The Lost Tribe

PHILADELPHIA -- The Modern Language Association is famous for the provocative titles of sessions at its annual meeting. But the provocative title of one session Sunday night -- so surprising to several MLA members that they expressed disbelief when told about it -- contained no sexual wordplay or trendy literary buzzwords. The title: Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?

December 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- The Modern Language Association is famous for the provocative titles of sessions at its annual meeting. But the provocative title of one session Sunday night -- so surprising to several MLA members that they expressed disbelief when told about it -- contained no sexual wordplay or trendy literary buzzwords. The title: Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?

One reason the question is such a surprise is that there is no apparent shortage of Jews among those who study or teach literature. But the problem defined and debated here wasn't about Jews as students or professors, but about experts in teaching Jewish literature (a group by no means limited to Jews).

The underlying premise of the panel was that English departments that would never allow themselves to be without experts in the literatures of many racial and ethnic groups in the United States don't think twice about failing to have a knowledge base in American Jewish literature. Further, the view of many here is that discussions about multicultural literature that ought to include Jewish writers simply don't.

Joshua Lambert, an assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, kicked off the discussion with an analysis of the top 20 English departments (as judged by U.S. News & World Report, a source that he acknowledged was flawed, but that he used to get a group of programs at highly regarded universities). He found that at these departments, every one has at least two and typically more specialists in African-American literature. All but two have at least one scholar focused on Asian-American literature. All but five have a Latino literature expert. All but 9 have an expert in Native American literature on the faculty.

Only two of the institutions have a tenure-track faculty member whose area of expertise is American Jewish literature, he said. (The University of Michigan, where Lambert earned his doctorate, is so ahead of the pack, with seven, that someone later referred to it with admiration as a shtetl.) Five other universities had at least someone with interest (as stated on departmental listings of faculty expertise) in Jewish studies, but Lambert said none of them have published on American Jewish literature or can read Yiddish. Six of the departments have experts in Holocaust literature and here, Lambert did not dispute the expertise.

But he did question why that one literature should be so much more present -- in literature departments in the United States -- than American Jewish fiction and culture. It is "fascinating and unfortunate ... that the genocide of Jews can seem more worthy of attention than the culture of Jews themselves," he said.

Looking at courses at these top 20 universities, he found 12 of them have offered courses on American Jewish literature, but only 4 have been taught by tenure-track professors (and one of those was last taught in 2001).

As another illustration of why Jewish literature is not necessarily valued (at least as Jewish), Lambert read this text from the Web site of one of the universities: The American literature faculty, the department boasted, "represent the full scope of ethnic American literatures: African American, Asian American, Caribbean, Chicana/o, Latina/o, Native American." Lambert said it was striking to see a department define "the full scope" in that way.

Lambert was quick to note that he was not alleging anti-Semitism or a mass "marginalization" of Jewish scholars. But he said it was clear that while Jewish literature is taught, it is "not a hiring priority" and "not considered a research specialty" that matters to many departments.

Defining Jewish literature, several panelists said, is itself a challenge. Does it include Proust (for his mother)? Does it include Joyce (for the extensive Jewish themed content of Ulysses)? While classics in the field might include The Rise of David Levinsky, Call It Sleep and the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, several speakers here stressed that the canon is much more diverse than people might imagine. Several here noted that Mona in the Promised Land, one of the novels of Gish Jen -- who is very much part of the Asian American literary canon -- deals with Jewish themes in challenging, sophisticated ways. And they said it belonged in courses about Jewish American literature.

So with this evolving literary material, why aren't English departments more interested?

Several of the speakers said that both faculty and student attitudes are influenced -- unreasonably, they argued -- by the Middle East. Rachel Rubinstein, assistant professor of American literature and Jewish studies at Hampshire College and the author of Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press), said that students view Jewish issues as being solely about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, a subject that has become "fetishized." Meanwhile, she said, “Jewishness has been associated with Israel, white privilege, colonialism and racism."

Jonathan Freedman, professor of English and American studies at Michigan, and author of The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America (Oxford University Press), said that he has seen a correlation between the reception that work on Jewish literature receives at times that the peace process in the Middle East has shown progress ("it's OK then") vs. when the situation worsens ("it wasn't OK"). The significance of this shift in attitude, several noted, was that the work in question was about American Jewish literature, not Israeli foreign policy.

Freedman also noted the impact of "critical whiteness studies," which became influential in the '90s and remains so today. By the standard black-white dichotomy that dominates American racial discussion, most Jews are white (although no one briefed Gish Jen to think only that way). Freedman said he didn't contest that most Jews, in a black-white divide, identify as white. But said he objected to the way whiteness studies has been used to limit literary discussion of Jews as distinct from other white ethnic groups.

