Separate Tables: Jewish Studies at the Edge

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December 1, 2002
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by Steven J. Zipperstein

I recall my astonishment at my first reading as an adolescent of Amos Oz’s novel, My Michael, where the narrator — a woman raised by a poor but bookish Jerusalemite father — described how as they walked the city’s streets when she was a child he pointed out for her with pride and awe the sighting of a Hebrew University professor. I read the book in Los Angeles in my parent’s home where, on smogless days, the big, jagged Hollywood sign was visible in the hills a few miles to the north. There the notion that a spot existed where professors were the stars seemed to me so ridiculously splendid that rarely was I able again to think about Jerusalem without remembering Oz’s claim.

This was not the Jerusalem to which I went to study in the early 1970s; nowhere, perhaps with the exception of the smallest, most provincial college towns have I encountered a place akin to Oz’s imagined Jerusalem of the 1950s with Buber or Scholem or Bergman as its philosopher king and Agnon as its quintessential, sardonic bard. Still, the image remained for me something of a poignant signpost, an amusing tidbit of nostalgia.

I built this tension between intellectuals eager for a hearing and those mostly indifferent to their concerns into my first book, on the cultural history of the Jews of Odessa – the birthplace of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, of the Zionist movement, and so much else in Jewish cultural modernity. Still, I took for granted that eager readers for such work existed beyond the university and that the full range of books on the experience of Jews in the modern age would garner the attention of readers such as rabbis, educators, and communal professionals. Products of the 1960s, my colleagues and I learned the critical importance of writing work that was broadly relevant. It seemed self-evident to us that, as Jewish life around us ripened, our books would find a receptive, nonacademic audience.

I’m now bemused by my innocence. As the years passed, and as I toured the libraries of rabbinic friends, as I spoke at synagogues, as I dined with the spouses of colleagues who worked as Jewish educators or Jewish communal professionals, as cantors, as camp directors, as quite anything and everything beyond the confines of the academic world, it became clear to me that with the fewest of exceptions our books rarely breached the boundaries of our universities. A small cluster of topics seemed to garner interest – feminism, Kabbalah, Hasidism, Holocaust, perhaps Yiddish. By and large ignored was nearly all work in history, literature, anthropology, the social sciences, and the other areas where Jewish Studies made major advances in the past decades. Moreover, in contrast to the recent past, where the learned offerings of the Jewish Publication Society of America or Schocken at least graced the coffee tables of educated Jews, these, too, had increasingly given way to plucky works of popularization accessible in ways our work could not be. Popularization, needless to say, can be done well, but even the best of such work tends to sacrifice, as it must, nuance for lucidity. Academic work is, at least at its best, difficult at times precisely because the ideas with which it wrestles can be tough, and important, and well worth expending one’s energy on.

Of course, these changes are a byproduct of much larger factors: The book business worldwide has gone through a massive transformation, much of it shaped by the Internet, and Jewish reading habits have, needless to say, been significantly affected as well. Books no longer serve as the primary mechanism for acquiring information. Reading in general has become more specialized (for academics, too), with even avid readers tending to concentrate increasingly on a very few, discrete areas of interests. And, there now exist adult education programs, like the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which seek to transmit a particular vision of Jewish studies to a select, nonacademic audience.

Still, it remains difficult to ignore that, with few exceptions, the entire, now rather large and ramified enterprise of Jewish Studies – the dozens and dozens of programs nationwide, many of which, like mine, have been lubricated generously by Jewish communal funds, the now-huge body of scholarship, much of it quite good and also readable, this impressive creation of the past couple of decades – has had little impact on the ways in which the Jews around us think, on their reading patterns, or on the ideas they care about or disparage. I don’t doubt our impact on our students (Jewish and non-Jewish alike), but it would be difficult to identify a single major issue in Jewish life that significant numbers of even otherwise well-educated Jews – including rabbis – think about differently today because of recent contributions of Jewish scholarship except for the most transparently and patently relevant (for example, population or intermarriage studies, or other examinations of contemporary Jewish identity).

What might our books have taught? Speaking in terms of history, once again, the best historical writing expands one’s sense of what is possible in the world. It reminds us to be skeptical of simple explanations of causality, to be open to the prospect of contingency, of chance, of accident; it alerts us to the limitations – the often surprisingly abbreviated shelf-life – of what seems, at the moment, the most seemingly pertinent, relevant, or inescapable. It teaches us to be on guard when confronted with irreversible systems. (Marxism seemed inescapable in the 1970s as an economic theory, and quite nearly as fatuous as Scientology today.) In terms of the implications of Jewish historical knowledge, a more sophisticated understanding of history could expand one’s sense of the prospects of Jewish life in liberal society, or the texture of Gentile-Jewish relations in less open communities, or the vitality and diversity of Jewish secular and traditional culture, or the wide ramifications of acculturation in modern life.

Like all else in the university world, the field of Jewish Studies exists to create analytical problems, to unsettle accepted knowledge, to cause unease, to disturb sleep. Jewish communal institutions, on the other hand, like nearly all institutions that cater to group identity, exist to dispense succor and support, to provide useful, hopefully comforting answers to life’s vexing dilemmas. In effect, Jewish Studies sees, as it must, as its primary goal to produce unease, to create dissonance in what is, for many Jews, the only solitary spot in their lives where they go to find solid, truthful, reassuring answers. How to negotiate between these demands and the desire to sustain a culture that, not infrequently, Judaica scholars also love, or at least intensely value, is among the field’s more abiding, fertile internal tensions.

There are many of us who entered academia, at least in part, as a strategy for living as Jews and also, albeit indirectly, contributing to the texture, to the complexity of Jewish culture. A serious, sustained relationship between such academics and the larger Jewish community is at least a part of what the vigorous building of Jewish Studies in recent years sought to achieve, and such a relationship could potentially benefit both. No doubt, some such relationships do exist, but I can’t help thinking – I recognize the image is more than a bit skewed and more than fleetingly accurate – that far more typical of contemporary Jewish life is something rather akin to a banquet hall. The room is made up of separate tables and there, at its edge, are those bookish souls whose erudition might well inspire pride but a pride that is, if one is to be candid, cool and distant and by no means urgent. And that doesn’t make one feel at all badly that their learned, rarefied talk remains mostly, even happily, out of earshot.

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Steven J. Zipperstein is Koshland Professor and Co-Director of the Taube Center of Jewish Studies at Stanford University, and currently J. B. and Maurice Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Imagining Russian Jewry. He chairs the Koret Jewish Book Awards and is a Vice President of the Association for Jewish Studies.

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