- Nathan Abrams, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Bangor University
- Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, University of California at Berkeley
- Jeremy Dauber, Atran Associate Professor of Yiddish, Language, Literature, and Culture and Director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University
- Jonathan M. Hess, Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture and Director, Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Eleanor Kaufman, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of California, Los Angeles
- Ari Y. Kelman, Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies, Stanford University
- Julian Levinson, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Michigan
- Shaul Magid, Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies, Indiana University
- Barbara Mann, Simon H. Fabian Chair in Hebrew Literature, The Jewish Theological Seminary
- Paul Reitter, Associate Professor of German and Director of the Humanities Institute, The Ohio State University
- Allison Schachter, Assistant Professor of English and Jewish Studies, Vanderbilt University
- Moulie Vidas, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of California at Davis
The text I would choose would be Joel and Ethan Coen's film, The Big Lebowksi (1998). While many of the Coens' films—Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and, of course, A Serious Man (2009)—are essential to understanding contemporary Jewish cinema, The Big Lebowski is the epitome of many new Jewish cinematic trends, particularly those in evidence since 1990. Its key Jewish character Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is not only a slightly deranged Vietnam veteran, he is also—atypically—a convert to Judaism. Unusually for a cinematic Jew, Walter is not identified by any decontextualized markers (indeed Walter is not even ethnically Jewish), but by his beliefs, values, and behavior. Thus Judaism rather than Jewish ethnicity defines Walter. Walter is doubly unusual in cinematic terms in that he is a convert and, for a non-haredi Jew, maintains a level of Jewish Orthodox practice. Walter appreciates, understands, and takes his adopted faith very seriously, certainly more so than many other Jews on film, haredi or otherwise. At the same time, I would argue that the Coens use Walter to mock the de-Semitizing and de-Judainizing strategies of the past. One cannot help reading him as nothing less than a deliberate parody of those Jewish directors (particularly the moguls of the studio system) who denuded their films of Jews and Judaism and/or produced crass, sentimentalized caricatures for didactic effect and Gentile consumption. Furthermore, Walter's passionate, even fanatical, adherence to the rules of bowling can be read as a critique of the increasing stringency amongst Orthodox and haredi Jews who, it has been argued, prioritize obedience over spirituality. Walter thus becomes a satiric representation of a particularly dogmatic and buffoonish rabbi. Overall, The Big Lebowski provides a wonderful text for considering contemporary Jewish cinema and how it has metamorphosed over the decades.
University of California at Berkeley
My first choice for a text to which to devote a graduate seminar would be Agnon's Tmol Shilshom [Only Yesterday]. I actually made it the topic of a Berkeley seminar in Hebrew literature that I taught in the early 1990s and regret that I haven't repeated it. Tmol Shilshom is arguably the greatest novel in Hebrew, and it is certainly the one modernist masterpiece in Hebrew. It needs to be read in the original because of its extraordinary stylistic subtlety and the rich play of irony and allusion detectable in the Hebrew. (The English translation is problematic, and when I once taught it in an undergraduate course, I don't think it went over very well.) Tmol Shilshom represents a strenuous reversal of the European Bildungsroman that ends in tragedy, or perhaps one should say, in a violent catastrophe for the protagonist that is an absurdist Akedah. Yitzhak Kummer is one of those young men from the provinces populating ninteenth-century fiction who makes the journey to fulfill himself not to the big city but to Palestine of the Second Aliyah. In the language of the old Zionist song invoked in the opening paragraph, he comes "to build and to be rebuilt," but his naïve aspirations turn into a shambles. Agnon offers a penetrating and unblinking portrait of the dilemmas of Jewish modernity, in part figured through Kummer's oscillation between bohemian Jaffa, where he has an erotic entanglement he can't really handle, and fanatically Orthodox Jerusalem, where he finds a pious bride and death. The inner contradictions of the Zionist enterprise and the lethal ferocity of Orthodoxy are equally exposed, and probing historical realism is interwoven with fantasy and macabre comedy in the chapters devoted to the reflections of Balak, the philosophical dog, one of Agnon's great inventions. The novel is densely textured with symbolic motifs, as the critics have shown, and endlessly inventive—perfect material for enjoyable and instructive investigation.
