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For this inaugural Directors' Forum—a new occasional feature in AJS Perspectives—we asked a range of scholars involved in the administration of Jewish Studies programs on college and university campuses to offer personal and/ or professional reflections on the theme of freedom. We gave our colleagues liberty to define the issue as they best saw fit. As you will see, those who responded to our invitation speak to a wide spectrum of issues from a variety of different perspectives. Contributors address the unique freedom to pursue interdisciplinary work afforded by small liberal arts colleges, describing situations in which the restraints of chasing enrollments can inspire curricular innovation. They discuss the mission of public scholarship to forge interinstitutional alliances. They focus on constraints to freedom of speech and academic inquiry that can arise from relations with donors and advocacy groups outside the university—and much more.

Several of the directors whom we approached declined our invitation to participate. Some cited time constraints. As a former and a current Jewish Studies director, we certainly appreciate this challenge! Equally understandably, other colleagues cited a different type of lack of freedom: a reticence to write publicly about experiences with limits to academic freedom for fear of the difficulties that a contribution to this forum might create for the programs they manage.

We are grateful to the six Jewish Studies directors who draw on their experiences below to offer such candid and far-reaching reflections on what freedom can and should mean for Jewish Studies programs on the ground today. The views here are by no means comprehensive, and obviously, not everyone will identify with every position represented here. We encourage our readers to continue the conversation, including with those who did not feel free enough to participate.

—Jonathan M. Hess and Laura S. Lieber

Freedom and Collaboration ~ David M. Freidenreich
The Freedom to Teach across Boundaries ~ Cecile E. Kuznitz
Liberating the Conversation on Academic Freedom ~ Jeffrey Shoulson
Jewish Studies and Academic Freedom ~ Todd Samuel Presner
To Hillel and Back: One Jewish Studies Program’s Sojourn on the Borderline between Jewish Community Professionals and Academic Freedom ~ Benjamin Schreier

"We teach what we want, when we want, and how we want, and if we're happy, our students will be happy."

My department chair offered these unabashedly individualistic words of orientation and guidance the week I received my job offer from Colby College. Who knew that academic freedom could be so free from constraints? With the partial exception of some course scheduling issues, my colleague's description of the Religious Studies Department has proven true. As the slogan of my adopted hometown in Maine puts it, "Yes, life's good here."

Over the past eight years, however, I've found that I can best realize the potential that this freedom affords by means of collaboration in pursuit of shared goals, not the individualism that is so common within and outside of academia. For that reason, the advice I offer to junior colleagues and those who have just received job offers from other universities is somewhat different from the guidance I received at the start of my own career. "You have great freedom to teach—and research—whatever and however you want. To find happiness and fulfillment in your work, and to increase the likelihood that you'll earn tenure along the way, focus on the intersections between your passions and your institution's priorities."

Colby is a liberal arts college that seeks to foster transformational facultystudent collaboration as well as meaningful engagement with the people of Maine. I have chosen to tailor many facets of my professional life to align with these aspects of Colby's mission. This alignment enables me to work in various partnerships with colleagues, students, and other community members rather than merely as an isolated academic. The professor I have become is quite different from the one who would have emerged at another university—and I have no regrets.

I can indeed teach whatever and however I want, but my chair neglected an important caveat during our initial conversation: if my students aren't happy, they won't take my courses and I won't be happy either. Seminars on ancient and medieval texts, the subject of my formal academic training, simply do not appeal to many Colby students, so I have developed competence and even expertise in areas I could never have imagined in graduate school. This past year, for example, I taught courses on Israeli popular music and, at the request of several students, on Zionist-Palestinian-British relations during the Mandate period. The most unanticipated of my Colby courses, and among the most rewarding, explores the history of Jews in Maine. A number of students have gone on to conduct advanced research on local Jewish history, as have I. One student copresented with me at an AJS conference, and I coauthored a forthcoming academic article with another.

Colby's ethos has shaped not only what I teach but also how I teach. Since earning tenure, I have chosen to spend a tremendous amount of time overhauling my courses to introduce pedagogical techniques that better engage my students. I regularly involve advanced students in course design and revision, and I have reshaped portions of my scholarly research agenda in order to facilitate collaboration with undergraduates. When viewed in the either/or terms common at research universities, I chose to sacrifice scholarly productivity for the sake of pedagogy. This conventional dichotomy, however, feels false at a liberal arts college: my teaching informs my research no less than the reverse, and my professional life is richer because research and teaching go hand in hand.

The freedom to rethink conventional academic norms in pursuit of personal passions and institutional priorities also underpins my professional engagement with Maine's Jewish communities. I regularly give talks around the state because I believe that serving as a public intellectual is not only enjoyable but also a vital part of my job in a region with very few Jewish Studies scholars. For the same reason, I spend a lot of time arranging guest lectures at Colby and organizing public conferences that feature presentations by students as well as scholars. Crucially, I was able to persuade my colleagues and dean to count all of this work as service to the college—equivalent to committee work—for the purposes of merit, tenure, and promotion reviews. Creating learning opportunities for the general public, after all, advances Colby's commitment to serving the people of Maine.

Principles that underpin my use of the freedom I experience—attention to institutional priorities, pursuit of opportunities for partnership, and a willingness to rethink conventional dichotomies—also motivate my work as the director of Colby's Jewish Studies program. Since that program made public scholarship a central element of its mission, Colby has become the state's largest provider of learning opportunities on Jewish topics. Students and faculty benefit from this arrangement at least as much as other community members. Building on this track record, I helped to establish Colby's new Center for Small Town Jewish Life. This center brings the Jewish Studies program, Colby Hillel, and the local synagogue into formal partnerships, bridging the divides between academia and Jewish communal organizations.

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life creates vibrant educational and cultural programs while fostering a sense of community that encompasses students and Maine residents alike. This unconventional collaborative endeavor advances the shared priorities of its three partner entities even as it preserves the autonomy and distinct objectives of each. The benefits of this partnership for Colby's Jewish Studies program have thus far included a second endowed chair, greater visibility, more effective public programming, and expanded opportunities for students to learn from their engagement with the people of Maine. The center's collaborative model is designed to be replicable at other small-town colleges and universities.

It's fitting that Colby's Center for Small Town Jewish Life finds its administrative home within the college's division of academic affairs: its very existence stems from the freedom that academic life can offer to professors who work outside of customary boxes. Through collaboration in pursuit of shared priorities, Jewish Studies faculty are ideally positioned to seize the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional opportunities that such freedom affords.

David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College. A member of the Religious Studies Department, he directs Colby's Jewish Studies Program and is associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. His current research explores the ways Christians have used ideas about Jews to think about Muslims.

Since arriving at Bard College in 2003 I have served as director of its Jewish Studies Program. Until this fall I was also the sole faculty member teaching full-time in Jewish Studies (in addition to being a member and currently chair of the Historical Studies Program). On the one hand, the need to ground the Jewish Studies curriculum has impelled me to develop a wide range of courses in the field. At the same time, given the general climate on American campuses and Bard's small size—just under 2,000 undergraduates—I have had to diversify my teaching repertoire beyond Jewish Studies in order to attract sufficient enrollments to fill my class slots. While this need to broaden my course offerings in two directions has presented challenges, Bard's support for the humanities and flexible curricular structure has also afforded me the freedom to explore new topics and expand my intellectual horizons.

To complement offerings in my core fields of modern Jewish history and East European Jewish history, I developed a course on Yiddish culture in translation that incorporates a great deal of literature, theater, and film. This class builds on Bard's strength in the arts and well as its support for interdisciplinary approaches. When some graduates of the course asked to study the language itself I was able to offer a tutorial in beginning Yiddish. Through this exercise I familiarized myself with a number of resources and techniques for foreign language instruction. In this way I have taken advantage of Bard's flexibility both to move beyond the discipline of history and to extend my pedagogical range.

