Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Is There a Jewish Text in This Class?: Jewish Modernism in the Multicultural Academy

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Is There a Jewish Text in This Class?: Jewish Modernism in the Multicultural Academy

Article excerpt

Are courses on modern Jewish literature good for the Jews? The question has become exceedingly relevant for me since, for one thing, these are the sorts of courses I teach, and, for another, I have a growing sense that my courses, listed under the rubrics of both English and Jewish Studies, may not fully satisfy my various constituencies-including some of my students, the donors who supply my salary, and the legions of demographers worried about Jewish continuity. Whereas these varied groups often seem intent upon arriving at some grounded and coherent "Jewish identity," the writers that I teach-ranging from S. Ansky to Saul Tchernichovsky to Henry Roth to Moyshe-Leyb Halpern-celebrate the energies that disrupt cultural continuities. Rather than supporting the sanctity of collective life, they champion imaginative freedom and idiosyncratic self-fashioning. The more I read and teach modern Jewish literature, then, the more I suspect that the word "Jewish" and the word "literature," so comfortably set beside one another in the course title, turn out upon examination to clash irreverently and inconclusively with each other. Hence the question: is there a Jewish text in this class? And if not, what is the course doing in a Jewish Studies curriculum?

I offer my thoughts not only to those who teach and think about Jewish writers, but to anybody sorting through the conflicting demands of the multicultural academy. The courses that a generation ago would have signaled a defiant assertion of identity-courses such as African-American literature and women's literature-have now become required. Yet even as marginal literatures have gained this sort of legitimacy, it is not necessarily clear what such courses actually assert. In treating the case of Jewish literature here, I do not wish to suggest that the Jewish difference is necessarily analogous to, say, the Chicano/a difference or the Asian-American difference. Far from it. We have thankfully moved beyond the reflex tendency of treating all "different" identities as some monolithic Other. Yet some questions bind us together; and the one I consider below-the relevance of literature (and of modernism in particular) to a scholarly agenda of reinforcing and promoting collective identity-resurfaces with faithful regularity. I have seen enough sparks fly from the confrontation between so-called Jewish texts and readers who look to literature as a mirror for the collective self to suspect that educators working in other fields have faced similar problems and have considered the need to rethink the relationship between literature and identity.

I. Jewish Studies: From Wissenschaft to Ethnic Studies

Since the 1960s, when Jewish Studies programs began proliferating throughout American colleges and universities, the discipline's borders have become increasingly porous. Once the domain primarily of historians and Biblical philologists, Jewish Studies has welcomed into its ranks sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scholars of comparative literature. At the same time, the field's overall self-conception has changed. Inevitably, it has come to mirror the changes in American academia in general, particularly the emphasis on ethnic identity that has been a feature of college curricula for at least two decades.

The influence of the Ethnic Studies paradigm on Jewish Studies can perhaps be illustrated by the scandale that erupted at Queens College in the summer of 1996, centering around the Yiddish Professor Thomas Bird. Bird, who had been teaching in the Queens College Jewish Studies program for twenty-five years, was appointed to be the program's new director. He felt compelled to resign from the post after a mere two weeks, however, when another Queens College professor publicly criticized his appointment on the grounds that Bird is not Jewish. Elucidating his position, sociologist Samuel Heilman explained that the director of any Ethnic Studies program has responsibilities over and beyond purely administrative and academic ones. …

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