Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Todd Presner


In the mid-1990s, I went to Germany to study the language and deepen my knowledge of German philosophy. Among other places, I spent time in Weimar, a city famous not only for being the birthplace of Goethe and Schiller but also the first location of the Bauhaus and home to the Nietzsche archive. A short bus ride up a hill outside the city leads to Buchenwald, a massive, sprawling concentration camp, marked—at the time—by giant anti-fascism monuments erected by the Soviets. The horrible proximity of Weimar and Buchenwald was, to me, the distillation of Adorno's culture/ barbarism dialectic, a complex history of civilization and violence that simultaneously entangled and estranged German and Jewish.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin's writings on urbanism, I lived in Berlin for a large part of 1995 and 1996, trying to piece together the history of the city as the city tried to piece itself back together. Monuments and museums for the Holocaust were debated almost every day in the press, while on the ground, traces of the Jewish past were often very hard to find. I spent several days looking for Berlin's Judenhof, only to find apartment courtyards and parking lots. I first found the Judenhof on a 1772 map of the city, and I used that, like a palimpsest, to guide my search in the present. Not unlike Benjamin, I found the streets conducted me downward in time, into a thickly layered past. I walked to the Anhalter train station, which was now just a ruin, knowing that Kafka, Celan, and Benjamin had entered and left Berlin from this station. Birch trees grew through its derelict tracks.

I went into Jewish Studies initially to untangle the German-Jewish dialectic but found that I could only tarry with it. German-Jewish Studies was and still is a spatial practice for me, marked not only by spaces of memory and oblivion but storytelling and way-finding, marking and annotating places of encounter, productivity, and destruction. I felt an obligation to map these histories as places, to struggle with their otherness, and to develop a kind of relational ethics between the then and there and the here and now. Jewish Studies became a way of listening, an attentiveness to the many pasts, which called out, however faintly, to a different future. I am a cultural historian of these pasts.