Author Archives: ajsADMin

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.

Crossing Delancey

Crossing Delancey offers a view into the changing world of modern Jewry, providing a powerful heroine who, along with her friends, highlights both the incredible opportunities available to contemporary women and the price that such freedom affords. Her aging grandmother remains linked to a Jewish traditional world of the New York Lower East Side, even as waves of new immigration have displaced the Jewish dominance of the area. Her parents have fled to Florida, where they live in an idyllic retirement world, suggesting the affluence of middle-class suburban expansion that started to occur for Jews during the 1950s, while Isabelle Grossman is making her own contemporary life in a world where her close childhood friends are still Jewish but her work colleagues orbit in other worlds, offering her a glimpse into societies that generations of earlier Jews from her social class would never have seen or imagined.

Made in 1988, the film's questions remain relevant for young Jewish women today. What is the balance between a traditional Jewish domestic family life and our work lives; can women raise Jewish children alone; to what extent can Jewish women own their sexuality, and is the pickle merchant really what he seems? In a world of JDate, speed dating, surrogacy, Birthright, and alternative prayer services some questions remain the same: can a Jewish woman have it all?

A Serious Man

The film captures the drama of "American Jews becoming white," and it does so with just the right amount of nostalgia and the kind of self-deprecating humor that Jews (pardon the essentialism) appreciate so much. The Coens manage to bring back to life the haunting memory of the shtetls and Yiddish, which for some American Jews is of course still a very much living reality; and to do so with cynicism, but also with love and true affection. The film lends itself perfectly to class discussions about modernity and the promise of the "new world" in relation to modern Jewish history. Though humorous, the film serves as a great platform through which to discuss some very serious tensions between the history of Jews as Other and the present Judeo-Christian reality created as a master narrative in the United States after World War II. It also touches upon tensions between the idea of a Jewish messianic time and the reality of the present (Christian?) world we inhabit as American modernized citizens.

While several critics have accused the Coen brothers of producing a self- loathing film full of anti-Semitic caricatured representations of Jews, I would argue on the contrary that the film demonstrates just the right amount of self-criticism, which is necessary to assure the humanist impact of what Hannah Arendt calls "the Jew as Pariah."


So many high quality films relevant to the field of Jewish Studies have been produced that it's hard to pick just one. However, I have also noticed that excellent films are not always the most effective teaching tools. Students often need more background in order to be able to appreciate a particularly ambitious and nuanced film dealing with a subject of relevance to Jewish Studies. This is probably why one of the films that I have had the most success with for the purposes of teaching undergraduates is by no means my favorite. But, when used carefully, I have found Giddi Dar's Ushpizin to be a helpful teaching tool for survey courses on Judaism.

Set in a religious Jerusalem neighborhood, this at-times humorous film follows a series of unlikely events that happen to a married couple, Moshe and Mali, over the holiday of Sukkot as they attempt to reconcile their newly adopted religious identity as Bratslav Hasidim with their struggle to conceive a child. The lighthearted but earnest plot line of the film provides countless points of reference for discussing traditional Jewish religious practice. The film also provides many, albeit filtered, allusions to the tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel.

The obvious problem with using a film like this is that it depicts one particular kind of Judaism, set in a specific time and place, as the authentic model. The vast diversity of Jewish life across time and space is not visible in this film. But, these limitations are in fact the reason why the film can work so well as a teaching tool. It gives the students a place to start. Jonathan Z. Smith argues that effective college teaching often entails what he calls "the necessary lie," or "disciplinary lying," where students are given a stable starting point for study, which is subsequently destabilized. Ushpizin works well as an initial frame of reference, which can then be problematized from a variety of directions. The students are able to recognize how much they have learned by comparing their first impressions of the film with their more informed perspective at the end of the semester.

Le Grand Rôle

The Yiddish reading of Shylock's "Hath Not a Jew Eyes?" speech is among the most memorable scenes in Le Grand Rôle (2004). The performance lands actor Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) the role of a lifetime. When the role is then given to a Hollywood star, Maurice takes on another even greater part, hiding his loss from his wife, Perla (Bérénice Bejo), who is dying of cancer. Le Grand Rôle is a tearjerker, but also an exploration of Jewish-Christian relations in Europe. Maurice's audition follows a speech by an elderly Holocaust survivor (Clément Harari). In the spirit of "all the world's a stage," the old man asserts that everyone plays roles, even that of survivor. And, perhaps, he suggests, survivors can write Shylock better than Shakespeare.