Maybe it's the fact I just finished a book on its author. Or maybe it's the fact my wife just gave birth to our first child earlier this week, so I'm particularly attuned to works featuring fathers and children. But I don't think those are the only reasons I'd pick Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman (Tevye der milkhiger) as my graduate seminar's central text. Our theoretically minded comparative literature students wouldn't know where to begin: would they write papers incorporating narratological theory to try to pin down Tevye's talking strategies? Would they employ discourses of gender and power to work on the representation of his daughters, and Tevye himself, constantly claiming he's no woman? Or would the deconstructionists come to the fore, citing Tevye's triumphant references to binary divisions—divisions the stories then work busily to undermine? They'd be challenged by our history students, who'd insist that to read the Tevye stories, written over more than two decades, is to read the story of modern Eastern European Jewry writ small. Some might try to tease out the particular ideologies represented by Tevye's daughters and their suitably unsuitable mates; and others might try to locate clues to their author's beliefs in the stories' complex publication history. And our Yiddish students, of course, would remind everyone of the language—Tevye only exists in language, after all, both as a fictional character and as a monologist. And they'd say that the robust history of literary criticism on Tevye can be a key to the history of Yiddish itself in the modern era, both in its Eastern European and American incarnations, both during Sholem Aleichem's life and the strange transformations and transmogrifications of his text's afterlife.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Two decades ago, while I was finishing my PhD in comparative literature, I fantasized about prospective employers asking me this question. Trained in the heyday of high theory and schooled in the virtues of close reading, I was prepared to suggest any number of texts whose rhetorical, formal, and philosophical complexity made them prime candidates for intensive study in a graduate seminar. Given the directions that the field and my own work have gone in over the last twenty years, structuring a seminar around a single text holds somewhat less appeal for me today. Indeed, my recent work has moved away from the model of close reading, whether exploring the vast body of popular fiction produced by Jews for Jews in nineteenth-century Germany or studying how performances of Jewishness on the nineteenth-century stage helped give rise to cultures of liberal universalism.
Rather than dedicating a seminar to close analysis of one text, I would organize a seminar on the transnational performance history of the most popular German play of the late nineteenth century, and a text that, tellingly, no one ever suggested I read while I was in graduate school: Salomon Hermann Mosenthal's Deborah (1849). When it first took German stages by storm in the 1850s, Mosenthal's melodrama was dismissed and despised by both the literary elite and official organs of Jewish community life. But Deborah became for Jews and non-Jews in nineteenth- century Europe and America the most popular drama on a Jewish theme and a favorite vehicle for celebrity actresses and aspiring stars alike. Deborah was translated into thirteen languages, including English, where it was known primarily as Leah, The Forsaken, but also as Miriam, Naomi, Ruth, Hager, and Lysiah, The Abandoned. The seminar would certainly involve close reading, depending on students' linguistic skills, of German, English, American, and other adaptations of Deborah. But students would read these texts against the backdrop of the Czech opera Debora, the American burlesque Leah, The Forsook, the British novel Leah, The Jewish Maiden, and at least one of the three silent films based on Deborah. Focusing on the cultural mobility of this material, I would accompany readings of texts with close readings of responses to performances of Deborah in the nineteenth-century press. I would introduce all this material with a survey of key precursors, from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Lessing's Nathan the Wise, and Richard Cumberland's The Jew to selections from Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and scenes from Fromental Halévy and Eugène Scribe's grand opera La juive. Recent work in theater history and performance studies would give the course its theoretical interlocutors—and its rationale for supplementing the sacrosanct model of close reading that was so crucial to the way an entire generation of literary scholars was trained.
