The New Jewish Studies

Scholars from growing, changing field gather to consider what's hot, how to study Israel, and how they fit into multiculturalism.
December 21, 2005

When a group of graduate students and young professors gathered for a workshop on "pushing the boundaries" of Jewish studies Monday, they broke up into small groups to consider some questions. One of them was: "How would you describe your work without using the words 'Jew,' 'Jewish,' or 'Judaism?'"

That's not the kind of question that would have been asked at a Jewish studies meeting a decade ago. But even if this session was not entirely typical of those at this year's annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, held this week in Washington, it reflects the reality that this discipline is experiencing significant growth -- in numbers and in focus.

About 1,000 scholars were present -- hundreds more than were coming a few years ago. And while many attendees, like those in the past, are parts of a small Jewish studies contingent in a religious studies or history department or a Jewish literature expert in comp lit, a growing number are members of full-fledged programs. The association of program directors of Jewish studies, founded a decade ago with 6 members, now has 90 (and at a gathering, many talk with pride of new endowments reflected in the program names).

The Jewish studies meeting isn't just bigger than it used to be, it's more diverse. Scholars from the United States dominate, with a large contingent from Israel, but there are many European scholars as well. The meeting has a decidedly Jewish feel -- a visible minority of men wear kippot and at the Washington Hilton's breakfast buffet in the conference area, the fruit sells quickly but the large tray of bacon and sausage is untouched. But Jewish studies these days isn't just for Jews.

At the directors' meeting, people talk about creating Jewish studies programs at Roman Catholic colleges. In sessions on teaching, people talk about issues related to reaching students who are taking Jewish studies to study their own roots as well as those who want to study a people seen as "exotic." Greg Schmidt Goering, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that his top challenge teaching Hebrew Bible classes is getting his students -- most of them evangelical Christians -- not to read the Old Testament only through a Christian perspective.

To be sure, there are plenty of sessions on traditional topics in Jewish history, religious life, and literature. Topics that have attracted scholars for some time, like Holocaust studies, show no sign of losing attention. But as one participant noted, Madonna "sort of hovered" in one discussion on Kabbalah and whether its Hollywood version is "garbage." That Madonna would hover in any way at this meeting suggests a new Jewish studies.

"There's been a real change of culture," said Sara Horowitz, program chair for the meeting and director of Jewish studies at York University in Canada. She notes numerous sessions on issues of gender, for example, as well as sessions on topics that were largely ignored at previous meetings.

For example, art and art history have never had much of a presence, she says. Jewish history is filled with migration, she noted, "so there wasn't a lot of time for big buildings with frescoes," and Jews were seen as focused on texts. But art -- and more broadly, imagery -- are being widely discussed now. Papers discussed analysis of Rothko's Chapel or the work of the painter R.B. Kitaj. One paper presented this week was called "Rebbe Without a Pose: Studies in Authorized and Unauthorized Imagery of the Lubavitcher Rebbe."

Brigitte Sion, a graduate student in performance studies at New York University, is here for sessions on Holocaust memorials. Her research compares the new Holocaust Memorial in Berlin to a memorial to "the disappeared" in Argentina. "I'm looking at memorials as a social space, as a political legacy, as a playground, a tourist attraction -- at why the memorial part is almost a footnote at the memorials," Sion said.

Other Jewish studies subjects are not truly new, but have been revived and changed. Harriet Murav, director of Slavic studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that study of Yiddish is growing for a variety of reasons. The National Yiddish Book Center has made more materials available. The fall of the Soviet Union opened up libraries and freed Yiddish speakers and scholars there to start publishing. Throw in new approaches from the literary world, and a range of scholarship is now possible. Murav, for example, is currently exploring masculinity and the body in Yiddish literature in the 1920s Soviet Union.

Yiddish was the language of European Jews, but several scholars noted a growth in studies of Sephardic Jews -- those exiled from Spain who ended up in the Middle East and North Africa. And there were more sessions on the intersections of Jewish culture and languages besides Yiddish and Hebrew. One panel, for example, examined the role of Jewish images in Francophone literature in North Africa.

One country that raises some surprisingly difficult questions for Jewish studies scholars is Israel. A growing number of colleges have been creating Israel studies programs or endowed chairs or visiting professorships in recent years. In part, this move reflects interest in the country, but in other cases, it is part of an explicit strategy of trying to "balance" scholarship in Middle Eastern studies programs that is perceived by many supporters of Israel as being hostile to Israel.