I teach early English literature and I am eager to encourage students to think not only about how Jews have been represented in works like Merchant, but how Jews have responded and continue to respond to this tradition. Some of the most engaging new research on medieval and early modern Jewish-Christian relations addresses interaction between cultures, studying not just "the Jew that Shakespeare drew," but how Jews played a role in shaping early European cultures. Maurice can play his "great role" because he is supported by a loyal group of friends, who, like him, navigate life in Paris as Jews. The film opens in a restaurant, where a powerful director pokes fun at Maurice's Jewish identity, provoking a spirited response from Perla. The film closes with a widowed Maurice on his way to another restaurant meal, this time buoyed by his Jewish friends. He stares at a poster for the film he almost starred in, remarking that he has dubbed Shylock's Yiddish lines instead. Jewish life in France seems more precarious now than when Le Grand Rôle premiered a decade ago; the question of the survival of Jewish voices in Europe is more relevant than ever.

Secrets of a Soul

Many films relate directly to my work in Jewish Studies, but I would like to point to one a bit less obvious: G. W. Pabst's 1926 film Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnesse einer Seele), the first serious cinematic representation of the psychoanalytic process. From the fertile cultural scene of Weimar Germany, psychoanalysis, like film, burst into the public consciousness, and captivated arbiters of popular culture around the world. One of these, Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, even approached Sigmund Freud himself, offering him $100,000 to consult on a psychoanalytically themed film. Freud turned down the offer ("We do not want to give our consent to anything insipid"), but two in his "inner circle," Karl Abraham and Hans Sachs, proved more willing, and with screenwriter Hans Neumann they helped create a minor masterpiece. [1]

The film opens on a domestic scene, in which a middle-aged professor, Martin Fellman (Werner Krauss, of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) is startled by a scream and accidentally cuts his wife. That evening, he has a frightful dream, portrayed in a fantastic surrealist cinematic sequence, the brainchild of Hungarian Jewish artist Ernö Metzner. After the dream, Fellman develops an acute neurosis: he cannot touch knives and is irrationally afraid of returning home to his wife. He is discovered in his sickened state by a kindly stranger, who turns out to be none other than Dr. Orth, an expert in a "new method for treatment of such illness," psychoanalysis. "There is no reason to despair!" the doctor declares. For the rest of the film, we follow, in abridged form, the ups and downs of 1920s therapeutic process, portrayed once again in Metzner's brilliant surrealism, until at last Dr. Orth effects his cure through a triumphant interpretation of Fellman's first, troubling dream.

Like psychoanalysis, Secrets of a Soul is not "Jewish." But also like psychoanalysis, it has an organic connection to the particular world of pre-World War II central Europe, one impacted so deeply by the varied expressions of cultural and intellectual contributions of its Jewish community. To me this makes the film, in addition to its beauty, a powerful spotlight on an important moment in Jewish German cultural history.

(1) Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004), 145–146. I am indebted to Professor Zaretsky for the factual content (including quotations) of this paragraph.

Seekers of Happiness

Towards the end of Seekers of Happiness, which is set in Birobidzhan—a territory designated for Jewish colonization in the Soviet Far East—Natan, a collective farm chairman, detects a footprint of a shoe he proclaims to be "foreign." On the trail to capture a man accused of beating another Jewish settler, Natan inadvertently hints at the metacontext of the film. Namely, the film aims to showcase a family of Jewish migrants, who had left the shtetl for Palestine but then moved to the Soviet Union. The film's main goal is to sniff out a "foreign" element resistant to the ideology that settling Jews on the land would help cure the degenerate economic condition typical of the newly defunct Pale of Settlement.

This film about Birobidzhan, though once dismissed as mere propaganda, can, in fact, teach us a lot. How to detect the codes of an ideological work of art, for example, is itself an important interpretative skill. Like many Socialist Realist works, Seekers of Happiness skillfully performs its ideology through a rather conventional plot: Natan is in love with Basya, who is married to Pinya Kopman, the film's "foreign" villain who is resistant to Soviet innovation. Natan is frequently depicted in proximity to a portrait of Stalin—and so, ridding Basya of Pinya allows for Stalin to enter the familial structure by proxy.

