Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Cynthia Baker

Bates College

Three decades ago, as a young college student, I studied in Jerusalem. Ripe for the encounter, I fell intensely and fearfully in love with that place, ha-makom, ha-aretz. With the loss of political innocence and the heartbreak that followed, I have often felt myself caught in a seemingly hopeless attempt to make sense of it all, caught like a fly in the sticky interconnections of the web into which I've flown. Jewish Studies at times illumines for me diverse strands in this web of love and grief.

As I grow older, I find I am increasingly bemused by the human world, its confounding disparities, and perplexing preoccupations. As a child of Western education and culture, I have come to know Jew as a name by which to take hold of and wrestle with bemusement, alienation, and ambivalence; to own the strange as familiar and the familiar as strange; to recognize self in/as Other. Jewish Studies provides me many ways to face and embrace that ambivalent Jew.

Throughout my life, I have been intrigued by complex questions; by ideas that open out to other ideas, other questions, multiple possibilities. And I yearn to live within a sense of the sacred that reaches beyond common parochialisms. These impulses surely ground my choices of an academic profession and, within that, the field of religious studies. I come to Jewish Studies through religious studies, seduced—and sustained—by delight in the play of ideas and words, the resonant multivocality of practices like midrash, and by deep pleasure in a tradition that, at its best, honors questioning, challenging, and learning as sacred acts.