Scholars and students are in Chicago this weekend for the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies. On the agenda are hundreds of panels and presentations on a dizzying array of subjects that straddle disciplines, continents, and eras. We skimmed the robust conference program for enticing titles and then asked a selection of speakers about the topics closest to their hearts.

Jewish Life in Autotown
Nora Faires, associate professor of history, Western Michigan University

Art Hurand in the Buttercup Bakery from “The Position of Jews in America Today,” Look (courtesy of Sloan Museum)

In 1955, William Atwood, the national affairs editor of Look magazine, came to Flint, Michigan, to do part of a national study on the position of Jews in America. He focuses on one particular family, the Hurands. It’s a cursory, clinical, condescending, outsider view of the community—eight pictures and little captions.

Jewish Life in Autotown is the name of an exhibit at the Sloan Museum in Flint, and a forthcoming book co-written by Nancy Hanflik. The centerpiece is Art Hurand, and we begin the book and the exhibit by contrasting him with the author of the Look article. They were both captains during World War II. Art Hurand had volunteered before Pearl Harbor. He was at Dachau and came back a committed Zionist. I think that Atwood—this admittedly gentile writer—and many social observers outside the Jewish community in the 1950s did not appreciate the impact that the Holocaust had on the emergence of Jewish life in the postwar period.

Flint 50 years ago was the poster town for American capitalist triumph. By the time the Look article comes out, Art Hurand is running the Buttercup Bakeries, although he trained as a lawyer before World War II. Some Jewish businesses took the names of their founders, and others specifically bought into names that would have broader cachet. One of the most successful store owners names his chain Yankee Stores, and he adopts the New York Yankees hat.

Got Soul?: Rabbinic Conceptions of the Fetus (and Gender)
Gywnn Kessler, assistant professor of religion, University of Florida

From A sett of anatomical tables, with explanations, and an abridgment, of the practice of midwifery, by William Smellie (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

In rabbinic literature, there’s consensus that the fetus has a soul, put into the embryo by God. There’s more disagreement imagining how a woman gets pregnant. In Greco-Roman academic circles, we refer to the one-seed theory, where the father’s semen is responsible for the creation of embryo, and the two-seed theory, where the father and mother both contribute. Most people have said that the rabbis maintained this two-seed theory, but it turns out that they more often tended toward one-seed.

When we focus on one-seed/two-seed, we miss the obvious point: that God’s creating these embryos. There’s one midrash from the fifth century where a woman is having sex with a man who’s not her husband. And God is considering whether to change the embryo’s facial features to look like the adulterer rather than the husband. God scatters or sifts through the semen to find the finest part. So God is not only responsible for conception but then you have God nurture and sustain the fetus, not only displacing the human mother, but replacing the father in his traditional role as creator.

The rabbis write about the fetus in an imaginative way—it prays to God, it sings to God on the parting of the Red Sea. Certain famous fetuses kick to get out of the womb when their mother passes by a beit midrash. In contrast, bad fetuses may be more taken with houses of idolatry.

The Marginalized Mainstream: Larry Gelbart’s Comedy
Jay Malarcher, assistant professor of theater, West Virginia University

Alan Alda as Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

Larry Gelbart didn’t come from a very literary family—the two books in his house were the Passover Haggadah and the Racing Form. But because his father was a barber, he always heard jokes. His mother had a very caustic, quick wit, coming from a shtetl. Between these two parents and the need to take on English as a second language, he was very attuned to language from an early age and what you could do for a joke or a twist on an old cliché.

Larry has been working since the golden age of radio, but when I first corresponded with him in 1992, there was nothing about his career. He writes mainstream characters who are purveying this Jewish sensibility and helping to make it mainstream. Take the first four seasons of M*A*S*H, which Larry created. Even though Hawkeye Pierce was gentile, his way of dealing with situations was with a Jewish sensibility. There’s a great musical Larry wrote, City of Angels, set in Hollywood, about a successful writer named Stine who’s written a detective novel about a hero named Stone. It’s sort of the dual identity he has to possess as a writer.

Woody Allen looks at the country and says, “This is who I am, and I hope you can see yourself.” Larry looks at the country and says, “This is what you need.”

The Urjuza in Hebrew: Medieval Hebrew Medical Poetry
Maud Kozodoy, adjunct instructor of Jewish philosophy, The Jewish Theological Seminary

Arabic Urjuzah on Diseases of the Eyelid, attributed to Ibn Sina (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Medical poetry started out in the pre-written period, when they were transmitting pharmacological texts orally—it’s far better in verse because it’s easier to remember. Within the Arabic tradition, it grew out of a courtly culture as a way of showing off both the skill of the physician and the cultural richness of the court.