But the film is, at the same time, a terrific exhibit of how an intended ideological message shows its cracks when odd details of the work are examined. For example, on the train to Birobidzhan, Pinya and his family meet and are greeted by a strange man playing "Israel's Lament on the Banks of the Amur River." The name of the song evokes the words of Psalm 137, thus presenting the river demarcating one of the borders of the Birobidzhan region as a replacement for "the rivers of Babylon." Birobidzhan here is the newest exilic topos in a long chain of Jewish displacement—rather than the "Red Zion" it was supposed to be.

Readings such as this one ask us to reconcile the film's intended ideology with details that chip away at the same message from the inside in order to produce a complex cultural artifact of the Soviet Jewish experience.

I taught "Introduction to Jewish Studies" for the first time this past semester (Spring 2014). I let my students know at the very first meeting that the course wasn't going to be an introduction to Jewish religion, or Jewish history, or even Jewish literature. Although I think that a lot of students come to an "Introduction to Jewish Studies" expecting some or all of these things, I am fortunate to teach in a program that offers other courses that specialize in these matters. Because I am a historian, I did bring a sense of trajectory and structure to the course by relying on a broad-based narrative of Jewish history from a textbook. But my main objective for the course, week in and week out, was to provide an introduction to just what it is that Jewish Studies scholars do. As students read pieces from the textbook, I assigned them a brief scholarly article for each classroom session, engaging questions pertaining to the period about which they had read. We spent much of our time in class discussing the ways the author of the scholarly article intended to intervene in the field and to make a contribution to the literature. By exposing students to a range of scholars and methodological approaches, they got a taste of the breadth of Jewish Studies scholarship.

However, Jewish Studies scholars constantly engage primary sources directly using those methodological tools to tackle the central questions of Jewish history. To give students a taste of the role primary sources play in the field, I asked students to read selections of primary sources that animated both the narrative material in the textbook and the questions in the secondary literature.

I structured students' writing assignments to mimic the scholarly process: students were asked to participate in a library session exposing them both to hard copy and electronic resources, to write book reviews, to prepare an annotated bibliography and a paper abstract (they actually presented their abstracts to each other at the end of the course), and finally to draft a brief paper that outlined the major scholarly trends on a question of their own choosing. I hope they left my course with a facility with the basic research tools and a sense of the richness of methods Jewish Studies scholars employ, as well as an exposure to the broad arc of the Jewish historical experience.

Although Jewish American culture is most commonly associated with East Coast urban metropolises, in actuality Kentucky has a Jewish history as rich and deep as the Bluegrass itself. Some of the people, products, and places most strongly associated with Kentucky have Jewish chapters in their histories. For example, the Gratz family of Lexington and the Simon family of Louisville were related and both served instrumental roles in the development of Kentucky's two largest cities. In business, the bourbon founder Jim Beam descended from Jacob Boehm (a German Jewish immigrant). The Jewish bourbon connection lives on today in Heaven Hill, one of the last remaining family-owned distilleries, revived after Prohibition by the five Shapira brothers. And, in humanities, the epic poem "Kentucky," written by Israel Jacob Schwartz, tells of Jewish acculturation within the state and remains a seminal work within American Jewish history and literature.

Kentucky is unique because Jewish heritage is everywhere but not always immediately visible. Because of this not-yet-fully-recognized ubiquity, students at the University of Kentucky are taught a broad range of methods and approaches to both Jewish topics in the commonwealth and beyond. Part of our shared scholarly adventure is to map the unchartered territory of Kentucky's Jewish heritage. Using oral history, archival, and rhetorical methods we work together to represent Kentucky Jewish communities' diversity and to integrate their perspectives with the more familiar narratives of Jewish identity, history, and culture in the commonwealth, the United States, and the world beyond. Students learn about this rich Kentucky "Jewgrass" heritage first hand in several ways. In collaboration with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and local Kentucky Jewish community members, they work to both analyze and conduct oral history interviews. Students learn methods for uncovering, interpreting, and curating primary archival materials as well as creating and constructing new repositories of artifacts both digital and print. As a rhetorician, I find it helpful to use the tools of my trade (an understanding of audience, rhetorical purpose, and exigence) to help students engage the issues they encounter in the primary materials and our Jewish Studies courses and to better understand the texts they encounter. Our goal as a faculty is to not only teach the diversity of Jewish Kentucky history, culture, and heritage, but also to teach the tools for knowledge construction and understanding so that this heritage can be both preserved and generative.

