Tag Archives: john-efron

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:

As modern Jewish scholars, all of us, irrespective of our fields, are the heirs to a small band of German-Jewish intellectuals who gathered together in 1822 to found The Society for the Academic Study of the Jews. While we would no longer subscribe to the Society's goal of bringing the Jews "to the same point of development reached by the rest of Europe," we can and should still be guided by Paragraph 3 of the Society's founding statutes: "the society should work from above by promoting significant and rigorous projects, assuring their accessibility and interest to the largest possible audience." From the very beginning then, the founders recognized, in my opinion quite rightly, that scholars of Jewish Studies have a responsibility to the Jewish community, that the fruit of our labors was not merely to be passed from hand to hand among a small band of academics but that it be shared with the broadest possible audience.

There are several important reasons why this should be so. One of the most important features of Jewish Studies programs is that we take seriously the statute's demand for rigor. By adopting that as a guiding principle, Jewish Studies programs have avoided becoming advocacy programs—I am well aware of increasing pressures, especially when it comes to the subject of Israel—and we remain guided by the goal of producing rigorous scholarship. That pursuit of excellence has endowed Jewish Studies with credibility and has been of incalculable value in assisting with the proliferation of Jewish Studies programs because donors and university administrators alike wish to be associated with excellence. And it is here that we have a genuine partnership with the Jewish community. No small number among the readers of this piece, owe their positions to the generosity of Jewish philanthropists, whose commitment to Jewish Studies makes our work possible and ensures that will be the case for future scholars.

There is another reason that we should feel a sense of responsibility to the Jewish community and it is that we in Jewish Studies are in the happy position of having a curious and eager audience. In my own field of History, in a department of around sixty faculty, very few would ever have the opportunity to speak to people outside the academy. This is simply not true of Jewish Studies scholars and we should count ourselves as fortunate because of it. And as weak as the publishing market may well be, it is still the case that hardly any ethnic group in the United States purchases scholarly monographs to the extent that members of the Jewish community do. Jews thirst to learn more about their history, their culture, and their sacred texts and call upon us to teach them. I believe it is our responsibility to honor their call. There is no more eloquent testimony to this position than that articulated by Franz Rosenzweig. In his 1920 inaugural address to the Lehrhaus, the adult education school he founded in Frankfurt, Rosenzweig declared: "They [the students] have come together in order to 'learn'—for Jewish 'learning' includes Jewish 'teaching'."