Teaching about Jews and Place

Caryn Aviv
July 5, 2012
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“Trees have roots, Jews have legs.”   -Isaac Deutscher


Here’s what’s currently on my desk:  Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism,” Barbara Mann’s “Space and Place in Jewish Studies,” the latest issue of Habitus: A Diaspora Journal: New York.  I’m revising a course called Global Jewish Societies, while trying to get organized for a trip to Madrid and Barcelona.  In between course revision and last minute errands, I dip into a text about the Jewish histories of Spanish cities so that I can do self-guided walking tours next week.  In short, I am obsessed with Jewish identity formation in different spaces, places, and historical eras.

My global Jews course draws on various disciplines and types of texts to think about the places that Jewish people have called ‘home’ over the arc of Jewish history. Throughout the course, I ask students the following questions:  what makes particular places and people ‘Jewish,’ in diverse and divergent ways?  How have Jews circulated among different Jewish nodes of home and Jewish culture?  What are some important consequences and legacies when geographical locations and political conditions of home change over time, either by choice or coercion?

I’ve learned three things about Jewish place and space over the past several years of teaching this course that I’d like to share:

One of the things I’ve struggled with is the question of scope, since the topic of Jews and place literally sprawls in all directions.   If you wanted students to learn about migration, Jewish memory, experiences of political alienation and/or resilience, which places would you choose?  Berlin or Budapest?  Johannesburg or Los Angeles?   These are repetitive motifs in historical Jewish experience, and they wend their ways through the memoirs, narratives, and texts of Jews in so many different historical eras and places.    If we’re talking about nationalism and theories of diaspora, should I make the more obvious choice of introducing students to early Zionist thought?  Or might it be more interesting to focus on a more unusual choice – say, the history and complexity of Jews in Tehran?   When talking about trauma, loss, and rupture – the obvious choice is to focus on Jewish experiences of World War II.  But over time I’ve discovered that exploring these topics in relationship to Jewish Buenos Aires is just as relevant and compelling to students as reading Holocaust memoirs.  That leads me to my second insight about Jews and place.

Second, whether we like to admit it or not, Jews are a haunted, traumatized people who often express an ambivalent and complex relationship to individual and state power.  I don’t like to overemphasis the notion of victimization to teach Jewish history.  But I’ve found the concept of haunting is a useful way to think and teach about relationships between Jewish experiences of power and place.   Early on in the course, I introduce students to the work of Avery Gordon, a sociologist who wrote an important book called “Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination.”  Gordon argues that the idea of haunting ties together very disparate histories and case studies: American histories of racism and slavery, the evolution of psychiatry and its early erasure of women’s contributions to the field, the case of desaparecidos in Argentina, among others.  Her intent is to use haunting and ghosts as metaphors for what is seen but not seen, what is felt but often suppressed, what is present but somehow ghostly and absent.   Gordon writes: “If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on, and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just the sign…that tells you a haunting is taking place.” By using Gordon’s work, we look at Jewish experiences of different places to ask: how do some people wield power opaquely or bluntly, in other people’s lives?  What is ‘there’ but not there, generations later?  What is remembered and what is (deliberately, unwittingly?) forgotten?  What things (memories, people, places) are felt, through their absence, often unconsciously or via disruption? These are questions that resonate for understanding the experiences of Spanish Jews during the Inquisition, German Jews of the 19th and 20th centuries, and two generations of Cuban exiles in contemporary Miami.

Finally, I’ve learned that students don’t really ‘get it’ about Jews and place unless you ask them to make sense of those questions from their own experience. So I send students out on an urban ethnography project to map Jewish Denver and Boulder.  I urge them to visit synagogues, museums, the new Jewish farm, bookstores, delis, community centers, and Jewish cultural events.   Their task is to see how Jews construct community, identity, and meaning locally, and how that compares to theoretical ideas and case studies we’ve explored.  This project concretizes ideas of eruvim and geographic concentration/dispersion, and it often makes the roiling debates about assimilation and affiliation more tangible.  My hope is that students, whether Jewish or not, come away with a more nuanced understanding of the varieties of Jewish experience, and a deeper appreciation for how individual and collective identities are informed by complex relationships to place.

Almost every author in this month’s issue of Sh’ma situates their life in a specific place, and speaks in first person narrative.  That’s not accidental.  How can we talk about Jewish identity and history without talking about our personal relationships to home, memory, and travel from place to place?   It’s our relationships to real and imagined places, embedded in complicated relationships to power, that marks a quintessential aspect of Jewish existence.

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Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

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