Jewish Studies

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy – In conversation with Chaim I. Waxman

How can we explore the relationship between sociology and religion? In celebration of Jewish Book Week, author Chaim I. Waxman discusses the modernisation and Americanisation of Orthodox practices and communities. 

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy contributes to the study of contemporary orthodoxy. According to your research, how does socio-economic change affect American Orthodox communities?

Socio-economic change affects American Orthodox communities in a variety of ways. One the one hand, as a group they have very high incomes.Their median family income is several times higher than that of most Americans. The ultra-Orthodox have a significant proportion of families with low incomes, but they also have many with high incomes. Economic advances have had a wide-ranging impact; for example, they enabled Orthodox Jews to create new, more affluent communities and institutions. Their buying power has resulted in the availability of many products which fit their religious needs and desires. Their ability to travel widely has sparked the availability of a wide range of tours and cruises around the world with first-class amenities. Various economic advances have also enabled increasing numbers of Orthodox young men and women to engage in higher Jewish learning with their parents’ financial assistance. The growth of the kollel system, wherein young married men spend years in full-time Torah study was, was to a great extent, made possible by the ability of parents to contribute to that endeavor. These are just a few examples, one could write a book on this issue.

I must also point out that there is a flip side to that economic success, namely, the high cost of modern Orthodox Jewish living which leaves many struggling economically. When I speak of the high cost of Jewish living, a notion I learned from my colleague, economist Carmel Chiswick, I am referring to the high cost of such essentials for the modern Orthodox as quality day schools for their children which cost more than $20,000 per year per child—and these are out-of-pocket, non-tax deductible dollars; high costs for summer camps; high fees for synagogue membership; costs for a variety of annual institutional dinners which one is expected to attend; and, of course costs of maintaining a kosher kitchen, the costs associated with observing the Jewish holidays even without going to a luxurious hotel for Passover and Sukkot. In many ways, modern Orthodoxy is an elite for the economically well-to-do. One consequence is that some who feel they cannot afford that lifestyle leave and either affiliate with ultra-Orthodoxy or leave Orthodoxy altogether. In addition, for a while, the high cost of Orthodox Jewish living also served as an incentive to “making aliya”, moving to Israel, where much of that costs is much lower but, where it turned out, the overall costs are frequently much higher.

In the book, you discuss various manifestations of Americanisation in Orthodox Jewish communities. Could you please discuss the ways in which this is evidenced?

A combination of cultural and structural factors which are part of the Americanisation, combined with the socio-economic changes mentioned earlier, sparked the growth and development of a massive kosher food industry. For example, American cultural and economic patterns made it increasingly acceptable and desirable if not necessary for both spouses in a family to work outside the home.  This, in turn, precipitated an increasing need for ready-made foods and, for observant Jews, these had to be kosher. This then sparked technological developments in the food-processing industry that dramatically increased the range and availability of kosher foods, and this, in turn, removed the stigma attached to them.  In fact, most of those who buy kosher foods today are not Orthodox or even Jewish. The annual trade show, Kosherfest, was recently attended by more than 6,000 international trade buyers, including top buyers for supermarket chains, restaurants, caterers, hotels, hospitals, and universities, as well as authors and others who sought to learn the latest developments from all over the world.

An even stronger manifestation of the impact of the Americanisation of Orthodoxy is in language patterns. During the period of peak Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe, many Orthodox rabbis urged the immigrants to retain Yiddish as their lingua franca and especially as their language of religious discourse.  Today, English is not only the lingua franca of American Orthodox Jews, it is also the primary language in oral religious discourse and plays a major role in the published texts as well. In addition to English translations of the Siddur, prayer book, and Tanakh, the Bible, which have long been deemed acceptable but primarily for the uneducated, there are now available and widely used translations of the Talmud and a host of classic biblical commentaries and Halakhic codes.

Other manifestations of the Americanisation of Orthodoxy can be seen in recreational and leisure-time activities, the very notions of which were once alien to Orthodoxy. Sports, in particular, were anathema, as they were viewed as the ideals of the heathen Greek culture. It is now it is commonplace to find American ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students intimately involved as ardent fans and even participating in betting pools as well as engaging in athletics, although not yet professionally. Similarly with respect to physical fitness, the focus on which was once considered “not Jewish”. Today there is an increasing focus and increasing numbers of gyms designed for and widely used by ultra-Orthodox as well as modern Orthodox men and women, separately of course.