At the University of Kentucky, we offer a minor in Jewish Studies, which means that (as of yet) there is no official course in methods. Instead, every course we teach must engage in some discussion of why Jewish Studies matters and how one best studies it. For the Kentucky Commonwealth students we meet in our classes, who are mostly non-Jewish students, Jewish Studies is important because it simultaneously offers a local context and a global passport to world history, literature, languages, and culture. And while some students may have never met a Jewish person or encountered Jewish ideas before arriving on campus, our courses enable them to put Jewish history, thought, and culture in both local and transnational perspective. Our minors graduate with first-hand experience accessing, analyzing, and helping to generate primary materials and strong research and writing skills that enable them to contextualize, interpret, and intervene in complex rhetorical situations both inside and outside of the classroom.

The main subjects usually covered in "Introduction to Jewish Studies" courses are Jewish history, beliefs, and practices. That is a huge amount and each instructor develops her or his own style. I am a historian so I begin with history, which I think is necessary to understand the development of beliefs and practices. History also encompasses topics in which some students have particular interest: the Bible; the relationship of Judaism to Christianity; the Holocaust; the State of Israel; and contemporary Jewry.

There is usually a core textbook to which other readings—primary and secondary— are attached. After trying a number of these I now use Nicholas de Lange's excellent Introduction to Judaism. It is readable, it covers the topics I want to discuss, and it avoids most of the denominational slant that colors many introductory works. Instructors often use Barry Holtz's standard Back to the Sources. I have not found a text reader that really works for me so I cobble sources together from various places. Many of them are now available free on the internet.

One problem I have found teaching the introduction is the varying levels of student knowledge, from the day-school slackers to people who never met a Jew before arriving at Ohio State. A few years ago I was doing my standard "all of Jewish history in forty minutes" schtick (with jokes, of course). I had just hit minute four—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and I thought I was doing great, when a student in the second row put up her hand. "I have no idea what you are talking about," she said. "I don't know anything about these people and I have no idea what you're saying." She was applauded. I had to rethink the assumptions I could make about student knowledge. This is tricky and I have no clear solution.

When I first started teaching Jewish Studies I took a "best athlete" route; I invited colleagues from across the disciplines to engage the students in the ways they "did" Jewish Studies. But the students lacked context and instead of seeing a synthesis of disparate methods, they saw a chaotic mishmash. So I began teaching it as a history of an idea: starting with the early Wissenschaftlers we traced the development of the study of Judaism "in its fullest scope" from Immanuel Wolf's description of the aspiring field in 1822 to its realization in colleges and universities in the twentieth century. But we found that approach too dry; the students wanted the opportunity to pry apart the political aspirations of each generation. So we turned instead toward an investigation of academic programs throughout the United States and Canada and assessed the requirements for Jewish Studies minors and majors: language offerings ("just" Hebrew or were Arabic, Persian, Yiddish, or Ladino available and acceptable?), programmatic structure (chronological or subject focused or by discipline), which departments offered the majority of courses, and the presence of an introduction to or capstone in Jewish Studies. We were surprised that hardly anyone seemed to teach a class that looked at Jewish Studies broadly, as a field in its own right, as a multidisciplinary lens through which to view a multitude of subjects. And so my students designed their dream class: historical context was followed by star lectures from across campus, and students presented semester-long projects on topics informed by their favorite academic discipline.

Next time, I will include social media and an examination of the multitude of Jewish organizations offering real-time learning on web-based platforms and in mini-conferences. In the six years since I last taught the class, Jewish Studies has exploded beyond the borders of the university. Its fullest scope includes all the portals through which people learn and engage in Jewish learning, even the study about the study itself.

I don't teach "Introduction to Jewish Studies." In some ways, this is an accident of curriculum: instead we have "Introduction to Judaism" and introductory Jewish history courses, and I've taught each. But in other ways, this arrangement is relevant—even central—to larger questions about teaching Jewish Studies. Parallel to the pedagogical question about how we teach Jewish Studies is the disciplinary question of how we know what to teach.

From where I stand, Jewish Studies isn't a discipline or a method, and herein lie both the assets of interdisciplinarity and flexibility, but also the challenges of articulating a body of knowledge or a set of skills our students should have. Where is the intellectual core of Jewish Studies? Is it the study of descent-based groups of people we call Jews? Is it the study of text? How is it related to religion? Donors, foundations, campus Hillels, and institutional structures all stake claims on this. For instance, whether Jewish Studies is a nondepartmental "center," a subsection of Religious Studies or History, or an "area studies" unit implicitly shapes the method and the student experience of Jewish Studies.

