Jewish Studies

Celebrating 10 years of Jewish Cultural Studies with Simon J. Bronner

2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the Jewish Cultural Studies book series in the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Ten years ago, the inaugural volume, Jewishness: Expression, Identity, and Representationedited by Simon J. Bronner, drew wide attention with its announcement of an emerging interdisciplinary field of Jewish cultural studies and a provocative cover photograph of Chai jewellery in the centre of a rock ‘n’ roll outfit. With chutzpah (the theme of the introduction), it set the tone for later volumes with rousing interpretive essays on Jewishness—expressions of Jewish culture, lore, and life–in the modern world.

Jewishness: Expression, Identity and Representation edited by Simon J. Bronner marked the first book in the Jewish Cultural Studies series.

In that first volume, for example, was an investigation of the “red string” bracelet in Jewish folk and popular culture. The ubiquitous Jewish delicatessen and its overstuffed meat sandwiches symbolizing persistence through immigrant struggles received original analysis as an icon of secular Jewishness. The Jewish roots of comedian Jack Benny were thoughtfully explored along with a separate chapter on the presentation of Jewish issues in Soviet cinema. On the folk cultural side, and as further evidence of the international scope of the series, the reception for Jewish folk music in Germany, and issues of memory it raised, offered a fresh perspective on the construction, and deconstruction, of Jewish heritage.

The series created a buzz in classrooms and conferences in Europe, North America, Australia, and Israel. Coinciding with the release of the first volume, the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław, Poland, and the Littman Library hosted an international conference titled “Modern Jewish Culture: Diversities and Unities” that became the basis of the fourth volume in the series, Framing Jewish Culture: Boundaries and Representations, edited by Simon J. Bronner. A year later, a standing-room-only crowd greeted editorial board members of the series a year after its inception at the Association for Jewish Studies convention in Los Angeles on the significance, and challenge, of Jewish cultural studies to scholarship. To enable the series to reach even further, editorial board members, and contributors to volumes, were added from South America. The impact of the series has been noticeable in many citations of it and books building on its themes, college course adoptions, and recognition of Jewish cultural studies as a scholarly field.

The series had its roots in the work of the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Section of the American Folklore Society. From 1987 to 2000, it had produced annual volumes on varied topics such as Yiddish culture, folk dance, and pilgrimage. The section entered into dialogue with the Committee on the Anthropology of Jews and Judaism in the American Anthropological Association about publications reaching a more global audience. Simon Bronner, professor and director of the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, as head of the section, led the discussion and viewed the organization of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry published by Littman, to be a model for crystallizing a field of interdisciplinary study. The Littman Library had already earned a reputation in publishing on Jewish history and theology, and Jewish Cultural Studies brought an innovative cultural component to its lists. Led by series editor Bronner, the goal stated at the series launch has held through six critically acclaimed volumes: “The Jewish Cultural Studies series offers a contemporary view of Jewish culture as it has been constructed, symbolized, produced, communicated, and consumed around the globe. More than a series on Jewish ideas, it uncovers ideas of being Jewish.”

Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination was named a finalist in the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards.

In documenting and interpreting the diverse ways in which Jews express themselves as Jews – in custom, festival, narrative, art, architecture, music, dance, dress, performance, language, and food – the series contributes to a greater understanding of the dimensions of Jewish identity as perceived by Jews and non-Jews. It comments on the societies in which Jews live, and the tapestry of life formed from cultural exchange, conflict, and integration. It explores the cultural dimensions of homeland and diaspora, assimilation and separation, in Jewish experience and belief. As an inquiry into cultural identities and expressions with wide ramifications for other fields, it also considers the range of institutions that represent and respond to Jewishness, including museums, the media, agencies, synagogues, and schools.

Coming soon to the Jewish Cultural Studies series: Connected Jews: Expressions of Community in Analogue and Digital Culture by Simon J. Bronner and Caspar Battegay.

In this anniversary year, the latest volume to be published, and hopefully create a stir, will be Connected Jews: Expression of Community in Analogue and Digital Culture, edited by Simon J. Bronner and Caspar Battegay (due December 2018). The sixth volume in the series, it follows on the heels of Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (volume 5, 2017), edited by Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek, and Simon J. Bronner, which was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Awards. The recognition was the second time that a volume in the series received this accolade; in 2010, Jews at Home: The Domestication of Identity, edited by Simon J. Bronner and featuring essays on the concept of a Jewish home materially and emotionally, collected the honour. Connected Jews encapsulates in many ways themes of the previous five volumes by interpreting how media technology—from the printing press to the smartphone—has both fostered and divided community. Contributors working in England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Madagascar, Israel, Hungary, and the United States examine the effects of mediated cultural expression, including television and radio shows, Internet blogs, and cyber-shtetls and other online virtual worlds. The title Connected Jews also speaks for a series that has made a connection among readers worldwide who are interested in the meaning of culture in Jewish, and non-Jewish, lives.

Piece by Simon J. Bronner.

Simon J. Bronner is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore and Founding Director of the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. He is also the convener of the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Section of the American Folklore Society.

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