In the area of music, there is today what might be called a parallel structure to the American pop culture music industry, with a broad new genre of American ultra-Orthodox music being created, much of which closely resembles popular music more generally but with a Jewish twist. This is most pronounced in the hasidic branch of American ultra-Orthodoxy, from which a variety of new types of Orthodox music have developed, initially with Shlomo Carlebach’s hasidic hippie to ‘neo-hasidic’, ‘hasidic pop’ and others.

In the area of literature, ultra-Orthodox Jews have developed a genre of literature which had been alien to conservative traditional Orthodoxy, namely, fiction. They have also adopted modern methods of inspirational self-help.  Conventions and ultra-Orthodox publications are replete with ‘cutting-edge’ psychological, educational, and medical topics. The producers and the consumers of these materials are not isolated and do not retreat from the larger society and culture; they are very much engaged in them. They have learned to operate within the culture and to use it for their own ends.

I think I’ve indicated enough manifestations to make my point but, just to top it off, let men refer you to the cover-page colour image of the American flag on the US edition of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, published on Independence Day 2012, with the heading in bold large letters, taken from the US national anthem, ‘o’er the land of the free’.

Do the halakhic developments and women’s greater participation in ritual practices and other areas of communal life reflect changing cultural attitudes and the modernisation of Orthodoxy?

That’s an interesting question. My own response is in the affirmative, but I think that many of the ultra-Orthodox would reply that their attitudes have not changed. They remain opposed to change unless it has clear benefits of orthodoxy and poses no halakhic problems. So, for example, ultra-Orthodox women receive much broader Jewish learning than was permitted in the past – this was legitimized as being necessary under contemporary conditions – but they still are not permitted to engage in Talmud study. Many modern Orthodox women, by contrast, receive higher Jewish learning on a par with and sometimes exceeding that of their male counterparts.

Likewise, the secular educational status of modern Orthodox women is much higher than that of women in the larger society and essentially on par with that of their male Jewish counterparts. They also have high occupational status and occupy increasing leadership roles with society at large and within the Jewish community.  With respect to their participation in the ritual services, there are major differences between the modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox as well as among different sectors of modern Orthodoxy.

Within ultra-Orthodoxy, at the same times that women are much more active in the public arena, there have been increasing efforts to keep the lines between men and women separate. For example, many of their publications will not show pictures of women.  Also, there are increasing attempts to prevent social contact between men and women, for example by instituting gender-separate seating at all ultra-Orthodox gatherings, even if no religious ritual service is involved

Bottom line, cultural changes are taking place but they are definitely limited.  Attitudes toward the modernisation are changing even more slowly because most Orthodox do not define the changes as part of a broad process of modernisation and they certainly do not subscribe to the norms and values that are attributed to modernisation in the larger society. This is not surprising as Orthodoxy is inherently conservative.

How do you think that Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy will pave the way for further research into the sociology of religion?

There are probably many ways in which the book may spark further research.  My personal hopes are that it will spark much more research into the area of religion and modernity, and especially religion and post-modernity. At first glance, it would appear that Orthodoxy and post-modernism are totally incompatible. However, in the conclusion to Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, I point to research showing the inroads that post-modernism has made into Orthodoxy and that there are those who continue to identify as Orthodox while not pigeon-holing themselves into a particular version of Orthodoxy. Among the questions, I would hope to be explored is that of what happens over time and especially inter-generationally, not only in Jewish Orthodoxy but in others as well.

In my book, I analyse changes in what is deemed to be proper religious thought, beliefs. I look forward to more study of this within Orthodox Judaism and within other religions. A major question for me is how do orthodoxies reconcile traditional beliefs which appear to have been dispelled by scientific advances.  Another interesting question, at least for me, is whether religious doubt necessarily leads to defection from Orthodoxy in terms of norms, values, and identification. I would also like to see comparative studies of Orthodoxy in various countries.  I am presently working on a paper dealing with differences between American and Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy – in Israel the term used in haredi—and the question of whether those differences will decline and even disappear over time.