The poems I’m looking at come from the 12th and 13th centuries. Individual Jews have left Muslim Spain for Christian Spain and their patrons no longer speak Arabic. Now they’re pitching their information for a lay Jewish reader, so they tend to use biblical language as a way of making the material more familiar and more pleasant. They cast their poems in terms of praising God’s creation, the human body, and allowing you to be a good Jew: to keep yourself healthy and control your bodily urges so as to perfect your physical and intellectual faculties, your soul. If you’re sick, you can’t perform the mitzvot or acquire knowledge of God. This is their smokescreen, but they really have a more didactic purpose.

One of the poems in my talk is by Shem Tov ibn Falaquera, who clearly considered himself more of a littérateur than a physician. The poem is a versification of a treatise by Maimonides, but doesn’t follow it slavishly. The rhymed couplets were clearly a holdover from the Arabic.

Are You There God? Judaism in the Adolescent Fiction of Judy Blume
Joellyn Wallen Zollman, lecturer in history, San Diego State University

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret happens to be the eighth-best-selling children’s book of all time. The idea of God as confidant comes from Blume’s own experience—she was raised within organized Judaism—but Margaret is trying to form her own spiritual sustenance. She speaks to God as a vehicle to express her discomfort with the intermarriage of her parents. In the suburbs, everyone in her class identifies with either the Jewish Community Center or the church youth group. Margaret’s parents make a choice to raise her with no religion. How does she fit in?

Blume doesn’t condemn intermarriage, but she certainly portrays it as something that causes a lot of stress in Margaret’s life. It’s this choice—the idea of having nothing, no religion—that Blume is subtly critical of.

Blume gives voice to both sides through Margaret’s grandparents. But while the Jewish grandmother is portrayed in a more positive light, the Christian grandparents are portrayed as stubborn, critical, very unaccepting. And there’s a certain Jewishness about Margaret’s relationship with God—speaking directly to God, arguing with God, getting mad at God. You don’t think of many contemporary Jews having that personal relationship.

Orthodox By Design: On ArtScroll and Its Audiences
Jeremy Stolow, assistant professor of sociology and communication studies, McMaster University

ArtScroll was founded in the late 1970s and has grown into one of the largest English-language Judaica publishing houses in the world. They’ve also generated a lot of controversy among the non-Orthodox, because their aim is to replace what they regard as inadequate or illegitimate representations of Jewish knowledge with new, more accessible translations. There’s already a fair bit of scholarship on ArtScroll’s commentary and translation, and most is disparaging, but none explains why ArtScroll books are so popular.

I’ve done field studies in London, Toronto, and New York on the spread and reception of ArtScroll books. What comes up over and over is that explicit instructions in the siddur—when to stand, when to sit, how to read particular passages—are very attractive to people because they dispel confusion. People say it’s basically like Praying for Dummies.

The editors couch their project in terms of renewal and the authentic representation of tradition. But in practice, their books are part of a much larger transformation of Jewish ritual life. Traditionally, understanding was not necessarily a prerequisite for performance. Now, you have a readership that doesn’t want simply to follow tradition. It wants an explicit textual source and explanation. More recent initiatives in the Conservative and Reform movements to introduce new prayer books are in reaction to ArtScroll’s success.

Modes of Enlightenment: Jewish Writers in Egypt and Iraq, 1870-1950 Lital Levy, doctoral student in comparative literature, University of California at Berkeley

David Semah was an Iraqi Jew, a poet born around the turn of the century, who had a yeshiva upbringing and also a secular education. I’m looking at the poem Semah wrote to Chaim Bialik in 1933, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Although it appears on the surface just to be an ode, it draws on a lot of allusions from medieval Hebrew poetry, which was really just an adaptation of Arabic poetry. It’s a meeting point for all of these historical moments.

Esther Moyal, born in Beirut in 1865, founded The Family, the first newspaper in Egypt for women readers, which ran from 1899 to 1905. It’s about family issues, a lot of world affairs. Later, she moved with her husband back to Palestine and founded another newspaper there. She translated 10 or 12 novels from French into Arabic and wrote a biography of Émile Zola in Arabic in 1903.

When you study modern Jewish culture, the whole narrative is about European Jews, and it didn’t make sense that there was no history of the rest of the world’s Jews. It’s a chapter of history that hasn’t been preserved and brought into the Jewish experience.