In many discussions he's had with other scholars, when he raises Jewish issues, Freedman said, "they will say, 'Yes, that’s interesting but after all, Jews are white, end of story.' I would say that’s the beginning of the story."

Several panelists noted that one motivation of departments for offering multicultural literature courses is specific outreach to groups that are underrepresented in higher education -- a list that wouldn't include Jews.

Warren Hoffman described the reactions he received to one of the first courses he taught in multicultural literature at the City University of New York's Hunter College. He included Jewish works, which surprised some students. He said he came to believe that what his department wanted wasn't multicultural literature but "a class about diversity, and by that they meant people of color."

In some respects, Hoffman said he understood. There are only so many slots in a syllabus for a single course, he said, and while Jews may "remain a minority," it's hard to say if they should fight for Jewish authors or recognize that Jews are not suffering the same "truly marginal status of people of color."

But Hoffman, now at Temple University and author of The Passing Game: Queering American Jewish Culture (Syracuse University Press), said that there is a flip side, too, that needs consideration. "Are we here for aesthetic inquiry or are we really here for How to Love Your Neighbor 101?"

While several panelists noted that Jewish Americans are in many ways in a more advantaged position than are other ethnic groups, some said that there are changing dynamics that may call for more attention to the American Jewish experience. Martha Cutter, associate professor of English and African American studies at the University of Connecticut, said that she's been teaching multicultural literature for more than 20 years at various universities. Only once, she said, has she taught a course on Jewish American literature, and that was at the request of a Jewish studies director.

"I routinely teach classes on African American literature," she said. "I believe both white and black students need to learn about black life and the ongoing trauma of racism." But why, she asked, shouldn't the same be said of Jewish students learning of the traumas of their experiences? There is a sense that American Jews "have found their place" in American society, she said. But with assimilation posing a threat to Jewish identity that could have more of an impact than pogroms, is is fair to consider Jews really in a safe place? she asked.

The Jewish Role

And what about Jewish leaders themselves? Have they contributed to the "Jewish problem" in English departments?

Benjamin Schreier, the Malvin and Lea Bank Assistant Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University, thinks that is the case. He is currently working on a project called, "The Impossible Jew: The Evasion of Jewish American Literary History." Schreier noted that many scholars of Jewish issues -- himself included -- have positions that were created by Jewish philanthropists. This differs from many other ethnic studies programs, created with foundation support or direct college investments, he noted.

Some of the "institutional history of isolation" of Jewish studies from other fields has to do with the fact that the sources of funding have agendas (although he did not say that Jewish studies scholars have these agendas). He said that he was playing with the title of the session and wondered whether it should be "does Jewish studies have a criticism problem?" Several audience members took issue with him, suggesting that Jewish studies does look critically at many issues. But Schreier said that there are taboo subjects for some -- such as the value of Jewish identity, and, in some cases, "alignment with expansive Zionism" -- that contribute to the separation of Jewish studies from other ethnic studies fields in the academy.

The audience included an American Jewish novelist, who also offered a critique. Sarah Schulman, who writes about gay and lesbian issues, said that "the question of homophobia in Jewish culture is enormous." She said that the Jewish content of her writing is "no obstacle to being included in gay and lesbian studies courses," but she said that the gay and lesbian content appears to limit use in Jewish literature courses. (Some suggested a Tony Kushner exemption may exist.)

In the question and answer period and in discussion after the session -- which was packed -- audience members stressed how important they see these issues. One woman spoke of teaching Jewish literature in a part of the country with few Jews or knowledge about Jews. She said she was specifically trying to get her university's teacher training programs to look beyond the Holocaust when teaching about Jews.

Right now, she said, teachers coming through the program are likely to only know how to teach The Diary of a Young Girl, with little ability to move past Anne Frank. The scholar, currently doing research about Larry David, compared the situation to teaching black culture only through slave narratives, ignoring the rest of the African American experience.

Others noted that many contemporary Jewish novelists -- Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman as two examples -- don't get the attention they deserve because courses are so limited that newer writers don't make the list. Lambert said that this directly relates to departments having decided that Jewish literature doesn't merit much attention. In that environment, courses will be infrequent enough that professors will stick with the classics.

Two audience members -- in Slavic studies and in German studies -- said after the session that their fields are an interesting counterpoint to English. In those disciplines (and some suggested, in French studies as well), interest in Jewish themes is on the rise, and is being embraced by the disciplines. In those fields, the relative status of Jews isn't compared to that of other American ethnic groups, and the ethnic politics of the United States don't come into play.

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