish/Artists (forthcoming in 2011). It will provide a cultural setting for the artistic output of the Jews from the 19th century to the present in both an introductory and critical manner.

Posted on July 2, 2009

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From the Academy: Sephardic Studies

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The flourishing of Jewish Studies in American universities has been one of the crucial stories in Jewish culture since World War II. Ruth Wisse, a professor of modern Yiddish literature at Harvard University, recalls that when she was an undergraduate in the 1950s, only three professors in the United States held full-time appointments in Jewish Studies. Today the Association for Jewish Studies, the professional organization for scholars in this field, boasts a membership of about 1500 academics. In a major recent population survey, 41% of American Jewish college graduates reported that they had enrolled in at least one Jewish Studies course during their higher education, meaning that Jewish Studies reaches substantially more young Jews than day schools or yeshivas.

Along with this incredible growth of Jewish Studies have come changes and challenges, including the development of a dizzying range of research fields, methods, and specialties. In a typical Jewish Studies department, a medievalist who spends her days poring through Judeo-Arabic fragments from the Cairo genizah might sit on a curriculum committee with a sociologist who interviews Israeli army veterans and a philosopher who teaches courses on the Christian elements of Talmudic logic. What do Jewish Studies scholars hope to achieve, exactly, when they research and teach in American universities? In this series of short interviews, dynamic scholars explain their fields and explore what their academic endeavors and research agendas offer to Jews outside of the ivory tower.

Prof. Sarah SteinSarah Abrevaya Stein is Professor of History and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. Her first book, Making Jews Modern (2004), compares the developments and characteristics of the Yiddish and Ladino presses in the Russian and Ottoman empires. Her second, Plumes (2008), describes the boom and bust of the ostrich feather market between 1905 and 1914, when Jewish farmers and merchants in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas earned and lost fortunes catering to a contemporary fashion craze. Analyzing sources in a wide range of modern languages—from Russian and Yiddish to Ladino and Turkish—Stein’s prize-winning scholarship reveals the astonishingly international scope of modern Jewish experience.

What is Sephardic Studies?

The field of Jewish Studies has tended to emphasize European Jewry and the European Jewish experience. Sephardic Studies has emerged to cover areas of the Jewish world and pieces of Jewish history and culture and language that haven’t traditionally fit into the boundaries of Jewish Studies. It focuses on the cultures and histories of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jews in these regions and in the various diasporic centers they’ve formed through migration, including Jews who trace their routes back to medieval Spain but also Middle Eastern Jews who are an internally diverse population.

What drew you to this field?

My involvement has an institutional history as much as an intellectual and a personal one. I could answer that I have a mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazi background, but you need mentors to shape a field, to shape new scholarship. All across Jewish Studies there are a lot of students who aren’t being exposed to these topics. I was lucky enough to receive the necessary mentorship as a graduate student at Stanford, which has two Jewish historians who work on two very different parts of the Jewish world: Aron Rodrigue on the Sephardic side and Steven Zipperstein on the Eastern European and Ashkenazi side, more generally. Working with them, I became determined to write against the standard narrative that excluded Sephardic stories from the canon and from the perceived mainstream.

What sorts of questions do scholars of Sephardic Studies ask and answer?

When Jewish historians look at new regions and new cultures and begin to pay heed to the diversity of modern Jewish experiences, that diversity poses a challenge to the way in which we’ve mapped out Jewish history before. Integrating Sephardic and Mizrahi stories isn’t just about the addition of new voices, or new faces, or even new places—it’s also about learning to rewrite the master narrative.

So, for example, it challenges the arc of modern Jewish history, which has usually been written as a path, in the modern period, where the crucial stepping stones are emancipation and acculturation and integration and secularization and embourgeoisement. If you turn away from the European context, you realize that not all Jews in the modern period were going through these same paces, and yet of course, they were still modern and they were still Jews and they were still coming to terms with the new shape of the world.

What particular challenges face scholars and students of Sephardic Studies?

The challenges are manifold, actually. First of all, there are not many programs in which one can focus on the study of modern Jewries that include mentors with knowledge of the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern Jewish world and cultures. In many programs in which it is possible to do this work, students lack a circle of cohorts. And it’s really difficult to receive training in the necessary languages, including Ladino and Judeo-Arabic. These are not languages easily studied; there aren’t many resources available. You have to remember also that Sephardic communities were incredibly multilingual populations. So even before we talk about where one studies languages, it has to be said that people who go into this field tend to have to have both the privilege and the onerous obligation of studying many languages at once.

What do you see the field offering to Jews outside of the academy?

It’s a very exciting moment. The discipline of history is moving away from a traditional model in which historical research was rigidly divided along the lines of nations, and is much more hospitable to and interested in transnational topics, oceanic topics, diasporic topics. The history of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewries not only crosses the borders of empires and nation-states; it crosses the borders of the Mediterranean world, the European world, the Middle Eastern world, the Indian ocean, the Americas, as well as across largely Muslim and largely Christian contexts. Chronologically and geographically it has a very broad reach. It’s a very useful case study through which we can ask questions about the complexity of the modern world, in a way that people outside the field can really appreciate. It’s a richly evocative subject matter, I think, not only for academics outside of Jewish Studies, or outside of Sephardic Studies, but for interested, educated readers outside of the academy as well.

If someone wanted to learn more about Sephardic Studies, where would you recommend that they turn?

Forget Baghdad, a documentary, mixes memoiristic voices with scholarly voices to think about the very Jewish nature of Baghdad in the early 20th century and also the persistent identification by Jews from Baghdad with their place of origin. Emily Gottreich’s book about Jews in the city of Marrakesh, The Mellah of Marrakesh, is wonderfully accessible. Sephardi Jewry, by Aron Rodrigue and Esther Benbassa, is a highly detailed, incredibly comprehensive survey of Jewish culture and life in the Ottoman lands.

Posted on June 3, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy