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Conference Calls

A sampling of presentations from the 35th annual Association for Jewish Studies meeting

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Professors from across the country are gathering in Boston next week at the 35th annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies. Beyond job interviews and collegial elevator chats, the conference will feature hundreds of presentations and panel discussions on myriad Jewish topics, ancient and contemporary, prosaic and esoteric. Just as attendees will skim the compendious conference program to see which titles will entice them into a Back Bay ballroom, the Nextbook editors glanced at the enormous menu and called a handful of speakers ahead of time to learn a bit about what they plan to discuss, on behalf of those of us who can’t be in attendance.

American Jews and Marriage Counseling, 1920-1945
Jane Rothstein, doctoral student, New York University

In reaction to rising nationwide divorce rates at the turn of the 20th century, American sociologists and clergymen began educational efforts to keep marriage a healthy social institution. Rabbi Sidney Goldstein, hired in 1907 by Stephen Wise at the Free Synagogue, spearheaded this new initiative among Jews. For him, Jane Rothstein says, “the moral implications of marriage were more important than the religious ones. He pushed the point in the Reform movement, that rabbis need to be involved with counseling their congregants and the young people in the community about how to create a good marriage, which included economic issues and understanding sexuality.” For Goldstein, Rothstein says, marriage was “an institution that has social ramifications, both for American society and for the Jewish people. He was very much in favor of what he saw as a new development, that marriage is no long a patriarchal institution, but more of a democratic institution.”

“Based on a True Story”: Popular Imaginings among American Jews of Gender in Ultra-Orthodox Society
Nora Rubel, doctoral student in religious studies, UNC-Chapel Hill

I’m interested in the issues liberal Jews have. When I’m talking about liberal Jews, I mean Conservative Jews and even some modern Orthodox. Naomi Ragen has this formula: This beautiful young naive woman grows up in this religious community and is oppressed by her father, her husband, and her community, and ends up in the arms of a Jewish—but not haredi—man. She rejects the feminized Yeshiva identity and ends up with, like, a carpenter. It’s feminist, but also embracing more traditional values.

I’m only giving one real example in my talk: A Price Above Rubies. That’s Renee Zellweger. In A Price Above Rubies, her husband isn’t so bad, but she ends up having an affair with her husband’s brother, which is sort of abusive but also liberating, because he gets her a job. Ultimately she ends up having a relationship with this Puerto Rican jewelry clerk who’s also an artist.

I was really interested in convent tales of the 19th century. The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery takes place in Montreal. It’s an exposé: a young Protestant woman decides to enter a convent, they put her though this really weird initiation, the convent is really a brothel where they serve the priests. This came out in the 1830s and it was huge, the only book that outsold it was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Of course it was false; it was ghostwritten by this committee of Protestant men. So I was very interested in this idea of “this is a true story of what goes on behind this walls in this community.” We don’t like this group, so we’ll point to the way they treat women, and this is a nice way to attack the group.

Bi’ur Hametz and the Ancient Semitic Magic
David Bernat, professor of ancient Near Eastern history, the Bible, and early Judaism, Wellesley College

One year, when David Bernat was sweeping with a feather and candle in the traditional pre-Passover ritual of burning leavened foods, it struck him that the procedure, known as bi’ur hametz, was similar to the rituals that the ancient Babylonians, whom he was then studying, used to exorcise demons. “The nature of the ritual—taking representational hametz and burning it—reflects a popular conception of sympathetic magic,” he says. “What you say is very much like an incantation to get rid of evil,” This insight led to his current research. Nobody knows exactly when and how Jews began to perform bi’ur hametz, Bernat explains; the Bible does not offer instructions, and it’s thought to have become a standard practice during the Talmudic Period. “The sages that instituted the practice seem to have borrowed the form from incantations, and converted it into something totally different where the implications are not spiritual, they’re basically halachic. So, something that is magical now has solely legal purposes because you don’t actually believe that you’ve banished the hametz. In other words, it looks like an exorcism and acts like a contract.”

Confronting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the Jewish Studies Classroom
Jonathan Karp, assistant professor of history, SUNY-Binghamton

It’s not bad that we’re talking about all these other subjects, but this old-fashioned and more immediate problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations seems to have been pushed aside in this forum. I know Jewish studies and Jewish history academics talk about this privately all the time, but I wanted to break the silence that seems to prevail in public. I tried to think about how we could do this. The most straightforward way is to talk about the experience in the classroom.

We have a small department in Binghamton, and I teach a wide range of courses. My real area is 18th- and early-19th-century European Jewry. When I teach a modern Jewish history course, I touch on Zionism, but I don’t teach classes on Israel. Still, the issue comes up. It creates a strange dynamic, because you are torn between satisfying the desires of your students—and maybe your own desires—to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sense that it’s not germane.

It’s presumed that different people have different points of view on this issue. People fear that there’s destructive potential in bringing it out in the open. There’s also a desire to protect objectivity, and this issue is so fraught that it threatens to tear away the veneer or reality of scholarly disinterest and distance. The fact is, we as academics are under tremendous pressure from students on both sides—from organizations like Hillel, from the controversies on campus. Let’s think about what our responsibilities are. We won’t agree on what they are, but at least we can begin our discussion.

Every year there’s a hot spot brewing. I wish this were the burning issue, but I seriously doubt that it is. I’m not sure that the title itself will be provocative enough. Especially since it’s scheduled Sunday morning at 9:00, the first session, I don’t know how many people will show up.

Gefilte Fish and Beautiful Shoes: Soviet Jews Describe the Ideal Jewish Woman
Anna Shternshis, assistant professor of Yiddish and Yiddish literature, University of Toronto

“If you can’t go to synagogue, and you can’t observe kosher, yet you know that you’re a Jew, what makes you Jewish?” That’s the question Anna Shternshis set out to answer when she interviewed 300 Russian Jews born before 1921. In spite of the religious repression they experienced in the Soviet Union after 1917, Jews there maintained distinct notions of identity often based in stereotype rather than truth—Jewish women dress and cook well, the men don’t drink or beat their wives. Ethnic identity often emerged in discussions of courtship and family. “I asked them, ‘What makes a good Jewish wife?’ Or, ‘What makes a good wife?’ And some of them said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me if the woman I marry is Jewish or non-Jewish as long as she knows how to make gefilte fish, or as long as she knows how to speak Yiddish.’ The woman has to have a positive attitude to Jewish culture.”

“I wouldn’t mind marrying a non-Jew as long as she allows me to call my son Aaron,” one man told Shternshis. “That’s not a big deal in the West, but having a Jewish sounding name in Russia is a big deal,” she said, since having one could invite discrimination at work, in universities, and elsewhere. Faced with anti-Semitism, however, cooking offered an acceptable arena in which to excel. As another man said, “I had this boss at work. He was anti-Semitic, he would say, ‘You Jews have money. You Jews have gold.’ I invited him home and my wife cooked this beautiful meal and he said, ‘You Jews are wonderful people, you cook such a good meal.’” By the 1930s, the austerity of the Bolshevik revolution was replaced with a notion of “culturedness” which welcomed nice clothes, attractive shoes. Having those items meant being a “good person” and Jews, in their desire to get along in an essentially hostile environment, tried hard to exemplify those traits.

Jewish Identity at Work
Tobin Belzer, post-doctoral fellow, University of Southern California

Tobin Belzer might have called her talk “Jewish Communal Professionals,” but few of her 48 subjects choose to identify themselves that way, even though they work for synagogues, parochial schools, and Jewish communal agencies. Many of the young professionals Belzer interviewed told her that they chose their jobs to “marry their non-work life and their work life—to express their Jewish identities. But in many cases, because they spent all day around Jews, their Jewish practice suffered. By the time they got home they were like, ‘I don’t want to do Shabbat, I don’t want to see another Jew.’” Moreover, their jobs offered few advancement opportunities, and salary and maternity-leave policies often lagged behind mainstream employers. “There’s an assumption that it’s so meaningful, you’d want to spend 24/7 at your office and it would be okay because you’d have an a priori commitment to Jewish communal work.”

While an earlier generation saw the keystone of its identity in formal membership in a synagogue or a group like Hadassah. Belzer’s subjects, aged 24 to 38, “defined themselves in opposition to Jewish community culture—they described themselves as out of it, as something they didn’t belong to. It was white, it was parochial. They’re Gen X-ers, they see themselves as having multiple identities. Informal networks of Jewish geography really made up their feeling of belonging.” For many of these professionals, working for a Jewish organization carried a stigma. “It’s becoming cool to be a young Jew, but it’s still not cool to be a young Jewish professional.”

Lekhu ve-nelekhah (Come Ye and Let Us Walk): The Jewish Students of Kazimir Malevich
Anna Wexler Katsnelson, doctoral student in art history and Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

My dissertation is on Malevich. This is a side interest, because I saw an exhibition organized by the State Russian Museum, In Malevich’s Circle, and was amazed by the list of all these Jewish names. Not to say that the Russian avant-garde didn’t have Jewish participants, but this is a happy geographical coincidence.

During the 1920s, Malevich was a teacher at the art school founded by Marc Chagall in the town of Vitebsk, which had a disproportionately Jewish population. Most of his students were naturally Jewish. He basically inherits the students from Chagall. Malevich swoops in and takes over, this looming figure of a messiah-type artist who gives them an internationalist view. There’s a good amount of mysticism in his art and writing, and this Oedipal relationship with a very strong teacher who subsumes the identity of his students to such a degree that there’s nothing Jewish left except their names.

Lev Yudin—he’s the focus of my talk—exemplifies the tragedy of Soviet Jewry. He comes from a very assimilated family. He enters the school as a young boy. For a while he is completely subsumed by Malevich’s teaching and has a hard time finding his own voice. He follows Malevich to Petrograd, and moves into the field of children’s book illustration, which was an avenue for artists under Socialist Realism. He enlisted and he died somewhere on the front during World War II.

Can I tell you that there’s anything Jewish in his work? Not that I can find. But there is lots of archival material that I wasn’t able to get my hands on. Lev Yudin’s diary wasn’t published, it’s in the State Russian Museum. I haven’t got all of it. Once I do I hope to find something more.

Money in Jewish Eyes: Object of Desire or Derision?
Derek Penslar, professor of Jewish history, University of Toronto

“Over the long term of European history, a very small number of extremely talented and ambitious Jews have been able to exert economic power. But in the end, economic power didn’t do much good because political power will always trump economic power,” says Derek Penslar in discussing the fall of Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, both of whom come from partly Jewish backgrounds. For Penslar, understanding Jewish history requires examining the relationship between Jews and money. For example, Jewish contributions to charity, always high, have expanded profoundly in the past century as levels of affluence have risen but also as the targets of giving have expanded to include non-Jewish causes—perhaps as donors sought to gain prestige in the eyes of non-Jews. Even before the 20th century, Jewish giving changed in form as Jews began to target specific institutions, signaling “the transformation from charity to philanthropy: You want it to go to a specific purpose and you want to see the results of your giving. It means that the whole nature of Jewish philanthropy changes.” When Jews are economically distinct, says Penslar, they retain a strong identity. The challenge now, he adds, is to retain that strong identity when they no longer are the economic pioneers they once were.

Mothers’ Dreams, Daughters’ Choices: Envisioning Mothers of Ba’alot Teshuvah and their Daughters
Roberta Sands, professor of social work, University of Pennsylvania

Roberta Sands follows mothers and their grown daughters who have become more religiously observant—ba’alot teshuvah—in Israel, Holland, and the United States. The component of her work that she is presenting at AJS discusses her findings from interviews with 17 mother-daughter pairs who live in the United States to find out what mothers expect for their daughters, and what daughters expect for their own children. “The central theme for the mothers was that their daughters be happy, fulfilled, and successful,” says Sands, “and the essential theme for the daughters was they wanted their children to have Torah values, that they be God-fearing and observe the mitzvot, engage in Jewish learning, and observe Halacha.” Often fundamental values differed, though there were ideas in common. “Mothers wanted their kids to got to college and have professions, careers, be successful, be doctors, lawyers, judges, et cetera. Some of the daughters said they hope their kids go to college and have a profession, but it was nuanced differently. They didn’t want them to go to a coed college, they viewed college as a means to a practical goal—earning a living—and it wasn’t really liberal-artsy. They didn’t want them to be exposed to anything they didn’t have to be exposed to—and they were concerned about what they would be exposed to on the campus.” Among the mothers, “maybe one or two said they hoped they’d marry a Jewish man. But in terms of Jewish involvement, they thought, well, if anything, be a nominal member of a Reform synagogue, but it’s not a big factor.”