As I soon realized that student interest in Jewish Studies would not sustain my full teaching load I considered strategies to attract a broader constituency. Thinking about aspects of the Jewish experience that I might fruitfully place in a comparative context resulted in a new History course entitled "Diaspora and Homeland." The inspiration for this class came in part from personal curiosity: I had been intrigued to see stores selling both saris and reggae music near my childhood home in Queens, New York. I learned that this neighborhood now houses the United States' largest Indo-Caribbean and Indo-Guyanese community, descendants of South Asians who crossed the Atlantic to work as indentured servants after the end of slavery in the Americas. Their sense of a double displacement from the Indian subcontinent and then the Caribbean mirrors the experience of American Jews who recall both the Land of Israel and Eastern Europe as lost homelands.

The semester begins with a consideration of theoretical literature on Diaspora and the place of this concept in Jewish life and thought. We then examine the African and Asian experiences, allowing students to draw comparisons among the case studies themselves. In the course of discussion and written work they have developed intriguing parallels between the thought of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Marcus Garvey and between the ways that Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the United States relate to the "old country." The course attracts a diverse audience; its most recent iteration included students from African American, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, Tibetan, Israeli, Turkish, Polish, and Ukrainian backgrounds. As a professor of Jewish Studies it is gratifying to see such a range of students exposed to Jewish history and to discover this material's relevance to their own primary areas of interest.

As much as I learned from my forays into African and Asian Studies, I was always conscious of my limited knowledge of these fields in comparison to my own area of expertise. I was thus happy subsequently to co-teach "Diaspora and Homeland" with a colleague specializing in African American history. My teaching partner argued strongly in favor of retaining the unit on Asia, in part to broaden the comparative dimension of the course, in part to force us both out of our comfort zones. What we lost in the depth of knowledge we could draw upon in the classroom we gained in the sense of a shared intellectual journey with our students. While in a large university such teaching beyond our fields might well be frowned upon, I have found that Bard's ethos as a liberal arts college provides the freedom for such curricular explorations.

Bard's small size and flexible curriculum has also allowed me to develop my interest in urban history into a teaching field. Another course that I regularly offer with a colleague looks comparatively at several cities in Europe and the United States. One of our case studies is Vilna, which has been a focus of my own research. I use Vilna's complex history to trace a number of themes—such as the impact of shifting borders and ruling powers—from the medieval to the post-Soviet era, themes that would not arise from our consideration of American and West European urban centers. While I incorporate my own work on Vilna's Jewish community I stress the city's notably diverse population, asking students to compare narratives of Jewish Vilna alongside those of Polish Wilno and Lithuanian Vilnius.

By incorporating a case study much less familiar than others covered in the course, such as Chicago or Paris, we hope to expand students' perspective on the history of the West and perhaps even to spark an interest in the region of Eastern Europe. At the same time, the freedom to teach my own specialization alongside a range of other examples has helped me to think critically about patterns of urban settlement, politics, and culture in a comparative context.

Like colleagues at many other institutions, I have faced the dilemma of sustaining enrollments in a period of retrenchment for the humanities. In addition, I have had to think creatively about how a Jewish Studies program with limited resources can productively serve the interests of a diverse campus. Yet I have found that the freedom afforded by the small size and flexibility of a liberal arts college like Bard has also opened up possibilities for intellectual growth and curricular innovation.

Cecile E. Kuznitz is associate professor of History and director of Jewish Studies and Historical Studies at Bard College. She also serves as senior academic advisor at the Max Weinreich Center, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Her book YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press.

Writing within the intense theological disputes amongst the various Christian confessions that emerged in the wake of Luther's break with the Roman Church some 150 years earlier, John Milton had spectacular literary chutzpah. Milton imagined God mounting a defense of the central concept of human freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, presenting it in an exchange between God and the Son in his 1674 epic, Paradise Lost: "I formed them free, and free they must remain, / Till they enthrall themselves . . . the high Decree / Unchangeable, Eternal . . . ordained / Their freedom, they themselves ordained their fall." (3.124–128). Even without knowing all the finer nuances of Arminian or Calvinist thought with which Milton was struggling, one can sense the high-wire act Milton has undertaken. The notorious complexity of this celestial dialogue—and for some, its failure to make a compelling case—reflect the profound dilemma that sits at the heart of a Christian theology that posits simultaneously an omniscient, omnipotent God, on the one hand, and the justice of holding humanity responsible for its own choices and actions, on the other. It is also my starting point for this reflection on freedom because of how it seems to construe the concept largely in negative terms. Freedom is the default position for all humanity. Yet Milton (or Milton's God, at least) does not seem interested in exploring the affirmative potentialities of that freedom—what such freedom might allow humanity to achieve or create—so much as he is concerned with how that freedom makes falling and failure possible. Man had been created "sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" (3.99), Milton's God insists several lines earlier. In other words, they've been given enough rope to hang themselves.

So much of our current discussion about freedom within the academy seems to me to be framed by this way of understanding freedom. We want to know how far we can push our freedoms before endangering ourselves, before offending or threatening or even circumscribing the freedom of others. We wring our hands at how freedom from constraints turns our students into irresponsible hedonists or insensitive monsters. We lament the outrageous, outlandish, politically troubling claims made by scholarly loose cannons. We worry that unrestrained freedom of expression means the end of "civility" (whatever that might be). We struggle with what seems to be an irresolvable conflict between safety (think "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings") and the freedom to say, to read—and to require our students to read—anything. In short, we seem to assume that freedom is the length of rope we give ourselves and others but that the only inevitable use to which that rope can be put is some sort of hanging. We are sufficiently free, but free only and inevitably to fall.

Given the associations and burdens this discourse of freedom carries with it, I want to suggest that it might be helpful for us to shift our terms, to move from a language of academic freedom to a language of academic liberty. We are, after all, participants in a scholarly framework that we often describe as the liberal arts. It's a term that owes its origins to classical antiquity and stands outside Christian assumptions about the inevitable fallenness of humanity. "Quare liberalia studia dicta sunt, vides; quia homine libero digna sunt," wrote Seneca, "Hence you see why 'liberal studies' are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a freeborn person." This classical idea of liberty is embedded in a sense of civic participation. Liberty, and the liberal studies that are its precondition, are important because they enable the individual's capacity to engage in, and contribute to, the social and political world. They are not unavoidable threats to civility; rather, they are the very conditions of the cives.

It's an old idea and I am not insensitive to its problematic associations with a certain kind of privileged elitism; Seneca was, after all, citing the idea as a way of distinguishing the freeborn (male) Roman from slaves and other disenfranchised members of his society. But I would nevertheless propose that replacing freedom with liberty offers us a way of thinking beyond the impasse we seem to have reached in our invocation of freedom in the academic world. Academic liberty reminds us that the free range of inquiry and scholarly discourse is in the service of a shared project, collective, social, and political by definition. It is an affirmative, progressive stance, rather than a defensive, reactive one. And we do need to do more than react defensively to persistent attacks on the university, especially in the United States.

While some may see my argument as a tacitly Jewish challenge to an implicitly Christian idea (that is, the collective requirements of the kehillah superseding any abstract claims to individual freedom), it is striking that Modern Hebrew seems to have no exact equivalent for the term "liberal arts." The phrase mada'ei ha-ruah will sometimes serve in its place, itself a calque drawn from the German world of higher education and its idea of Geisteswissenschaften. But these are both terms that more narrowly refer to the humanities and, more importantly for my purposes, situate the area of study in the realm of ruah or Geist, spirit, precisely not the public and civic space of liberal inquiry for which I am advocating. In the shift from freedom to liberty I am suggesting that the humanities—and the arts, and the social sciences, and the physical and life sciences—are not only made possible by free academic inquiry but are what give meaning to the very liberty they depend upon. Academic liberty embeds itself in the varied, diverse, often conflicting lived experiences of those who participate in it and benefit from it. It does not eliminate the clashes of culture and values that arise on university campuses, but it does see those clashes as elemental to its mission rather than as restrictions to its application.

Jeffrey Shoulson is the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies, professor of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and professor of English at the University of Connecticut, where he also serves as the director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the author of Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2001) and Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). His current project is a literary and cultural history of the English Bible from Tyndale the to King James version with a particular focus on the role of Jewish learning in English translations.

