The New Jewish Studies

Roundup: Talking About History

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....

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