The “Normal” Mysticism of Jewish Meal Rituals
Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, professor of religion at Wheaton College

“There are certain kinds of religious experiences you can have through eating rituals,” says Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, whose paper examines several mystical components of eating, including the Hillel sandwich from the Passover Seder. By putting bitter herbs on matzo, “you have in a single ritual experience things that if left alone as ideas are dissonant. You can’t be exiled and redeemed at the same time. But when you eat the Hillel sandwich, you’re actually physically combining both sides of that experience. You make a unity, an intuitive awareness of a unity of things that go together.” 19th-century Hasidic thought, which comes long after Hillel, plays up this idea of a temporary gustatory harmony between exile and redemption.

Brumberg-Kraus also looks at the Shulhan shel Arba, a manual on eating by Spanish medieval kabbalist Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, who advised holding Torah discussion at meals in order to infuse a sense of the Divine Presence. “He’s really concerned about mind-body dualism—real eating is eating for the soul—and then there’s physical eating to make our bodies healthy.” Ben Asher also discusses the importance of prayers before and after meals to distinguish ourselves from animals.

Piracy, Politics, and Product Placement: Hasidic Book and Magazine Publishing Today
Zachary M. Baker, curator of Judaica and Hebraica collections, Stanford University Library

About a year ago, a two-volume children’s edition of the Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of the Fathers—appeared in large type, with drawings that are clearly for the student, mainly the elementary school market. The cover of this two-volume set knocked my socks off, because it included a picture of four or five boys, you see they are Hasidic boys because of their peyes, and what’s on the table? It’s not your typical Roman Vishniac image; there are candy bars. The candy bars are Elite chocolate from Israel, which probably contributed a little bit to the publication of this book. This is my surmise, none of this is fieldwork.

The talk I will be giving really focuses on advertisements. What one finds now is a range of products, and the presentation in full color, not only of the kind of services that are intrinsic to a Hasidic community, like services for where you can buy your streiml and trousseau. But also this guy will lease you a car, and this fellow will mow your lawn or prune your trees. In Der Shtern, there’s a cover story about the history and achievements of the Coca-Cola company. They tell you in Yiddish, even about the Classic Coke/New Coke affair. It doesn’t say this feature is brought to you by the Coca-Cola Company, but my hunch is that an enterprising distributor got in touch and said, ‘Will you run this picture?’

When I was telling all this to a colleague at the Library of Congress, he said, ‘What’s the big deal? Seventy-five, one hundred years ago, Yiddish newspapers were running ads for Crisco and Uneeda biscuits.’ But these are not publications being read by immigrants. The editors are not publishing with an agenda of Americanization. Their motives are to use Yiddish to make as much information available so readers won’t be tempted to read in English. A feature in Yiddish about the do-not-call registry fascinated me: they have telephones, people bug them, and they need to get this information about their readers. The material world of the early 21st century is something that even this community of bearded, be-streimled elders can’t avoid—and aren’t even trying. But what they are resisting is Anglicization.

The Rise of the Ladino Theater in the Ottoman Empire
Olga Borovaya, professor of cultural studies, Russian State University for the Humanities

Unlike the Yiddish theater, which grew out of folk entertainment, the Ladino theater was an invention of French emissaries who thought they could enlighten Sephardic Jews considered “backward, uneducated, and mainly uncivilized,” says Olga Borovaya. To combat this perception, they imported French plays and translated them into Ladino “to educate, which explains why it was so didactic. They were very concerned about the morals of the Sephardim, so they would rewrite Molière. Those plays were very funny, but they also had a moral message—don’t be avaricious, don’t be dumb.” As the Colonial era drew to a close and the Young Turk revolution lifted a ban on discussions of Zionism, Biblical texts were transformed into plays in which, for example, “they talk and talk and at the end they sing “Hatikva”. There would be plays where they would say, ‘Sephardim don’t know about their heritage and they know about French novels. Now they have to learn about Zionism and Palestine.’ The point is always to say, ‘Don’t pretend to be a French Jew, be a Sephardic Jew.’”

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Conference Calls

A sampling of presentations from the 35th annual Association for Jewish Studies meeting

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