Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Na'ama Rokem

University of Chicago

Let me begin by laying my cards bare: I work on Jewish literature because it is what I know and where I come from. Navel-gazing, pure and simple. Moreover, I never quite decided to get into Jewish Studies. I studied Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then at Stanford University, and as I evolved as a student and a scholar, Jewish authors more often than not wrote the texts that attracted and compelled me. This determined the languages I learnt (I originally took up German because I was completely fascinated by Freud's figurative language) and the fields I specialized in (the cultural history of Zionism, Modern Hebrew literature). In retrospect, I've come up with several types of rationalization for what I do, for both personal and professional purposes. One of them emerges from my experience of teaching Israeli literature and culture, which has become one of the parts of my job that I value most. For me, teaching the history of Zionism and Israeli literature and culture at an American university is a fascinating opportunity to explore the power of literary texts and other cultural phenomena to expand and challenge our world-views, or, in other words, it is an opportunity to reflect on the very value of the humanities and of literary studies. Students often come to these classes with firmly entrenched perceptions about the politics of the Middle East. I see it as my role neither to confirm these views nor to change them, but rather to expose my students to complex, multivalent objects that defy the either-or logic of politics and open up spaces for reflection. Studying the contact-zone between German and Hebrew has been for me an entryway into precisely such a challenging space of reflection, forcing me to reconsider some of my basic perceptions about Hebrew culture before and after the Holocaust. So, to return to where I started, I work on Jewish literature because this allows me to question what I think I know about where I came from and because this opens a conversation with peers—colleagues and students—that I value.