Over the past couple of years, programs in Jewish Studies have been catapulted to the frontlines of heated public debates over academic freedom, civility, and the limits of free speech. All too often, these debates have pitted Jewish organizations, Jewish students, and Jewish faculty against one another, wreaking havoc on the intellectual and social climate on campus. Part of this is due to the prevalence of self-appointed watchdog groups and advocacy organizations who have taken it on themselves to monitor and report speech on campus (among others, AMCHA, Campus Watch, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and, perhaps most notoriously, Canary Mission). While couched in terms that ostensibly protect Jewish students from hostility, the result is the creation of a climate of paranoia and even bullying against any student and/or faculty member—Jewish or non-Jewish—who deviates from the political ethos espoused by these groups. In contrast to the liberal arts ideals of responsible discussion, engagement, and openness, they promote a military-like binary of "us" versus "them."

Another reason that Jewish Studies has emerged on the frontlines of these debates over academic freedom has to do with the fractious conversations over Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which have not only splintered and isolated Jewish groups, but have also engendered a dichotomous campus climate in which the violence of macropolitics has come to roost locally. BDS is now a litmus test for determining everything from permitted speakers and appropriate funding to hiring and firing decisions. For many Jewish organizations (not to mention networks of faculty, such as the Academic Engagement Network and the Israel on Campus Coalition), monitoring, reporting on, and combatting BDS is now the most urgent imperative. Opponents of BDS argue that the boycott of Israel enacts a monolithic, singular punishment on Israel by demonizing and delegitimizing Israel's right to exist. Supporters of BDS argue that it is a legitimate, nonviolent form of protest and solidarity with Palestinian society. Neither side, however, countenances nuance, nor considers if there could be an iota of truthfulness in the position of its "enemy."

And overlaid on all of this is the specter of antisemitism, which not only informs but also haunts and sometimes even deforms these discussions. Antisemitism certainly has real, contemporary manifestations within the academy and beyond, which must be vigilantly fought; however, the term is sometimes deployed as a blanket charge to stifle difficult conversations, as in the recent discussions on tolerance convened by the University of California Regents, which, initially, equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It is possible to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic, and there exists a diverse intellectual and religious lineage of anti-Zionist thought that is quite distinct from the tropes of antisemitism. (It ranges from advocates of a Jewish-Arab binational state to the Jewish Labor Bund Party in the early twentieth century to contemporary Orthodox Jewish sects who see Zionism as a violation of divine messianism.) It is possible—for varied reasons—to reject a nationalist political ideology without hating Jews tout court, and it is possible to embrace an honest confrontation with the history of the Nakba without impugning Israel's right to exist. But to do so would be to occupy spaces of nuance and grayness, spaces that, in my estimation, are almost completely gone.

While I certainly worry that Jewish Studies (both the academic discipline and the institutional formations that support it, mainly research centers) is becoming more dichotomous and less open, my greater concern is that Jewish Studies and, by extension, the university itself—is threatened by the political and economic forces that believe they are protecting Jewish Students and faculty in the first place. These forces are represented by certain advocacy groups, funders, politicians, and various thought leaders who treat academic freedom as an atavistic vestige of a bygone world and caricature the value of the open university. The representatives of these forces believe the university needs to be protected from speech, ideas, and people that they consider to be dangerous to Israel. They believe that the faculty can no longer govern themselves but need guidance and scrutiny from external groups (sometimes in partnership with certain students, faculty, and administrators) in order to make funding decisions, hiring and promotion decisions, and programmatic decisions based on political criteria that align with their world views. Anything that deviates from these views, anything that could be seen as giving ammunition to the advocates of BDS, or anything or anyone that questions Zionism is immediately attacked. These interventions have happened at numerous universities, including my own, and do not merely imperil Jewish Studies. If they are given standing, these interventions threaten the foundational principles of the university. They imperil faculty governance, free speech, the protections of tenure, and the principles of free and open inquiry. It is quite unfortunate— and deeply ironic—that these are the very principles, which, just a few decades ago, diversified higher education and gave rise to American Jewish Studies programs and centers for Jewish Studies in the first place.

Today, however, Jewish Studies programs are placed in an exceptionally precarious position of either alienating their base of community support or becoming complicit in the erosion of the ideals of the university, usually by their silence or quietism. While certain Jewish organizations such as Open Hillel, Jewish Voice for Peace, and even J Street have attempted to support speakers and programs with alternative views on Israel and Zionism, these groups have remained marginalized and largely excluded from the mainstream Jewish community and its advocacy efforts on campuses. Their members are painted by external watchdog groups as self-loathing Jews who affirm the narratives of the Nakba, Palestinian rights, and Israeli apartheid and, thus, are no better than traitors. This either/or, with-us or against-us narrative is corrosive and has brought about a staggering closing down of debate, historical perspective, and possibilities for ambiguity, multiple narratives, and nuance.

In my view, Jewish Studies programs must model and ardently defend academic freedom by upholding the principles of faculty governance, faculty autonomy, open inquiry, and rigorous debate. Jewish Studies programs and centers—perhaps now more than ever—have a fundamental mandate to be free and speak freely. As such, they can provide leadership in addressing campus polarization and help bridge the gap between the community and the academy by serving the larger intellectual, ethical, and civic values of our democracy. This is the public mission of Jewish Studies worth investing in, fighting for, and defending most urgently.

Todd Samuel Presner is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of UCLA's Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. He is professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, as well as chair of the Digital Humanities Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book is a coedited collection, Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture (Harvard University Press, 2016), with Claudio Fogu and Wulf Kansteiner.

Gramsci wrote that there's no human activity—even Jewish Studies program director—from which all forms of intellectual participation can be excluded. We all know that restrictions always threaten intellectual activity: there's the unfreedom we impose on ourselves and there's the unfreedom imposed on us from without. And then there's the unfreedom that attends professionalized discourse about Jews. Much can potentially be said about how Jewish community formations attempt to manage the activities of academic Jewish Studies; this is my story of one manifestation of this imposition.

In mid-May 2016 I learned that, after a conversation with the local Hillel director here, a donor complained that the Penn State Jewish Studies Program, of which I serve as director, was pro-BDS and anti-Israel in terms of its faculty, speakers, etc. An initial WTF notwithstanding, it didn't take me long to figure this one out.

But I should back up. Because I talk here about Israel on campus, academic Jewish Studies, Jewish identity politics, and Hillel, I begin with a disclaimer—actually a two-parter.

First: Jewish Studies ideally should steer clear of Jewish communal politics, except as it makes them an object of study; otherwise, it risks delegitimization.

I present the second part of my disclaimer as a series of declarations of belief, so my cards are on the table. I'm Jewish. Like many people, I believe a state shouldn't treat different nationally defined populations under its control as different classes of citizen. Israel has as much right to exist as any other state, in proportion to which it can deter challenges to its sovereignty. It's perverse—and sad—that in the name of "the two-state solution" ethnic cleansing has become the leading desideratum of mainstream liberal opinion. The contention that BDS is a priori "anti-Israel" is nonsense; what the hell does that phrase even mean?! (The phrase undoubtedly performs work: it repeats the fascist fallacy of representing a nation with state policies.) To call BDS a priori antisemitic is idiotic. Finally, I serve on Open Hillel's Academic Council—mostly because despite Hillel International's claim that it "strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community," its "Standards of Partnership" seem aggressively opposed to the principles not only of inclusion and pluralism, but freedom of thought, without which the academy degenerates into paid advocacy and public relations. For the record, I believe Hillel International's commitment to support "Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state" should avow its foundation in ethnic cleansing. (It's the "and" that does it, folks!) More generally, I'm disgusted by attempts to define "Jewish" in ideologically restricted and nationalistically aggressive ways.

I am currently in my third year as the director of Jewish Studies. Like many North American Jewish Studies programs, ours is well supported by donors but lacks many declared students—though our total numbers of majors and minors position us on the good side of average among our Big Ten peers. Unlike on some campuses, our majors and minors are often not the same people who participate in Hillel activities, so my efforts to increase the visibility of the Jewish Studies Program brought me to Hillel, whose director has been friendly, and at semiregular meetings we have discussed how Jewish Studies and Hillel could work together. We cosponsored a number of events over the last couple of years.