As I said, there are many issues raised or suggested in the book which call for further research, and I hope that the book will, in fact, spark some of that research.

Chaim I. Waxman is chair of the Behavior Sciences Department of Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University.

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Jewish Studies

Hasidism, spirituality, and development – In conversation with Ada Rapoport-Albert

How did hasidism occur, and how has it developed socially and spiritually? Ada Rapoport-Albert, author of Hasidic Studies, discusses the issues of history and gender in hasidism for Jewish Book Week.

Your work focuses on the development of Hasidim and its development in the context of intense spirituality. Could you tell us about the development of hasidism?

Hasidism (literally ‘piety’ in Hebrew) is a movement of spiritual revival, which began in south-eastern Poland in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. At that stage, long before it became a mass movement in the course of the nineteenth century, hasidism consisted of no more than a cluster of spiritually gifted, charismatic individuals, who were attracting small groups of devotees by displaying their supernatural prowess and preaching inspired sermons in the synagogues, the marketplace, and ultimately in their homes, which came to be known as their ‘courts’, functioning as pilgrim sites for their followers. These individuals had emerged out of an older tradition of kabbalistic piety – generally the preserve of the educated elite and marked by the aspiration to transcend worldly existence through mastery of certain contemplative techniques and the adoption of an ascetic lifestyle. By contrast, the new hasidic masters were pointing the way to union with the Divine, whom they sensed to be all-present at all times, even in the midst of worldly materiality. While they alone were capable of attaining a direct experience of this union, they taught that it could be achieved by anyone who would resort to their own unique power to mediate it. As their following grew they encountered opposition, first from some rabbinic quarters, where their popular style of piety was pronounced a dangerous heresy, and subsequently also from Jewish Enlightenment advocates, who scorned it as obscurantist nonsense. The militant campaign to eradicate hasidism, launched in 1772 and lasting several decades, turned out to be a failure. Far from arresting the expansion of hasidism, it triggered the consolidation of its loosely affiliated network of discrete centres into a coherent, albeit never centralised, and increasingly popular movement.

Why do you think the development of eighteenth-century hasidism was previously thought to have occurred in the context of political, social, economic, or religious crisis? 

This still common view is associated above all with Simon Dubnow (1860-1941, the most prominent modern historian of eastern European Jewry. In his pioneering and highly influential History of Hasidism (1930-1), he set the rise of the hasidic movement in the context of a long-drawn crisis, entailing the collapse of all the traditional modes of Jewish life in Poland, and mirroring Poland’s own disintegration, which culminated, by the end of the eighteenth century, in its effective demise as a sovereign state. The crisis began with the mid-seventeenth-century Cossack-led peasant uprising in Poland, which Jewish historiography has labelled ‘the massacres of 1648-49’. Caught up in the events, the Jews, who were perceived by the rebels as agents of the landed Polish nobility, bore much of the brunt of the violence resulting in the devastation of well-established Jewish communities throughout Ukraine and beyond. For Dubnow, these events signalled a turning point in the fortunes of Polish Jewry. Following at least two centuries of steady growth, prosperity, and intellectual achievement, it was now set on an irreversible course of economic, political, and spiritual decline. This pessimistic assessment of Polish Jewry in the period immediately preceding the rise of hasidism must have been coloured, at least to some extent, by Dubnow’s own experience of the plight of eastern European Jewry during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. He had lived through the most violent upheavals and ruptures ever encountered by the Jewish population of the region, and was himself a victim of its final liquidation by the Nazis. Moreover, although his History implicitly challenged the disdain for hasidism displayed by the nineteenth-century German-Jewish founders of modern Jewish historiography, for whom the movement epitomized the depravity of eastern European Jewry as a whole, Dubnow’s own depiction of hasidism, especially its emotional and irrational characteristics, was not entirely free of their residual influence. It is as if he felt that a movement such as hasidism could only have emerged in conditions of acute crisis when all the traditional mechanisms for regulating society had become dysfunctional. His reconstruction of the background to the rise of hasidism must, therefore, be seen as reflecting both the tragic historical circumstances of his own lifetime and the historiographical tradition to which he belonged. In the past few decades, however, with the growing accessibility of archival materials preserved in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, the history of eastern European Jewry, and of hasidsm, has become the subject of revision. A new generation of historians, who had not themselves experienced the predicaments of east European Jewry in the last two centuries, are examining the sources afresh, and their findings point to a modified picture of the adverse conditions from which hasidism emerged. While it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of the mid-seventeenth-century crisis, it must be recognized that conditions of crisis cannot persist for as long as a century without some form of accommodation. Barring such ‘final solutions’ as mass expulsion or extermination, which clearly did not occur in this case, rehabilitation must, and did, take place within a few decades, so that by the middle of the eighteenth century, hasidism was emerging in a more hospitable, albeit by no means entirely auspicious, environment than had previously been assumed.

