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

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