We also admitted where our aims diverged. Put simply, Jewish Studies' mission to nurture an ability to think critically about the ascriptive history of the term "Jewish" does not necessarily align with Hillel's mission to nurture a positive Jewish identification. We chose to focus on common ground.

But I have recently come to worry that Hillel International's current take on identity work renders it an unfit partner for people and institutions dedicated to the ideals of free critical thinking and ethical integrity.

First came a faculty panel discussion that the Jewish Studies Program organized in November 2015 focusing on the upsurge in violence in Israel. I enthusiastically let our local Hillel know about it, but then the director called to warn me that the three speakers we arranged, a historian, a political scientist, and a sociologist—as well as the Israeli assistant professor who was moderating—represented various combinations of positions he judged too far to the left on Israel, pro-BDS, anti-Israel, antisemitic, etc. (He also complained about the map of Israel we put on the flyer, which indicated the Green Line; he found it provocative.) He offered to find another speaker who might present the occupation and its consequences in a more Israel-friendly light. I admit that "Israel-friendly" is my term, and I mean it sarcastically, to counterbalance "anti-Israel," and to be as meaningless. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Because I value critical thinking, I tend to suspect claims that "fair" means "balanced," that a position can escape bias, that a person's ability to perform analysis is dependent on his or her opinions, or that there's some ideological line representing the neutrality point in a discursive system. Rather, fairness and objectivity are achieved through challenging positions and suppositions, trying to understand why one's antagonists think as they do, etc. Anyway.

Initially, he wanted to invite someone from the Israeli consulate, but when we called bullshit he backed off, promising to look for an academic. Then he sent word that he had "confirmed" Asaf Romirowski, a think-tanker associated with Daniel ("My peace plan is simple: Israel defeats its enemies" and "Barack Obama Practiced Islam") Pipes's intimidation outfit Campus Watch, famous for publicizing harassing "dossiers" on academics it judges to be "wrong" (its word) on the Middle East. (For the record, those are actual Pipes lines—the first from one of his "articles," the second the title of another.) Though he apologized and cancelled the invitation after I told him he had no right to invite or "confirm" anyone for our panel, especially a propagandist, the Hillel director suggested we put off the event in order to organize something more to his liking. The panel went off very well, with a packed room and no complaints except something vague and unexplained from the Hillel director about it getting "out of hand."

Then, this May, I heard about the donor's complaint. I wrote the Hillel director, asking for clarification; he explained that this donor is also one of his board members, who had asked for a more or less routine report on the state of Israel-related affairs on campus. He explained that he indeed told the donor that he had concerns that the Jewish Studies Program was too critical of Israel.

My concern here is about campus climate, not my job; my dean rightly sees this as an academic freedom issue. I worry (1) that Hillel's increasing hubris vis-à-vis Israel on campus and the nationalist litmus test that is its new "Standards of Partnership" are toxic to inclusivity and hostile to freedom of thought; and (2) that a donor could leave a conversation with the Hillel director feeling confident enough about the term "anti-Israel" to use it as an accusation.

Ideologically programmatic action is of course illuminating, however. The Hillel director's attempt to influence the panel last fall exposes Hillel's Israel strategy. The first step is to simplify discourse on Israel by dividing it into two relatively self-evident positions: one that's relatively opposed to the occupation and one that's relatively defensive of it. The second step is to overlay onto this ostensive difference of opinion another seemingly obvious opposition, but one of identity: between being "anti- Israel" and "Israel-friendly," an identitarian opposition that draws persuasive power from the ostensible self-evidence of the term "antisemitic." This superposition reinscribes the reductive divide between opposition to and support of Israeli policies, rearticulating it as one between illegitimate and legitimate speech. Adding a voice more explicitly friendly to Israeli state policies would mean the panel would present a more obvious disagreement: one that could easily be recoded as a Manichean alternative between pro- and anti-Israel people, which for Hillel is really one between pro- and anti-Jewish people.

In our current ideological climate the term "anti-Israel" is reckless more than simply meaningless. Part of what's going on is that we're living through a significant shift in the regime of knowing, specifically in regards to identity. Claims of position are increasingly legible as—and only as—claims of identity. It's getting too easy to see in a scene of discursive antagonism conflicting kinds of irreconcilable people rather than conflicting sets of arguable claims. Such a shift is not without consequence in the new university, with its existential reliance on donor support.

I find Hillel's intellectual thuggery odious, but Hillel's voice is one among the diversity of opinions that come into contact on university campuses every day, an encounter that stands near the heart of the Enlightenment project. What's really dangerous is Hillel's effort to redeploy an intellectually specious opposition as an institutional cudgel to suppress some arguments and the academics who voice them. In helping to produce and legitimize a climate on campuses in which donors can carry concerns that in fact function as potential threats to university administrators, Hillel is making common cause with the McCarthies of world history.

Benjamin Schreier is associate professor of English and Jewish Studies and Lea P. and Malvin E. Bank Early Career Professor of Jewish Studies at Penn State University, where he serves as director of the Jewish Studies Program. His most recent book is Ihe Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literary History (New York University Press, 2015). Since 2012 he has been the editor of the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature.

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As the holder of the Emanuel Ringelblum Professorship in Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, I teach several courses on the Holocaust. The challenge in teaching this subject is to make it possible for students who often have no personal connection with the event to experience it both intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, this is one of very few subjects in the university curriculum that have real emotional impact, something I consider important to discuss with the students. What is the appropriate emotional response to genocide? Where is the dividing line between kitsch and art in reaction to this event?

One way to answer these questions is by using music not only to set a mood but also to raise important issues. I typically start my course on the “Memory of the Holocaust” with a Yiddish poem, set to music by Chava Alberstein. The course on memory is, in fact, the only course in the History Department that investigates the cultural memory of a historical event, so it is challenging for students used to more conventional courses.

The poem with which I start the class is by Binem Heller (1908–1998), a Polish-born Yiddish poet living in Israel. Entitled “Mein shvester Chaya,” it is the poet’s memory of his sister “with green eyes and black braids” who raised him when their mother went off to work. Only in the fifth stanza do we learn that “a German burnt her in Treblinka.” The poet writes his song in Yiddish since that was the language in which he remembers her. Indeed, he is the only one who remembers her and he preserves that memory in the yiddishe medine, where, ironically, Yiddish has become an alien language.

The musical setting by Chava Alberstein is deeply evocative and sets the mood for the class. But hers is not a traditional Yiddish melody, so it stands for the same alienation from the memory of the event that Heller speaks of in his poem. The song creates the longing for connection to the murdered world, but it can never fully bridge that distance, thus serving as a theme for the course as a whole.

I was trained as an intellectual historian of the Jewish Middle Ages, so my scholarly world has been one of texts. More precisely, it has been one of unadorned, often printed texts. Consequently, sound, images, and other forms of nontextual media have rarely played a significant role in my teaching. In my experience, images of medieval texts, illuminations, windows, and buildings have limited application when teaching medieval Jewish history. And attempts to integrate diverse sources and media into classroom presentations have been only marginally successful. When I played music in a class on medieval and early modern Jewish Iberia, for example, the students found the rhythms, melodies, and lyrics to be alienating at best and humorous at worst. And I was at a loss for how to mediate effectively. I’ve had better luck with film, but to say that there are few medieval Jewish historical films available is an understatement.

Yet I’ve long believed that many episodes in medieval Jewish history lend themselves to translation into visual or dramatic form that could thereby provide a fruitful pedagogical tool. With this in mind, I embarked on a collaborative project with a graphic artist, Liz Clarke, to produce a graphic history of the Barcelona disputation. This forced me to carefully consider how visual (though not entirely nontextual) media could provide a foundation for a textured introduction to Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to use this yet in a medieval Jewish history class, experimental presentation of portions of the graphic history to undergraduates in a class on a different subject was encouraging. Students who knew nothing about the topic engaged with the theological debate and constructively interrogated artistic and scholarly choices Liz and I made in organizing and presenting the story. I’m hopeful that the graphic history will provide a useful and interesting bridge between the documentary past and contemporary modes of representation.