A Contradiction in Terms? Jews and Biblical Theology
Carl Ehrlich, associate professor of humanities, York University

I think it was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said, “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]…but I know it when I see it.” The same is more or less true of biblical theology. It’s a discipline that seems to combine elements of a critical, modern, historical-literary approach to the Hebrew Bible with the history of the religion of ancient Israel. But it asks the additional question that a secular biblical scholar would not ask—not simply “What did the text mean when it was written?” but “What does the text mean today?” It crosses the boundaries of secular knowledge and theological speculation, and it’s this crossing that makes a lot of Orthodox scholars uncomfortable.

In the 1980s Jon Levenson wrote a provocative article, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology.” The field of modern critical biblical study was founded by German Protestant scholars, who established the basic vocabulary and approach. Because of these origins, there has always been a knee-jerk reaction within the Jewish community against the field. Levenson essentially made the argument that since biblical theology is a subdiscipline of Protestant theology, and the aim of this field is to strengthen the Protestant theological enterprise, there’s no reason for Jews to take an interest. Over the past decade and a half, a number of Jewish scholars have responded to Levenson. They argue that Jews should develop their own biblical theologies to complement non-Jewish biblical theologies.

Jewish Spectacle: Culture and Cultivation in Early 19th Century Britain Judith W. Page, associate professor of English, University of Florida

Collections of prints of English country houses were very popular from the end of the 18th century into the 19th century. They were a commercial venture that grew more popular as people started taking tours of Britain, and would visit the places in these books, like Seats of Nobility and Gentry in Great Britain and Wales and Picturesque Views of the Principle Seats of the Nobility and Gentry. There’s a picture of each house, and then this blurb about the standout features: they have this excellent art collection, their gardens are lovely. They were books that people would have on display—the equivalent of a coffee-table book.

So-called Jewish country houses were associated with Jewish owners, but there was never any identification of them as Jewish. The houses were on display, but the Jewishness was submerged. Acquiring this kind of property was one way toward assimilation. There’s a sense of ownership of the land, which is really important to the idea of becoming one of the gentry. Just the choice to buy one and live there, away from places with other Jews, was a decision not to be observant.

The print collection is the next step in presenting oneself and one’s family in this acceptable English light. It was a mark of status for someone to get their house in one of these volumes—you actually paid the cost.

The Exotic Jewess Meets the Dancing Hasid: Ethnic Ambiguity and Jewish Drag in American Dance
Rebecca Rossen, visiting assistant professor of dance, George Mason University

Pauline Koner performing a Yemenite Prayer (Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries)

Six years ago, I was doing research at Northwestern for a professor writing about modern dance. I was spending a lot of time in archives and noticed a trend: In the late 1930s and 40s, Jewish woman would dress up in drag as Hasidic men. One of the dances is called “Hasidic Song and Dance,” from 1932, by a choreographer named Pauline Koner. Her concerts were these little exotic portraits—a Spanish dance, a Chinese dance—but the Jewish dance was the only one she would perform as a boy. The reception was mixed; critics viewed them as too simplistic and not abstract enough to warrant the title of modern dance.

There’s another solo I talk about from 1947 by a choreographer named Hadassah, who came from a family of Hasidic Jews. She’s not in drag, but she wears a tallis, and presents herself as a spiritual leader: She makes that gesture—you know, the gesture the Cohen does, that Spock-like gesture.

What we think of as Jewishness is not a matter of essences, but a repertory of tropes and images. These dancers continually revise them, reinvent them, create them, and sometimes subvert them. If you’re putting on a Jewish garb, making your curls into peyes, what we understand as Jewishness is a performance, or a construction.

In Praise of the ‘Backwardness’ of Jewish Studies
Alan Mintz, professor of Hebrew literature, The Jewish Theological Seminary

There’ve often been critiques that Jewish Studies has lagged behind in methodologies that drive the humanities, whether psychoanalytic, Marxist, gender analysis—different lenses used for understanding human culture. I think there’s a danger in too mechanical an adoption of these methods. A concern also is that many of these methods are very ideologically laden.

I’m raising the question of whether this lag is not really a good thing, because it allows Jewish Studies to see the shakeout, to see what methods are not of enduring value, and wait for these methods to get worked on and worked out. The worst thing is when you have a method like deconstruction or post-colonialism and you begin to see everything through that lens, and all forms of human creativity become instances of that.