The chronologies we impose shape the histories we write. With this in mind, I want to stretch the two decades I was asked to consider to four decades and to discuss a shift in the institutional framework of Jewish studies in the United States since the early 1970s—its geographical dispersion.
When I entered graduate school in 1971, the field of Jewish studies was dominated by a handful of institutions on the East Coast, in general, and in Boston and New York, in particular. While Brandeis, Harvard, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Columbia did not enjoy a literal monopoly, their clout was far-reaching. Few universities outside the Boston New York axis had the same depth of teaching and research resources in Judaica (Berkeley and UCLA on the West Coast were not in the same league). Their PhD students, whose numbers were small, found teaching position with relative ease, in part, it was believed, because of the pervasive influence of their advisors. The "old boy" system of hiring in the academy as a whole was still alive, although weaker than it had been a decade before.
Emblematic of the East Coast orientation of the field was the seemingly permanent hold that Boston enjoyed as the site of the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies. In its early years, AJS met in the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge. The atmosphere was clubby, masculine, and insular. Not much fresh air, either metaphorically or literally, circulated in the small second-floor meeting rooms where sessions were held. My memory is that there was little in the area of modern Jewish history on the program, which was dominated by premodern, classical Judaica. The annual meeting soon outgrew the Harvard Faculty Club but it remained at a hotel in Boston's Back Bay for many years to come. The decision to move its venue every year recognized—belatedly—the changes that had occurred with the growth and dispersion of the field.
Today the unchallenged preeminence of the Boston and New York institutions is a thing of the past. Centers of excellence have emerged on the West Coast and in the Midwest and South. Who could have imagined forty years ago that Stanford University, whose reputation for hostility to Jews was then legendary, would emerge as a dynamic site for undergraduate and graduate teaching in Jewish history, literature, and religion? At the same time, some institutions have lost their clout in areas in which they once shone. Harvard's preeminence in Jewish history, for example, faded when Yosef Yerushalmi moved to Columbia in 1980 and Harvard failed to replace him with a historian with similar training and breadth. Intellectual preeminence and institutional influence are now scattered and dispersed across North America, as is the authority to guide and shape the field. Notions of what counts in Jewish studies and what kinds of research merit attention and support compete in a market that is freer and more lively than it was forty years ago.