My remarks largely pertain to teaching undergraduate survey courses in modern Jewish history or courses on modern Jewish culture, loosely defined. We live and work at an unprecedented moment in the history of pedagogy with respect to the sheer quantity and range of nontextual resources available to us. To take full advantage of this opportunity, we must first reconceptualize the classroom. Instead of merely conceiving of it as a venue where we lecture or lead discussions over written texts, it would help enormously to consider the classroom as a venue that also caters to sensory experience.

Nontextual sources can be especially helpful in our increasingly diverse classrooms, where larger numbers of non-Jewish students now take our courses, most of whom have never heard the sound of any Jewish languages or Jewish music. Indeed, this observation applies to an expanding number of Jewish students as well. If any of our students has heard a Jewish language, it is, understandably, Hebrew. But how many American college students have ever even heard non-Israeli forms of Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino? I don’t think it matters that they are unable to understand these languages; letting them just sample the sounds, rhythms, and cadences makes for a good beginning. By showing films (many of which are subtitled so students won’t be completely unaware of what is going on) or using well-chosen sound bites, students cannot but begin to develop a deeper appreciation of Jewish cultures. If, for example, they were to see Unzere kinder, the extraordinary 1951 Yiddish feature film about post-Holocaust memory that was made in Poland, starring the great comedy team of Dzigan and Shumacher; hear Bialik’s “Be-‘ir ha-haregah” recited in Ashkenazic Hebrew; watch interviews with Ladino speakers; listen to Ladino music or to recordings of the greatest operatic ḥazzanut, a tradition very few synagogues around the world have been able to maintain; or make use of websites such as that of the National Sound Archives of the Jewish National and University Library that allow one to compare and contrast widely differing versions of the same song, students will be made aware of the vast range of Jewish musical styles and their classroom experiences will be deeply enriched.

These are just a few examples of what using sound can achieve from a pedagogic standpoint. Of course, none of these resources is intended to replace textual sources, but rather to supplement and enhance them. Jewish culture in its religious and secular forms is one of the greatest of print cultures, but early on, “Hear, O Israel” was the command, testament to the fact that listening, sound, and audible recitation and proclamation are fundamental elements of the culture as well.

Bialik’s “Be-‘ir ha-haregah” recited in Ashkenazic Hebrew:

Interview with Ladino speaker:

Seven years ago, facing a recalcitrant “Intro to Religion” class and looking for anything to spur more energy in the room, I stumbled across “The Wedding of Ezra and Olivia” on YouTube, an eight-minute highlight reel of a wedding in Jerusalem between possibly the two loveliest people on the planet. More moving than your typical videography, the film is filled with music, as friends and family spontaneously break out into song, people randomly show up with guitars, and the couple themselves sing under the ḥuppah. Since discovering this video, I have incorporated it into multiple classes; and by the time it concludes, the students feel as though they were at the wedding. Pedagogically, the images and the couple’s happiness concretize the memories of the wedding rituals.

The film begins with shots of the tish(es) (tables), where the bride and groom sing, laugh, and toast their friends and family. Celebrants sing a joyful version of the “Marseillaise” in honor of the groom’s French relatives, and the bride speaks of her love for Ezra. The tishers bring Ezra to meet Olivia; he immediately breaks down in tears. This scene is followed by the bedeken (veiling), the signing of the ketubah, and more singing. As the sun goes down, the groom’s parents escort a now sobbing Ezra down the aisle, and the two engage in the rituals under the ḥuppah.

For most of my Midwestern students, these rituals are brand new; most have only ever been to Protestant or Catholic ceremonies, and seeing a couple their age, clearly in love and committed to their traditions, has a profound effect on them. The wedding is traditional, but the couple have personalized it, making choices that reflect their commitments and their love of Judaism. Because the video covers almost all of the “major moments,” I am able to pause the video and ask students what is going on, discussing what changes the couple has made to the rituals they read about (I usually assign a chapter of Harvey Goldberg’s Jewish Passages as background reading).

I know it’s not very innovative to say “I use a YouTube video” in response to this question, but this find has been truly serendipitous. Year after year even the most apathetic students start smiling and laughing and contributing to discussion. If anyone out there knows Ezra or Olivia, can you tell them that for seven years, college students in Iowa have vicariously participated in celebration of their wedding and think they are the loveliest couple around? Oh, and that they have somewhat become the personification of “Jews” for them?

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore once notes, “Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here!” As someone who teaches undergraduates who are (mostly) unfamiliar with Judaism, I rely heavily on a number of teaching tricks, including the many ways music produces “magic beyond.” In particular, I find that incorporating music into the classroom helps transport students out of the classroom and so, too, out of the middle of Michigan. Often, this transportation also involves changes to their own expectations and preconceived notions about the history and traditions of Judaism. Music informs nearly every section of the intro-level Judaism course I teach: from the place of ’Avinu Malkeinu in the liturgy, the Sephardic origins of Lekha Dodi with its image of Sabbath as bride/queen, to the writing of “Ha-tikvah” and the way the song eventually became the national anthem of the modern State of Israel. But I also draw on slightly less traditional music as well, including several of the music videos created by Yeshiva University’s a capella group the Maccabeats. A favorite among students is their “Les Misérables Medley,” which retells the Passover story by sampling from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. As the video plays, I ask students to note what they recognize and what is unfamiliar to them. The list of recognizable elements regularly includes the basics: the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt, Moses’s birth story, the plagues. When we move to what was new to them, at least one brave person usually raises a hand and asks, “What was with the guy holding the two plates in the video?” Of course, “the guy with the two plates” provides an opportunity to introduce the idea of midrash. We next read a section from Exodus Rabbah and I explain how midrash functions as a way to address “gaps” in the biblical text. I ask students to figure out what biblical “gap” sits behind Exodus Rabbah 1:26, where young Moses, playing on Pharaoh’s lap, reaches for the jeweled crown atop the king’s head; Pharaoh and his counselors, suspicious that Moses might grow up to steal the crown, put the child to a test. As in the music video, two bowls are set before Moses: one with gold and the other with burning coals. Not shown in the Maccabeats rendition is how, although Moses reaches out for the plate of gold, an angel intervenes and pushes his hand toward the coals, leaving Moses with a burned tongue. As students soon realize, the midrash explains the biblical assertion that Moses was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exod. 4:10). With the “Les Misérables Medley,” the magic of music leads the class to the magic beyond: namely, to the textual world of the Oral Torah.


As an enthusiast of computer-assisted language instruction, I became an early adopter of the internet in the mid-1990s. I have since created and posted a large volume of open educational resources for Hebrew language instruction, relying heavily on nontextual media in the development process and in the pedagogy underlying our Hebrew curriculum, where I follow the inverted-classroom model. In this model, preparation work outside the classroom creates a firm basis for skill-activation work in the classroom itself, minimizing my involvement in activities that allow for student independent learning and maximizing the efficacy of class-time activities where student-student and student-instructor interactions take place.

In the contemporary language classroom, books have gradually moved to the background, and internet-based materials are used more and more frequently. Such materials allow instructors to respond to students’ expectations for a dynamic environment in which images, sounds, animation, and interactivity are integrated into the learning process. With unlimited server capacity and robust support from our information technology services, I work with sound files in designing listening comprehension activities, flashcards with sound, and drag-and-drop and matching exercises. I ask students to articulate stories and problems based on images, and direct them to internet searches for authentic materials, including, among others, jewelry, Judaica artifacts, short movies and music clips, commercials, and photos from historical archives. All these lead into class activities in the form of conversations, debates, presentations, opinion surveys, arts-and-crafts work, role-play, and calligraphy exercises.

While I do not yet work with specific competency standards for visual literacy, my extensive use of images in both preparatory and class activities, and the established expectation that students learn how to interpret and produce visual materials, make me well positioned to adopt such standards and incorporate them into our program’s learning objectives for the upcoming years.