University of California, Los Angeles
My choice of a single text around which to situate a Jewish Studies course would be Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise (TTP, published 1670). Admittedly, this is a fraught choice in this context, given that Spinoza was famously excommunicated from the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656. Moreover, his writings are often taken to equate God and nature and thus espouse a pantheistic impetus above and beyond a monotheistic one; and his at times quite comical assessment of the Hebrew prophets in the TTP is generally far from flattering. My course would examine such theological reflections directly and through close textual analysis; with this, I would devote the first part of the term simply to a careful reading of the text, without relying on outside sources. Then, for the remaining weeks, I would introduce the students to the rather extraordinary range of commentary on Spinoza and on this text specifically. We would look at the tendency to read the TTP in light of Spinoza's most celebrated work, The Ethics (1677), thereby downplaying the theological dimension of his oeuvre, something notable especially in studies of his work by eminent Continental philosophers (Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Étienne Balibar, and the excellent collection by Warren Montag and Ted Stolze, The New Spinoza). I would then turn to an increasing body of work on Spinoza that regards him as a Jewish thinker despite his clear distance from and tension with Judaism, in the fashion of Daniel Boyarin's A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (e.g. Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza). Related to this is the important work of Jonathan Israel, Steven Nadler, and Willi Goetschel that considers Spinoza's Jewish background as the basis for a philosophical system that becomes one of the pillars of secular if not atheistic thought. Finally, I would turn to the minor strain of criticism that takes seriously the fact that Spinoza favors apostles over prophets in the TTP and holds the example of Christ considerably higher than those of the Hebrew prophets. In this context, Graeme Hunter's Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought is exemplary. Having taught a graduate seminar on "apostate Jews" in which the TTP was one of the featured texts, I see the merit of devoting a whole seminar to it.
The Jewish Catalog. It is a brilliant, vexing, peculiar, uneven document of American Jewish life in the late twentieth century. It emerged at the intersection of so many complementary and contradictory forces that it offers a way into any number of conversa- tions about the parameters and problematics of American Jewish education. An intentionally educational document, The Jewish Catalog can provide a window into Jewish communal politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, trends in American religion, the spiritual life of the counterculture, longer histories of guides to Jewish life, the dynamics of institutional and counter-institutional Jewish life, and the relationship between technology and education. And most of that does not begin to touch on the book's content, or what might be learned from conducting oral histories with the book's editors and contributors.
One of the challenges of graduate seminars is balancing the students' centripetal interests and the gravitational center of the class's discussion. The seminar should provide a space for ongoing, shared discussion that allows the students to continue developing their own ideas and interests that will eventually inform their dissertations. As a primary document, The Jewish Catalog could provide an opportunity for engaging in mixed-method or interdisciplinary research while still anchoring the seminar in a shared investment in a common text. It is accessible enough to be engaging and not open enough to be self-evidently meaningful. It is frustrating, fascinating, and funny, and it invites students to explore it through a variety of modes and methods.
University of Michigan
My choice would be Henry Roth's 1934 novel, Call It Sleep, which is quite possibly the most subtle and comprehensive literary work addressing the American Jewish immigration experience. As with any truly "classic" work, Call It Sleep can be read (and has been) in sharply contrasting ways. It can be seen as a celebration of multilingualism and ethnic pluralism, as a Bildungsroman, as a masterpiece of urban modernism, as a meditation on the Oedipal dynamics of the immigrant family, as an expression of Jewish longing for the gentile world, and as a cautionary tale about the effects of jettisoning Jewish tradition in an all-out embrace of American freedom. Whereas countless modern Jewish works express some measure of ambivalence about categories such as tradition and modernity, Roth's novel could be more properly called "multivalent": it expresses a number of distinct viewpoints, each one seemingly with great conviction. For instance, the traditional rabbi is depicted as a cruel and ignorant brute, but the Jewish textual tradition (in this case the Parsha to Jethro) is valorized insofar as it offers the young hero a solution to his deepest anxieties—as well as a paradigm for approaching God.
A seminar devoted to Call It Sleep could identify its range of perspectives on Jewish modernity and American urban experience, while also raising fundamental hermeneutical questions about whether and how a definitive "reading" of the text might be possible at all. Various methodological approaches could also be introduced. A unit on intertextuality could focus on its dialogue with James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and with Christian and Jewish readings of the Book of Isaiah. A unit on language could consider Roth's depiction of Yiddish as crystal-clear English, while also exploring the contrast between the broken English of the characters and the often exquisitely lyrical English of the third-person narrator. A unit on reception history could consider the dramatic resurgence of interest in the novel among second-generation American Jewish intellectuals in the early 1960s and, indeed, its position as a cornerstone in the emerging canon of Jewish American literature.
This is an interesting exercise for a variety of reasons. First, it allows us to ponder what might be the goals of a graduate seminar more generally. Second, it enables us to explore the singularity of a text, removing it from its embedded and contextual place as part of a book or compilation in order to see whether and how one text can carry the weight of an entire semester.