Your contribution to the study of women in hasidism has been particularly revealing. Why do you think that there was little revision of the role and status and women between the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century?

When I first considered the question why hasidism excluded women from any active participation in its grand spiritual project of hallowing the material world – a project which seemed to lend itself so well to the incorporation of women, who were traditionally classified by the philosophers and kabbalists as the very embodiment of materiality – I suggested that this was simply because it was adhering conservatively to the rabbinic gender norms that had prevailed in Jewish society since late antiquity. However, I subsequently turned my attention to the exceptional prominence of women in the heretical messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. This movement had preceded the rise of hasidism by close to a century, but it coexisted with it, especially in Poland, where the messianic heresy persisted as a network of clandestine sectarian groups until the beginning of the nineteenth century. My work on Sabbatianism eventually led me to the conclusion that in excluding women, hasidism may well have been retreating with horror from the breached gender boundaries and, above all, the illicit sexuality that became a hallmark of the messianic heresy, inextricably linked as it was to the forces of female spirituality unleashed by the Sabbatians.

How do you think that Hasidic Studies will pave the way for further research into hasidism?

My revisionist work on the eighteenth-century beginnings of hasidism has highlighted the need for fresh research on the development of the movement in the course of the nineteenth century – the period in which it achieved its greatest impact and growth. Scholars had long neglected this crucial stage of hasidic expansion, on the grounds that by that time hasidism had lost its spiritual edge, aligning itself with the most reactionary forces in Jewish society, to engage in a battle directed against modernity and secularism. This verdict is now being challenged by a growing number of studies focused on the distinctive features of particular nineteenth-century hasidic courts, gauging more precisely the mechanisms, scope, and limits of hasidic expansion, or exploring for the first time the daily experience of hasidism beyond the court, in its widely dispersed satellite communities. But there is still much work to be done in this area, and even more so, in twentieth- and twenty-first-century hasidism, especially its post-war rebirth and remarkable adaptation to parts of the world in which it never had any historical roots. As for the question of women in hasidism – my studies have launched a lively debate on the topic, and they continue to stimulate critical analyses of the hasidic sources from ever new and truly insightful gender perspectives.

Ada Rapoport-Albert is Professor of Jewish Studies and former Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. She is the author of a number of studies on the history of hasidism.

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Jewish Studies

‘Do Not Forsake the Instruction of Your Mother’ – International Women’s Day with Marjorie Lehman

This International Women’s Day, Marjorie Lehman, co-editor of Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination, discusses how she is working to disentangle motherhood from idealised notions of the Jewish family and the stereotypes of the Jewish mother.

Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (eds.) Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek and Simon J. Bronner is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Rooted in Jewish tradition is the notion, conveyed in Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 and the Talmudic passage that accompanies it BT (Kiddushin 29a), that fathers are commanded to provide for their sons whereas mothers are exempt from this obligation. While the commandment to honour one’s parents obligates sons and daughters, mothers are not legally responsible for the preparation of their sons regarding Torah learning, the performance of mitzvot and/or learning a trade.  Mara Benjamin argues convincingly in her article, “On Teachers, Rabbinic and Maternal,” that we need to rethink the rabbinic model of parenting, modelled as it is on the rabbi/disciple relationship, and consider those involved in child-rearing as metaphorical sages. In making this argument she rethinks motherhood, centring it within a seminal Jewish cultural project—the Talmud–from which it was overlooked in favour of the rabbi-teacher//father-son relationship. As Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary where I am a professor has noted as part of a recent women and power initiative she is spearheading at JTS: “We want to create and model a healthy culture in which gender is made visible and everyone’s leadership and participation is honored.” For me, that includes how we bring mothers and the act of mothering (even metaphorical mothering) into our classroom discussions. It is important to think, like Benjamin did, of the ways we can not only build, or rebuild, cultures where all feel comfortable, but also recognize the role of mothering as tantamount to the role of the sage. [1]

