Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Seth Schwartz

Columbia University

American stories are supposed to feature moments of redemption and new beginnings, but my story does not. I cannot remember ever having wanted to do anything other than what I actually do. From very early childhood, I was obsessed with the accumulation of information about a Jewish past I was convinced was utterly different from my own and my parents' American Jewish experiences. I was and am an inveterate reader and re-reader of encyclopedias (what a blessing to live in the era of Wikipedia) and really got something to sink my teeth into when the Encyclopaedia Judaica came out, around the time of my bar mitzvah. Though I was a dutiful rather than enthusiastic Bible and Talmud student as a kid, long before my bar mitzvah I had devoured Graetz's History of the Jews, a variety of other old fashioned works of scholarship, Maimonides's Guide, a volume called Otzar Havikuhim, which includes the disputation of Nahmanides and Pablo Christiani, and a Hebrew translation of Josephus, Against Apion. A bemused but sympathetic summer camp librarian gave me as a gift the library's neglected copy of Jacques Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans, around the same time. The last fact points to some ambivalence, which set in during adolescence and has never disappeared. My self-image as a Jewish historian has vacillated asynchronously with my job description. I studied classics in college (admittedly at Yeshiva University), ancient history in grad school, and have subsequently experienced periods of having proprietary feelings neither about Jewish Studies (which in the U.S. has a modernist orientation) nor about ancient history (a field not really interested in the Jews, in the final analysis). So I am now in the perfect—maybe perfectly untenable-position of being 37.5 percent a Jewish historian, 37.5 percent an ancient historian, and 25 percent a classicist.