I have chosen Nahman of Bratslav's Likkutei MoHaRan I:64 as my text. Many of the col lected homilies of Nahman (this one included) are fairly detailed examples of hermeneutic virtuosity focused around a narrow theme, often veering far afield to include many other subjects that are then swept back, through the warp and woof of midrashic/kabbalistic read- ing, to the central question. Written in a loose, proemic style whose focus is often a personal rather than textual subject, Nahman's work offers students exposure to a variety of textual and theological issues. It exposes students to the world of rabbinic/kabbalistic texuality while simultaneously offering them a window into the personalistic and devotional focus of Hasidic and pietistic Jewish spirituality.
The themes of lesson #64 are doubt and heresy framed around Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh and Pharaoh's "hardened heart" (Exodus 10:1–4). What is so intriguing about this homily is the personal notion of self-doubt, the existential anxiety where belief and un-belief each occupy space in the psyche of the adept. Nahman's ability to locate human doubt in the metaphysical "empty space" (halal ha-panui) God creates to set the conditions for creation reifies human anxiety as a condition for, and endemic to, creation itself. The questions that are raised in this homily extend from the hermeneutical to the existential, from the kabbalistic to the psychological. For those interested in Jewish heresiology from a psychotheological perspective, this text produces seemingly endless fodder for reflection.
Addendum: When I was a graduate student at the Hebrew University in the 1980s I had the honor of studying with David Flusser. We had an evening seminar and a few of us would walk Professor Flusser to the underground garage where a taxi would take him home. During one of these walks he asked me what I was studying, and I told him Nahman of Bratslav. He said, "Nahman was the only one who truly understood the crisis of human existence (mashber be-hayyim). More than Maimonides, more than Kook, more than anyone." Trying to be clever, I responded, "Do you mean the personal crisis (mashber perati) or the collective crisis (mashber klali)?" He stopped and stared at me and asked, "Are you married?" to which I responded "yes." "Then," he said, "you know that they are both the same thing."
The Jewish Theological Seminary
I've taught A. B. Yehoshua's epic novel, Mr. Mani (Mar Mani, 1989) as part of a graduate seminar called Critical Theory and Jewish Studies. In the course we read "primary" theoretical texts from Saussure to Butler, "secondary" texts by Jewish Studies practitioners of these approaches, and a single canonical text, which serves both to anchor the course and acts as a kind of laboratory in which students may perform their own symptomatic readings.
Mar Mani's compositional style makes it both a pleasure and a challenge to teach. The novel opens in the present and unfolds as a counternarrative. As readers move forward in the book, the narrative itself moves back in time, through Palestine and eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth-century to early nineteenth-century Greece. The novel is constructed as a series of one-sided conversations: each long chapter presents what is essentially a monologue, spoken in a particular character's voice and providing in often elliptical fashion crucial details about the Mani family and their fortunes. Finally, each chapter's linguistic style is distinctive to the period in which it is set; thus what begins as broadly vernacular Israeli Hebrew devolves into a pastiche of nineteenth-century nusakh, maskilic fanciful phrasing, and liturgical references.
Mar Mani is absorbing and dizzying in its own right and demands close attention to detail on the level of the individual sentence, as well as the novel's superstructure. At the same time, when systematically examined under the microscope of theory, the novel repeatedly yields new connective fibers. Students finish the course with knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of theory, but also with a more critical sense of what kind of readers they are, and how this sensibility may be translated into their own scholarship.
The Ohio State University
If I had been asked this question a few years ago, I might have proposed a throwback course, where the goal is to arrive at a better understanding of a single key work through sustained analysis, where, that is, the key work is itself the topic of the course. But I recently taught a course like this—on Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities—and while the experience was rewarding, I'd like to try something different before repeating it. So then the question becomes: Which text would provide a particularly fruitful way into a topic that I'd like to teach. And the text that comes most readily to mind is Gershom Scholem's diaries. I'm interested in offering a course on German-Jewish culture at the fin of the fin de siècle, and the notebooks that Scholem, who was born in 1897, kept between 1913 and 1919, seem to me to take us into that topic in all kinds of productive ways.