In collecting the essays that make up Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2017), of which Benjamin’s is one, we began a shared project to enhance the visibility of mothers and call attention to them as an analytic category essential for narrating Jewishness of the past, the present and the future. This was solely an academic endeavour constructed and fashioned by the theories and methods governing the fields of Jewish Studies and Jewish Gender Studies. Working to disentangle motherhood from idealized notions of the Jewish family and stereotypes of the Jewish mother, this collection of essays was designed to show how Jews use motherhood across time and place as a way to construct and comprehend their culture. Our goal was not to offer a perspective on Jewish mothering or a definition of the Jewish mother but to use “mother” as a site of academic study. Part of the motivation emerged from the fact that we recognized a gap in scholarly work in Jewish Studies regarding focused studies on the “mother.” Viewed often as outside the structures of power, relegated to the inside—to the home—we sought authors who brought complexity and nuance to our understanding of “mother.” As Joyce Antler argues in, You Never Call, You Never Write, if there was ever a successful cultural template working to disempower women, it is that of the mother (Antler 58). As academics and feminist scholars we were propelled forward by a desire to give the category of “mother,” and more specifically, the “Jewish mother” its own voice. In the process, we realized that there was much to be said about the ways in which mothers shape Jewish culture and are shaped by it. Writers, activists, rabbis, artists, book printers and poets have projected, created, engaged, and contested Jewish culture by relying on the trope of “the Jewish mother,” often breaking from biological conceptions of motherhood. The time had arrived, we believed, to intervene in the study of Jewish culture with a focus on “mother,” and spur the field to notice what the study of mothers can contribute.

However, inasmuch as publishing a book on mothers became for us an important scholarly undertaking, we wanted this book to incite greater discourse about mothers and motherhood in general, even beyond the academy. For example, Mary Beard, in her book Women and Power: A Manifesto stresses the degree to which women have been silenced and asks us to think about how to “resuscitate women on the inside of power (Beard 79).” Unfortunately, we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like (Beard 54). And so that leads me now to pose the question: What if we turn to the mother? Is there a way to get to the core of what mothering is so that we can think with it to redefine power? Can thinking about mothering offer us new ways of living in the world, not as mothers necessarily, but as people? In fact, it is just these questions that have led me to begin writing my next book, focused on Talmudic mothers, in order to rethink the role of “mother” in the Jewish culture we imagine for our students, our children and for ourselves today.

More to the point, Sarah Ruddick argues in Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, that motherhood offers us an alternative power model, one that is nurturing and that emerges from a commitment to protecting and preserving another (Ruddick 61-123). Indeed, in mothering we find a usable model that teaches us, even requires us, to give voice to the less powerful, the child, while giving the one in power, the one mothering, a voice as well. Mothering is an act of power, but also one of recognized powerlessness, for mothering requires the protection and preservation of a child for the purposes of enabling that child to achieve independence. And so an acknowledged powerlessness takes over where power once was. This understanding of an ideal type of mothering, taken on by all—mothers and non-mothers—is an idea that has helped me to imagine a world where we can cultivate people who never think about power without thinking about powerlessness, who do not disempower to empower themselves or dismiss anyone out of fear that what might emerge is someone better than who they are. For Ruddick, to adopt mothering as a model is to imagine a world of maternal thinkers, and in so doing, to also imagine a world of people at peace with one another.