At its worst, an unidentified method or discipline can lead to unreflective valuing of all things Jewish merely because they are Jewish, and our students come away with little more than a more robust version of narratives they might hear at a Jewish day school. But at its best, it equips our students to engage with the real world, which rarely respects the boundaries of academic disciplines. Jewish Studies students can ask, for instance, how we have come to live in a world where personal history, cultural affinity, DNA, family structure, and religious observance all compete for the authority to define Jewishness. And this kind of rich and subtle questioning, in my eyes, is a central goal of Jewish Studies.

My introductory course in Jewish Studies is entitled "Judaism: Before the Law." It is a humanistic exploration of "the Law" as a concept that arises from, but also transcends, Jewish thought and practice. Students begin with the Law of Moses in the Hebrew Bible, and over the course of the semester are introduced to the rabbinic distinction between "Oral Law" and "Written Law," medieval philosophical justifications for the Law, modern interpretations of the Law as Moral Law, Hasidic challenges to the centrality of the Law, and twentieth-century Jewish fiction that is haunted by a felt absence of the Law. The course also covers the nature of rabbinic authority, methods of Jewish legal interpretation and innovation, and Halakhah as it pertains specifically to women, Gentiles, idolaters, food consumption, and the Land of Israel. In addition, the course addresses non-Jewish depictions of Judaism as essentially legalistic. Students learn how Judaism came to be stigmatized as dead letter contrasted to living spirit, corrupt flesh contrasted to pure soul, and antagonistic particularism contrasted to benevolent universalism. They investigate the origin and legacy of Immanuel Kant's claim that "strictly speaking Judaism is not a religion at all" but merely individuals "of a particular stock" who have established themselves under "purely political laws." They trace this line of thought from Paul through Spinoza and Kant to contemporary thinkers like Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou. Course materials include classical sources from the Talmud and Midrash, modern philosophical texts by Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Joseph Soloveitchik, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Kafka's The Trial with his parable "Before The Law," short stories by Bernard Malamud, Woody Allen's film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and ethnographic accounts of contemporary Jewish observance. In general, I hold the view that an introduction to Jewish Studies ought to show students how the study of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism can be a valuable exercise in humanistic inquiry. By "humanistic inquiry" I mean investigation into human thoughts, practices, and institutions as they emerge and vary in different places and times.

I have never taught an introduction to Jewish Studies per se, which would give students an overview to the various methods and approaches that scholars take when they look at people who identify as Jews. Being housed in a department of Religion, my introductory class is an introduction to Judaism. In one semester, I take students on a whirlwind tour that begins with the sacrificial cult of ancient Israelite religion and ends with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat. I have long wondered whether learning outcomes for such a class might be improved if the course were spread out over a year, but there is something about the quick pace that prohibits students from getting too comfortable with any form of Judaism as marking a site of truth, with respect to which all other forms become deviant and false. (Undergraduates, especially in the American South, are more invested in truth than most contemporary philosophers.) On the first day of this class, I introduce my students to the work of Gershom Scholem, particularly some comments on Judaism from fifty years ago that were published posthumously under the title "Judaism." That essay begins by claiming that "Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence." Whether my students are Jewish or Christian, religious or secular, they start out skeptical of the worth of Scholem's resistance to any and all abstract accounts of Judaism. But after examining such phenomena as the centralization of worship to the Jerusalem Temple in the Book of Deuteronomy, the collapse of Deuteronomistic frameworks of suffering in the rabbinic period (and later, in post-Holocaust theology), the difference between Midrashic and Maimonidean approaches to biblical texts, the radical accounts of creation in Kabbalah, and the existence of a proudly feminist Orthodox Judaism, my students are sufficiently dizzied that they can acknowledge the truth of Scholem's claim that the study of Judaism is nothing more and nothing less than the study of Jews.

For Scholem, this meant that there was no choice but to affirm the State of Israel as "the living force of the people of Israel," but such a claim falls into the same problems of abstraction that Scholem decried in Jewish theology. In a time when "just Jewish" is a sociological term of art and Birthright trips are yet another manifestation of college hookup culture, Judaism can be taught as itself, as just as ordinary as any other religious tradition. The political potential of such a pedagogy is greater than we scholars might realize.