Since I can draw while I lead a discussion, I like to draw big pictures on the blackboard as we talk, things like the Jerusalem temple or the impaled victims on Assyrian banquet hall reliefs. Seeing the physical form of a written idea helps both me and the students think about how it could play out, and keeps all of us awake. Ancient artifacts make you think about the dialectic between physical realities and the human imagination in history. I’ve taken them to Assurnasirpal’s throne room at the Met and read them Ezekiel’s description of the hybrid monster angels with their eyes closed. When they opened them the first thing they saw were real, two-ton hybrid monster angels—the winged man-bull statues that flanked the throne of the most powerful being on earth: the Assyrian king. Seeing how an ancient object would take up space in the real world can give us surprising new insights and questions.

This is true of sound as well. Having students sing part of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice or the hymn from Revelation makes them realize this stuff was performed by people with their whole bodies, and consider how texts would have been experienced. Ultimately most of our most profound ways of knowing, learning, and doing things come from senses beyond reading. But reading, writing, and thinking are in dialogue with them. They’re not things that sitting down taking notes might naturally facilitate. But if you ask the right questions of it, just a moment of seeing or singing can provoke you to think in whole new ways.

One of the major challenges that I have always faced in my classes is the gap between the academic approach to religion and student expectations. We examine texts and scholarly interpretations in class but at the end of the day many students also want to know how “most” Jews might approach the topic. Frequently, what they really want to do is to talk to a rabbi, ask questions for which they already have scholarly responses, and compare the answers. One solution to this gap is of course simply to bring a rabbi into class, but logistically and pedagogically that often poses challenges, especially when a clergy member coming from one denomination or perspective attempts to offer global answers.

In order to address this issue, a few years ago I set out to collect video clips of rabbis from different denominations (as well as other, non-Jewish clergy) answering a variety of questions. I precirculated the list of questions—all designed around my anticipated teaching needs over the next few years in a variety of courses—and then with the help of a video team supplied by the university went to their offices and conducted an interview that usually lasted about an hour. I ended up interviewing five clergy members, creating about seven hours of raw video footage in digital form. The university’s technicians cleaned the footage and marked transition points.

For a public sample of how I used these clips to create a short video on why people enter the clergy, see the video “Serving God” on YouTube:

When I am teaching a topic, I am now able to quickly find the relevant video clips for each of the clergy, and using image software on my desktop computer, splice together answers. When we are talking, for example, about the meaning of prayer, or abortion, I can then integrate this ten-minute clip into the class, usually either at the beginning or toward the end. This allows me to give “faith” a voice but to do so in a controlled manner.

Most of my teaching deals with medieval Hebrew texts. I am fortunate to teach at an institution that has a major research library with an enormous collection of manuscripts, including a huge collection of Genizah fragments. The availability of these materials makes it easy for me to supplement my textual teaching by showing students the raw materials from which these texts are derived and from which they make their way to printed editions. Putting students into such close contact with these materials makes concrete for them the ways in which medieval Hebrew literature was used, preserved, and transmitted, besides providing them the thrill of contact with earlier times.

Thus, in my courses on Hebrew liturgical poetry, a visit to the library demonstrates, more forcefully than anything I could say, the prominence of poetry in the liturgical practice of earlier times. The illuminations in some manuscripts afford another way of looking at the texts besides the more philological work that we do in class. For a course on medieval Hebrew rhymed prose stories, I developed a session on the history of the illustrations of Ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni, the first-known Hebrew work that was designed by the author to be illustrated. Our holdings are sufficiently extensive to enable me to show the class nearly every premodern edition and the ways in which different illustrators interpreted the text. When teaching a course on Judah Halevi’s poetry, I was able to show the class two autograph Genizah manuscripts of Halevi’s documenting his famous pilgrimage. They were thrilled to find that they could make out the Arabic title (written in Hebrew letters) of the Kuzari in Halevi’s own handwriting!

I almost always devote a session of my liturgical poetry courses to the associated music, inviting a cantor/musicologist who lectures, plays recordings, and demonstrates at the piano. Last year I also invited a performer who specializes in Jewish music of the Near East and Israel to demonstrate Middle Eastern piyyut chants and to address the current piyyut fad in Israel.

I have occasionally organized field trips. For an undergraduate course on Islam and Judaism, I arranged for a trip to the 96th St. Mosque, where the imam kindly met with the class; and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a docent guided us through the collection of Islamic art. I once organized a tour to the Cloisters for students interested in Medieval Studies, again with the guidance of a docent. For an undergraduate class on common motifs in Greek and biblical narratives, I held an after-hours showing of the 1977 film Iphigenia in Aulis (with pizza) to provide an opening for our discussion of the play.

One hundred years ago, Jewish life was full of debates over languages. At the Czernowitz Language Conference in 1908, attendees argued about what the Jewish national language should be, Yiddish or Hebrew. In the Jewish community in Palestine, educators and public figures debated what the language of instruction should be in schools: French, German, English, Arabic, or Hebrew. At much the same time, east European writers like Semen An-sky and Shmuel Niger were arguing about the proper language for modern secular Jewish literature, Russian or Yiddish.

These linguistic rivalries have been relegated to history, but questions of language, specifically questions about Jewish languages, surface in other contexts. While there are many different definitions of a Jewish language, I am referring to languages that, historically, were spoken and/or written by Jews and were distinct from the languages spoken in the surrounding non-Jewish world. I believe that Jewish languages have a central place in the Jewish Studies curriculum. The question that we should be asking is not whether or not Jewish Studies programs should require students to study a Jewish language, but rather which Jewish languages students should be able to study.

A Jewish Studies curriculum should reflect the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the field, ranging from the analysis of Jewish texts to the diversity of Jewish practices and cultures to the politics and history of premodern and modern Jewish life. Language study has a critical role in the attainment of these learning objectives by cultivating an awareness of the multiplicity of Jewish existence. Jewish communal values and history, religious practices, and textual and oral traditions seep into language and language study. Practically speaking, the language offered by most Jewish Studies programs in North America is Hebrew. But the Jewish language should not have to be Hebrew.

Jewish Studies programs need to find ways to cultivate the study of a variety of Jewish languages by offering courses in lesser-taught Jewish languages like Yiddish and Ladino, adding flexibility to major and minor requirements, or sponsoring events that spotlight Jewish languages and multilingualism. Recognizing and teaching Jewish languages is critical for preserving these tongues and for understanding the dynamics of Jewish life, past and present.

As we create our new Jewish Studies program and minor at the University of Arkansas, we often discuss how best to integrate a language component, because we feel that some amount of language study is essential. Whatever approach a student takes to Jewish Studies, another language besides English will play a role. The deeper a student wishes to go, the more familiarity with languages beyond English is necessary. At the very least, central ideas in Jewish thought are inseparable from Hebrew, while study of Jewish life around the world requires knowledge of other languages, whether for practical purposes, or for historical cultural significance (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, for example, or questions of assimilation, emigration, or repatriation).

We approach the issue of language study with three concerns in particular: staffing; feasibility of completing the minor; and the university's decision to remove language study from its core course requirements. Will requiring language study discourage or even prohibit students from minoring? And if we do require language study, should we require Hebrew? Ancient or modern? What about other current or historically important languages like Latin, Greek, French, German, Russian, Spanish, or Arabic? What about Yiddish or Ladino? We are currently unable to offer Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino on a consistent basis; since we are nonetheless of the opinion that some basic familiarity with Hebrew and Yiddish, at least, is essential, we developed a course called "Introduction to Jewish Languages," in which students can learn the basics (alphabet, significant and frequent phrases, important historical information) of Aramaic, Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and Yiddish. As our program is a minor, there is also some room to encourage students to study another language in more depth.

One's answer to this question depends on one's approach to Jewish Studies overall. If one conceives of the field as synonymous with the study of traditional Judaism, with a focus on certain canonical texts (e.g., Tanakh, Talmud), then language study would be necessary only insofar as it enables the reading and interpretation of such texts.