So it is up to us, I propose, to think as Sara Ruddick does, and to take on the mission posed by Mary Beard—to contemplate a new power model for our world that is grounded in what comes naturally to so many of us, mothering and the thinking associated with it. Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination is the first step in this process for me. I hope that it guides others in thinking about what mothering can be in the interest of change.

[1]. Note that since the publication of this essay Benjamin has written a monograph on this subject. See The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

 

Bibliography:

Antler, Joyce. You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Beard, Mary. Women and Power: A Manifesto. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Benjamin, Mara H. “On Teachers, Rabbinic and Maternal. In Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination. Eds. Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek, and Simon J. Bronner. Liverpool: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2017.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking. Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Marjorie Lehman is Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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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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Jewish Studies

Journeys from the Abyss – In Conversation with Tony Kushner

Journeys from the Abyss has been named Book of the Week by Times Higher Education. To celebrate, we sat down with Tony Kushner to discuss memory, humanitarian challenges and how his own background shaped his intellectual development.

Journeys from the Abyss by Tony Kushner is Times Higher Education’s Book of the Week from 4th January 2018.

Where were you born and where did you spend your early years?

I was born in Manchester in 1960 and brought up in its southern suburbs. My mother was a disabled widower and one of my brothers deaf blind, so dealing with difference was part of my family upbringing. Manchester has always been a city of migrants and as of third generation East European Jewish origin, I very much felt part of it. Growing up in the 1970s, the activities of the National Front were prominent and I was lucky that at my secondary school there were very few who were attracted to it. Indeed, we were loosely associated with groups such as Rock Against Racism. I was also fortunate that the Reform Jewish Movement saw education for young people against all forms of racism and intolerance was essential. That stuck with me probably than the more strictly religious side. Finally, as a football fanatic and supporter of Manchester’s only team (City), everyday racism was a fact of life. My eldest brother and his friends who I went to the games with would always challenge the barracking of black players (remarkably often of our own team with City’s close links to and presence in the city’s Moss Side).

Where did you go to university and how has that shaped your subsequent intellectual development?

I went to Sheffield University to study economic and social history (though soon my interest was on the latter at the expense of the former). This choice was deliberate – I wanted to study the lives of ordinary people and not just the great and the good. On top of this was that Sheffield was the only place where you could study migrant (and anti-migrant) history with the presence of Colin Holmes who was later my PhD supervisor. After Sheffield I did an MA in American history at the University of Connecticut. I studied with Bill Hoglund, an expert in American immigration history. Returning to Sheffield, my PhD focused on British Jewish history, especially that of antisemitism, with a study of Britain during the Second World War. At this stage, refugee history was a part of my interests, but it had not developed as strong as it has for the past two decades. Likewise the area of memory was one that came later after I had come to the University of Southampton in 1986 to develop the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations.

How do you feel that your own political commitments around human rights and particularly refugee policy have influenced your choice of research topics and the ways you have examined them?

Since school, I have always wanted the history I studied (and then researched and wrote about) to have an ethical element. At Sheffield, amongst other topics I became interested in slavery and the Holocaust and since then migration and refugee policy have been a part of that commitment. Indeed, I am strongly of the view that historians can be committed to their subject area without losing their authority. I became aware in the early 1990s that refugee history was particularly neglected. Within refugee studies, history is rarely considered and in historical studies, refugees because they complicate national stories are equally marginalised. Restoring their histories and responses to them (positive and negative), is thus important in itself and I have always found working with current day activists stimulating to them and to myself.

Can the material you have recovered dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, and even the 1880s, help us formulate responses to the major humanitarian challenges of today?

I think this is a two way process. We can understand some of the ‘classic’ refugee movements of the past with greater complexity if we consider what is happening today. Perhaps one of the most important ‘political’ messages is that the attempt to divide ‘deserving refugees’ (i.e. good) from ‘undeserving migrants/aliens’ has been happening for well over a century. Such distinctions are always in the eye of the beholder and it seems that the only truly ‘good’ refugees are those in the past. Many Jewish refugees from the 1900s or the Nazi era carried forged documentation but that did not make them somehow ‘illegal’ or dangerous. Ultimately, as Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, stated, ‘no one is illegal’.

Tony Kushner is Professor of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Parkes Institute and History Department, University of Southampton.

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