In the first place, of course, the diaries are revealing with respect to Scholem himself, a cultural phenomenon of no small importance. They show that he was still in his teens when he began to formulate the ideas on which his later success would be based, and also that he began to formulate those ideas as rebellious intuitions. More even than his precocious learning, what guided him was the sense that the great German-Jewish historians of the nineteenth century must be, in basic ways, utterly wrong, for they had written in a spirit of compromise and accommodation.
Scholem is anything but a representative figure; yet the dynamic of rebellion and innovation I just described is hardly unique. And for all his extraordinariness, young Scholem could be used as a case study in the mechanisms of productivity among German Jews of the expressionist generation.
But it wasn't only Scholem's mature ideas about historical Judaism that the diaries begin to articulate. What he wrote in them as a teenager often comes close to many of his influential later claims about German-Jewish culture. The diaries abound with arresting commentary about such things as the condition of the acculturated bourgeois Jewish circles in which Scholem grew up, the Zionist circles in which he eventually moved, and how the best German-Jewish artists drew on Jewish tradition, whether they were aware of it or not. Thus the diaries invite reflection on all these aspects of German-Jewish culture, as well as on the continuities between the primary material of German-Jewish culture and the more important secondary accounts of it.
The diaries also contain quite a bit of useful information about the daily lives of Jewish university students, but that may be a topic for another seminar. Because of my space constraints, it is definitely a topic for another day.
I would organize a course on gender and transnational Jewish modernisms centered on Leah Goldberg's 1946 modernist novel Ve-hu ha-or (And That Is the Light). Set in 1932, on the eve of the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Goldberg's novel interrogates the place of Jews in European culture and the place of women in both Jewish and European literary and artistic culture. This metaliterary novel negotiates the social and political backdrop of Jewish life in prewar Europe and engages with a range of literary traditions, including Scandinavian, Anglo-American, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew modernism. The course would investigate these different strands of Goldberg's novel, locating them in the context of her corpus as a whole, including her fascination with Christian imagery, her engagement with European Orientalism, her portrayals of female sexuality and eroticism, her depictions of mental breakdown, and her blend of impressionist and expressionist style. In addition to Goldberg we would read a selection of modernist writers with whom she is in dialogue, both in her prose and her criticism, including Henrik Ibsen, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Dovid Bergelson, Yosef Chaim Brenner, and Uri Nissan Gnessin. Placing Goldberg in dialogue with various writers and critical traditions, the course aims to rethink the boundaries of Hebrew modernism, looking at its vexed relationship to Anglo-American and European modernist movements. Moreover, we would interrogate how her relationship to all of these traditions is inflected by questions of gender. Another important aim of this course would be to situate Goldberg as a key figure of European intellectual and modernist literary history. To that end, the course would connect her to important Jewish émigré intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt and Erich Auerbach, and to the field of comparative literature more broadly.
University of California at Davis
The graduate curriculum in my field is so text-centered that I'll probably have many opportunities to teach seminars focused on a Talmudic chapter or the interpretive career of a Biblical passage. The question, however, invites a fantasy; it also invites us to think of a seminar organized around a text but not necessarily a seminar about a text. Taking this opportunity to indulge in a playful counter- factual, I choose Johannes Eisenmenger's Entdecktes Judenthum, the notoriously hostile compilation and interpretation of rabbinic texts (or, alternatively, its medieval predecessor, Paris Ms. BNF Lat. 16558). In a real seminar, this text might be taught by an expert on anti-Semitism and it might be studied as an instance of scholarship in the service of hate or oppression. In my counter-factual seminar, fantasized from the privileged situation of what Israel Yuval called "the postpolemical" age, this text will not be studied for itself. It will, rather, supply a canon of Talmudic passages to organize a seminar in which the Talmud is encountered as a provocative, even scandalous text. While the "bizarreness" of the Talmud in Eisenemenger's book is often achieved through distortion or selective quotation, on a disturbing number of occasions we may find ourselves scandalized along with Eisenmenger, experiencing the gap between the late ancient document and the modern scholar (an encyclopedia of anti-Semitism faults Entdecktes Judenthum for "accurate" but opportunistically "literal" readings). It will be a lesson in the Otherness of the Talmud and its causes (is it something in the document itself? in our modern assumptions? in our Christianized assumptions?) and in ways to overcome that Otherness.