But if one adopts a more expansive view of Jewish Studies, one that has at its heart a process of critical reflection on matters of identity and culture formation, then it is possible to grant language study a role that is more than ancillary. Since language, by nature, encodes culture, the study of language can serve as one of the many sites for this critical cultural reflection. Such a view would imply a broadening of the languages in the curriculum, beyond the traditional focus on Hebrew, to include other languages with cultural significance for Jews throughout history (e.g., Yiddish, Ladino). More importantly, the teaching of these languages would not be restricted to grammar instruction, but would give attention to the interaction between the shape of these languages and the social and historical circumstances of their use.

In a Classical Hebrew course that I developed for the Jewish Studies program at UNC–Chapel Hill, we adopt just such an approach. In addition to presenting the fundamentals of Biblical Hebrew grammar, we explore the historical circumstances behind the emergence of Hebrew as a distinct linguistic entity in the southern Levant in the first millennium BCE. In surveying such topics as the invention of the alphabet, the pre-exilic inscriptions, and the development of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic scripts, we come to understand the early history of written Hebrew in relation to the crafting of social and political identities. Thus the study of the language, beyond facilitating the reading of canonical texts, becomes also a window into the dynamics of cultural formation.

At the risk of seeming terribly old-fashioned or even cantankerous, I would have to answer this question by lamenting that it needs to be asked at all. I know it is a real question and one that—given the state of language instruction and acquisition in the United States— is posed with increasing urgency. It is a sign of the times and not an encouraging one. A liberal arts curriculum that does not have language study at its center makes no sense to me. We spend a lot of time in the academy seeking diversity and attending to difference. How can we hope to do that without teaching the languages in which other cultures flourished and understood themselves? And 'ad kamah ve-kamah (how much more so) is this true of Jewish Studies. Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, or the languages used by Jews in any of the lands and times of their existence seem to me absolutely essential if we are to know something about the civilizations they created and lived within.

In her story "Envy, or Yiddish in America" Cynthia Ozick reminded us that Elijah the Prophet is not the same as Eliohu hanovi and Bible Lands is quite different from eretz yisroel. There are an infinite number of similar examples. It is not just that one person's nakba (catastrophe) is another's milhemet ha-'azma'ut (War of Independence), offering antithetical perspectives on the same event, but that even excellent translations have different resonances because the source and target languages are directed toward and understood by distinct audiences. Surely, how we name things matters. To Ozick's reminder, we might add that Wissenschaft means more than "knowledge," yiddishkeyt more than Jewishness, and that Shoah, Khurbn, and Holocaust are not quite synonyms or translations. That kind of understanding cannot happen without language study.

The year was 1923. Hayim Nahman Bialik, then in Berlin, wrote a congratulatory letter to the editors of Dvir, a new journal of Jewish Studies that was launched in Berlin and published only in Hebrew. Bialik's letter was reprinted as the headpiece of the first issue: the founding of a journal of Jewish Studies in Hebrew in the birthplace of modern Jewish Studies was an occasion for celebration—"for reciting the She-hehiyonu." Bialik hoped that Western Jewish scholars were finally recognizing that "translated Judaism," which he claimed was an invention of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, was misbegotten from the start. Jewish Studies should be transacted only in Hebrew. Judaism is untranslatable.

How distant is Bialik's vision of such a Hebrew utopia now, and how contrary to the present state of Jewish Studies. I have been at Middlebury College for most of thirty years, hired to teach Jewish Studies and Classical Hebrew, and yet, as at other liberal arts colleges with minor and occasionally major programs in Jewish Studies, a vanishingly small number of students pursue Hebrew study for the purpose of unlocking the literary treasure trove of Jewish tradition. A few want to read the Bible.

I sympathize with Bialik's motives, if not with his plea for linguistic exclusivity: to read Hebrew texts with students means to escort them behind the veil of translation, to reveal etymology—I recall, for instance, my own thrill as an undergrad at learning that "to exile" connoted "to lay the land bare," or that the verb system of Classical Hebrew indicated a foreign conception of tense and time. And yet now it is the rare college student who will have similar experiences. The MLA statistics tell the story*: the study of Hebrew is in decline. In the four years ending in 2013, Biblical Hebrew declined by 8.7% and even Modern Hebrew by 19.4% (!). Over a decade ago, when Peter Cole visited Middlebury to give a course on the medieval poets he was collecting for his anthology The Dream of the Poem, four advanced students of Classical Hebrew were eager to meet with him weekly to read the original texts. That clientele no longer exists. Even the famed University of Wisconsin Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies eliminated its BA program in Biblical Hebrew. To be sure, Middlebury's summer school in Hebrew is thriving, drawing graduate students, undergraduates, and many professionals from government service, but the college's regular year-round courses in Modern Hebrew, like those at its sister institutions, do not fill.

Thus, it seems that nearly a century after Bialik's Ashkenazic-accented "Shehehiyonu" fewer students are interested in Classical Hebrew as the language of a long literary tradition. The shrinking number of undergraduates who do study Hebrew enroll in courses in Modern Hebrew, the key to the vital contemporary Israeli scene. Their interest is the Israeli present, not the Jewish literature of the diasporic past. Whereas Bialik sought to sustain the connection between the Hebrew literary past and the vernacular coming alive in his day, its seems to me that present trends will allow that past to recede from the field of vision of a likewise diminishing number of students.

* David Goldberg et al., Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013 (Modern Language Association of America, Web publication February 2015).

The study of languages is highly valued at the University of Tennessee, with a large Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures as well as a Department of Classics. However, languages that relate to Jewish Studies are not included in either department. This is most unfortunate, as it is impossible to study a complex civilization like Judaism without knowledge of the requisite languages. Both Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew were being taught at this institution before there was a Judaic Studies Program, but in a very idiosyncratic way. Biblical Hebrew was taught as an upper-level companion course and as an overload by the professor who taught Hebrew Bible in the Department of Religious Studies. After the faculty member's retirement, Biblical Hebrew was not taught for about a decade. In 2012, we were fortunate that the spouse of a new colleague offered to teach Biblical Hebrew. Religious Studies revamped Biblical Hebrew in line with other language courses (levels I and II) and it now fulfills the Arts and Sciences language requirement.

A Modern Hebrew tape program has existed at the University of Tennessee for more than twenty years. At this university, Modern Hebrew is known as a less commonly taught language and is located in Asian Studies, an interdisciplinary program like Judaic Studies. Students study in the language lab with the assistance of a tutor. Modern Hebrew fulfills the Arts and Sciences language requirement. In 2008 I was able to convince a donor to help fund a real teacher of Modern Hebrew. Now in its sixth year, the uncertainty of future funding necessitates our making conservative promises to potential hires, which in turn inhibits efforts to aggressively grow this course of study.

It is urgent for the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies, now in its third decade, to secure permanent funding for Hebrew language instruction and to rethink the Judaic Studies curriculum so that Hebrew will become an integral part of our course of study.

Seven years ago, when colleagues and I sat around a table to discuss Jewish Studies curricular requirements for undergraduates, our discussion was swift and unequivocal: Jewish Studies majors would need to have Hebrew or Yiddish. This consensus reflected my own sense that even in those areas of Jewish Studies in which languages are not absolutely essential for primary research, additional language skills only enhance the work.

Today, as the administrator responsible for running Northwestern's undergraduate program in Jewish Studies, I am not sure I have the luxury of demanding a language requirement that stands for rigor and baseline competence as a researcher. Under attack, the humanities disciplines are increasingly asked to justify their project through metrics: the number of students enrolled in courses and the number of students who major and minor in a given subject. While Jewish Studies is somewhat cushioned against the threat of departmental closure by our relatively large endowments, this shelter does not guarantee that we will be able to continue to offer lowenrollment specialty courses and that we will be able to replace departing faculty. A couple of recent email exchanges with students have made it clear to me that our language requirement can be prohibitive to some students who would otherwise be willing to commit to the number of courses required of a major.