In a discussion with other program directors, Hayim Lapin, director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that there are sound reasons to create Israel studies programs. "Many of us inherited syllabi that ended in 1948," the year Israel was founded, Lapin said. And there is no doubt, he added, that there are donors who right now want to support such programs.

But these donors' agendas can be problematic. "There is a segment of the donor community that views the universities as the enemy [of Israel]," Lapin said. These prospective donors want Israel studies to promote the "heroic" view of Israel, and Lapin said he fears that they overestimate the impact of hiring a given scholar, not to mention the appropriateness of seeking out scholars for having a particular view.

"You can't solve the problems at Berkeley or Columbia by hiring the right person at Maryland," he said.

At the discussion, one program director described the unintended consquences of such a program. At his university, donors paid for a visiting professorship to bring in a professor from Israel, apparently assuming that the people selected would defend the policies of the Israeli government. As this program director explained, anyone who knows much about Israeli academe knows that professors there tend to be harshly critical of their government and to think that Israel needs to be much more open to compromises with the Palestinians. When such professors end up at his campus, and are called for comment by local reporters trying to write about the Middle East, they end up criticizing Israel's government -- and disappointing the donors who created the program.

Despite such difficulties, many at the conference applauded the push for adding professors' slots and course content on Israel. A big challenge several cite is teaching "beyond the conflict" so that Israel is studied for more than just wars and the disputes with Palestinians. Studying Israeli society, literature and culture, several suggest, has numerous advantages: These topics have been overlooked, and these are also topics that can be talked about without immediately generating a debate over Ariel Sharon.

A different sort of conflict faces many young scholars in the field, as was evidenced at the session organized about "pushing the boundaries." When asked the question about describing their work without using "Jewish" or its variations, the scholars didn't have any problem. Their work is about identity, about minority culture, about intersections between various groups and cultures.

But while the participants at the meeting had no difficulty placing their work within those larger categories -- all topics that attract considerable scholarly attention -- many said that they aren't quite sure if their work is viewed by ethnic studies colleagues as an appropriate part of multicultural scholarship. Because Jews are seen as white and economically successful (assumptions that some scholars were quick to note aren't 100 percent accurate), they aren't seen as multicultural and work on Jews isn't necessarily seen as being multicultural.

While stressing that there are many exceptions, professors at the session talked about experiences like having their courses require scrutiny before being approved as meeting a multicultural requirement (while courses in other ethnic or racial fields are presumed to qualify), or about resentments that other ethnic or gender studies scholars have about Jewish studies. Several people noted, while asking not to be identified, that the fund raising success of Jewish studies in recent years is one source of the resentment, as relatively new Jewish studies programs may have endowments that dwarf those of older programs in other fields.

One of the organizers of the session of younger scholars was Josh Perelman, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and a historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Perelman says that the discussion here is an outgrowth of a series of meetings -- called "At Home in Academia?" -- organized by the American Jewish Historical Society. The meetings -- one held in New York City this year, one coming up in Los Angeles next month, and more planned -- are designed to bring together scholars of a variety of faiths for discussions of "how different religious, racial and ethnic communities negotiate their relationship to American society."

Perelman sees these sessions, together with the discussion at the Jewish studies meeting, as a way to bring Jewish studies scholars and ethnic studies scholars into more regular and healthy interaction. "It can't just be that we're the Jews learning from the others or we're teaching them about Jews," he said. He says that the group is looking for ultimately is "a dialogue among human beings."

Mia Bruch, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University and another organizer of the session this week, said that there has been "a collective sense of frustration" among younger scholars about the issues they discussed and how to engage both Jewish studies and ethnic studies professors in working on them.

Bruch's research is on religious pluralism in the United States during World War II and the Cold War and is yet another of the topics discussed here that have a clear Jewish component, but that logically extend beyond Jewish studies into other fields as well. Bruch said she was pleased to see so many young scholars dealing in their own way with such topics and anxious to continue the discussion -- indeed there was brainstorming at the meeting about creating listservs and sponsoring sessions at future Jewish studies meetings.

Ultimately, Bruch said, the discussion of where Jewish studies fits into multiculturalism also has the effect of raising an issue central to Jewish studies: "This all begs the question: What kind of difference is Jewishness?"


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