How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Rachel Kranson

University of Pittsburgh

While the University of Pittsburgh does not offer an "Introduction to Jewish Studies" course, I started teaching a survey of modern Jewish history when I joined the faculty of Religious Studies in the fall of 2011. From the outset, I wanted to avoid rendering the histories of non-Ashkenazic and non-male Jews as secondary or marginal, the stuff of "special topics" on women and Sephardim. My goal was not necessarily to replace the famous men who have traditionally been studied in surveys of modern Jewish history with a new pantheon of Jewish women and non-Europeans (though I did some of this as well). Rather, I wanted to acknowledge the geopolitical and gender dynamics that allowed generations of scholars to present the experiences, concerns, and cultural productions of Ashkenazic Jewish men as the defining material of modern Jewish history. And of course, I wanted to do this in a way that was engaging and not too convoluted or complicated.

Serendipitously, my first semester teaching the modern Jewish history survey coincided with the release of the third edition of Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz's The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, 2010). I was delighted to discover that unlike the previous editions, the new edition included a wealth of illuminating primary sources that addressed the concerns and experiences of Jewish women and non-European Jews, and I assigned many of these documents to my students.

As I soon discovered, however, a large percentage of my students had purchased used, second-edition copies of the book that did not include the new texts. Rather than get annoyed by this, I decided to use it as a teaching opportunity. We began our primary source discussions by talking about which of the assigned texts could only be found in the newer third edition, and why this might have been the case. Analyzing their textbooks offered my students a concrete and entirely accessible way to think about how, for better or for worse, the study of Jewish history always reflects the choices and assumptions of the scholars who create it.