This pragmatic questioning of the status quo causes me to reflect on the theoretical question from two different angles. First, I've come to realize the extent to which higher education in the United States has been undergoing a significant change with respect to languages. The movement away from core requirements has destroyed the notion of a classical education that supported both the study of the humanities in universities and the historical rise of Jewish Studies as a discipline. Second, the changing shape of humanities education is making the choice of a major in Jewish Studies harder than it has been. Perhaps the goal of such a major should not be the production of students capable of doing graduate-level primary research in Jewish Studies (a goal we are proudly achieving for our small cadre of majors), but of producing students who have honed critical thinking and writing skills while considering the subsection of the humanities that addresses things Jews have done?

In recent years students and parents have demanded that undergraduate programs produce graduates who can earn a "decent living." Enrollments in STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, math) have exploded. These majors have reduced or altogether eliminated the foreign language requirement. This trend is understandable amidst the quest for a more efficient undergraduate experience, but it is also regrettable because language is how humans communicate, and people speak a plethora of languages. Mastery of a foreign language takes considerable time and effort, but it pays a tremendous dividend: it enables us to communicate with people from different cultures. Today's world is diverse and interdependent, so reduced foreign language requirements ultimately will limit our students' chances to have an impact on and to succeed in the global marketplace.

Foreign language competence is essential to student success in Jewish Studies because it enables them to engage with aspects of Jewish civilizations across vast linguistic boundaries. In a graduate seminar at the Hebrew University years ago, I witnessed a telling exchange between the professor and a student. The professor had assigned readings in a few languages, and one student noted that he could read only Hebrew and English. The professor's response was direct and firm: "What, you think Jewish civilization exists only in Hebrew and English? How do you expect to engage with the ideas of Jews who speak other languages?" Foreign language competence enables us to examine events and ideas through others' eyes, an absolutely essential skill in today's world.

Jewish Studies also has a temporal dimension, reaching back over three thousand years. Jews at various times used Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish, and other languages. Inscriptions, administrative records, and vast literary works reveal aspects of Jewish life from biblical to modern times. Competence in foreign languages pertinent to Jewish Studies enables us to study the literary records of past generations. In a very real sense, we preserve their memory as we understand how they expressed their unique take on Judaic culture.


In a previous questionnaire I recommended organizing a graduate seminar around the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998). Of course, I could simply rehash the answer I gave there for it is still relevant today. However, this would be far too easy. It would also be far too easy to suggest one alternative film here. It would be even easier to suggest a film that is explicitly Jewish in its plot and/or characters, whether The Jazz Singer (1927) or Schindler's List (1993). Instead, I want to argue for a new approach to Jewish Film Studies—one that makes scholars and students work harder. Rather than pick yet another obviously Jewish film, why not select one in which the Jewishness is not explicit but in which it inheres beneath the surface of the text? Maybe such a film has a Jewish director or screenwriter or creative personnel or identifiably Jewish actors and actresses, which make a Jewish reading possible. Maybe none of these exist but it is still possible to read the film in a Jewish fashion. Let us reach back into Jewish history and use the tools of playfulness, intertextuality, inter-referentiality, and midrash to elicit a Jewish meaning, which may strike us as apparent in the first place. I have been applying such an approach productively to the films of Stanley Kubrick and each of his films, particularly those from Paths of Glory (1957) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). My particular concern at the moment is his Lolita (1962), which, in its adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, and casting of Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers, tackles such issues as the Holocaust, postwar American anti-Semitism, the Jewish American Mother, and Hollywood's history of stereotyping. Perhaps, then, my answer to the question is: Kubrick's Lolita.

A Serious Man

The best reply I can think of is trite: The Coen brothers, and forced to choose—A Serious Man (2009). The film offers a bleak and compassionate examination of Jewish existence and the protagonist is an academic. Professor Larry Gupman is on the cusp of tenure, when a Job-like sequence of events drives him to moral turpitude. He has a lot of tsures, and is simultaneously bribed and extorted by his family and surroundings, Jews and Goyim alike. One underlying sense appears when the Japanese father of a failed student seeking to bribe him sternly pleads: Please, accept the mystery (and the money).

The questions in the film are many as are the layers of suffering, reference, and allegory. Seeking answers, Gupnik, trying to be a serious man, turns to the rabbis in order of seniority. He meets a clueless junior rabbi (Wollowitz of The Big Bang Theory) in May or June 1967—the calendar on the wall shows both. The 1960s for the Jews it seems to say, are six days, when the old kind of Judaism died, moved from faith to platitudes. He then meets the senior rabbi, who replies to the search for reasons kindheartedly: "Well, we can't know everything"—and Gupnik retorts: "It sounds like you don't know anything". When finally the elderly rabbi appears, he is a vision out of Kafka, his wisdom summed in the adage: "be a good boy."

The film, like Jewish Studies, offers more questions than answers. Not a morality play, it is a play, declaredly one just like the meises of old. The film ends with tenure being granted (less joy than expected) as the hesitant Gupnik changes the grade, effectively accepting the bribe. As the pencil traces the new grade, a very disturbing call arrives from the doctor, a tornado approaches, and the film ends facing God's wrath from behind the adolescent's head, sound merging with his earphone: "Better find somebody to love." Well, as the rabbi says—"can't hurt, but won't save you from what's coming."

The Dybbuk

Film is a time machine—a window into a different world. This is why I want to talk here about the film that opens windows into a whole lot of worlds— The Dybbuk (1937). It tells a tragic love-cum-exorcism story, complete with beautiful lovers, wise tzaddiks, kabbalistic magic, and mysterious rituals. With its haunting score and folkloristic choreography, The Dybbuk is a window into the Yiddish cinema, with its own genres, styles, and stars.

Another window opens to its literary source, a famous play by S. An-ski, based on his ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement. Already then, in 1911–14, he noted a sense of culture being lost— and impetus to preserve it. This is our chance to talk about Jewish secularization and revolutionary movement (An-ski's trajectory)—with study and activism gradually supplanting the living, breathing tradition.

And then there are the iconic productions of the play—most notably by Habima, a Moscow theater of Hebrew language enthusiasts that would ultimately run away from Stalin's Russia and become a national Israeli institution, with tethers to Zionist ideology and history.

Another window is to the historical moment of the filmmaking. The Dybbuk was made on the brink of destruction of eastern European Jewry, in Yiddish, which was then still a language spoken by millions. (An-ski wrote in Russian; Habima staged in Hebrew). The Dybbuk gives us a chance to consider transnational Jewish culture—shot in Poland by international talent, the film was circulated anywhere Yiddish was spoken. What happened to the crew and the actors after the war? We can talk about death, survival, emigration, and triumphs and failures that come with it.

I can go on and on about this film and the ways to talk about it: gender relations, Hasidism, shtetl life, ritual, and practice. . . . One thing is inescapable: watching the film after the Holocaust, its meaning grows sinister—the entire culture captured on film is a Dybbuk haunting us.

A Film Unfinished

What is historical truth and how can documentary sources deceive us? For years after World War II, museums, chronicling the horrors of the Holocaust, displayed a series of documentary images from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. These stills, depicting Jewish suffering, seemed the truest visual evidence of Nazi horrors and the wartime Jewish experience. But, A Film Unfinished shows, these images were taken from a Nazi propaganda film, Das Ghetto, intended to harness a very different "truth"—Jewish cruelty, depravity, and lack of mutual concern—by meticulously staging scenes, since overlooked, of supposed Jewish excess and wealthier residents ignoring their dying brethren. Yael Hersonski, building on research undertaken at the Yad Vashem Film Archive and drawing on a combination of diaries, letters, and German archival documents, as well as two late-discovered reels of outtakes, pieces together both the mechanisms of deceit and the historical experience of both Jews and Nazis who experienced the process of filmmaking. Some of those sources had a stunning lineage of their own: they had been hidden in a set of milk canisters dubbed the Oneg Shabbos Archive, a desperate and prescient attempt at documentation by those who knew they would not survive the war. A Film Unfinished is a film about the Holocaust, the Nazi regime, and the manipulation of the Warsaw Ghetto as a symbol. But I find that it is also a stunning and pedagogically rich introduction to the craft and challenges of writing Jewish history: the process of sifting through multiple types of documentation from a variety of sources and the work of understanding the ideologically laden and sometimes intentionally deceptive ways in which some of those sources were constructed in the first place.