Jenny Caplan joins us to talk about why teaching and studying Jewish history and Jewish Studies matters. Listen to our conversation about how we teach and talk about Jewish studies and Jewish history, how we justify its study to our students, to our colleagues, and to the wider world, how we can reach diverse students—and the challenges and opportunities it presents.
- Jennifer Caplan, “‘Well At MY Temple in Scarsdale … ‘: Teaching Beyond the ‘Heritage Student’ in Three Institutions.” Shofar 32, no. 4 (2014): 105–121
Jennifer Caplan is an Assistant Professor at Towson University’s Dept of Philosophy and Religious Studies. She’s working on a book manuscript tentatively titled “Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Humor and American Judaism,” and She teaches courses at Towson including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Introduction to Judaism, and courses on Jewish graphic novels, American Jewish humor, Jewish literature, and race, gender, sexuality and Judaism.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Why Jewish Studies
Jason Lustig: I hoped this could be an opportunity for us to to talk about teaching, to talk about why it is that the Jewish history matters—not just in terms of the research that’s being done in the field but also in terms of the way in which we teach and present Jewish history and Jewish studies to our students and to the public. I guess that’s a way of entering into this question of why does it matter, the way that we teach and talk about Jewish studies.
Jenny Caplan: I think it matters in a lot of different ways. And I think it it pushes in a lot of different directions. For one thing, I think Jewish studies and all of the sort of older ethnic studies classification of programs and courses and things like that… I think the way we are approaching those in a twenty-first century post-identity politics way says a lot about the way that we, as a society, are thinking about the humanities. And I think that Jewish studies is a microcosm for that, because it’s increasingly important across the humanities writ large that we figure out why we’re doing this and why students should be doing this. The idea that we can exist as a sort of ivory tower, devoted to the creation of knowledge, and that can be enough of a reason to exist… It doesn’t work anymore.
And maybe it would be nice if it did, but I think the horse is out of the barn on the fact that programs have to make some sort of sense. It doesn’t have to be financial sense, necessarily, but I think programs have to make some sort of sense for a university. And I think Jewish studies is one of the programs that commonly, I don’t want to say comes under fire, but finds itself in a situation of needing to explain why we are still doing this. And we might get to this a bit later, there are also corollary issues with Jewish studies that actually insulate it from some of those conversations in the way that some other similarly interdisciplinary, ostensibly identity-based programs are not insulated, just based on external funding and things like that.
So that’s kind of a separate kettle of fish, that we can circle back to, but I think that really thinking about how and why we teach Jewish studies and who we are trying to reach. And what it is we want those students to leave the classroom knowing or understanding or thinking. I think that’s just incredibly important to the larger questions about how we’re preparing students to be parts of our society, and what it is that we’re doing in humanities and religious studies and Jewish studies classrooms to make them— I don’t want to say better people,but to make them a different kind of person than they were when they walked in. And I think Jewish studies is just a really great canvas for that.
JL: I would agree with you, I think, about that entirely, that students who take courses in Jewish history or in Jewish studies can really find a lot there that’s valuable to them. But I want to push you on something that you that you mentioned just a second ago, when you talked about how we’re in an age of post-identity politics, so to speak, in Academia. First of all, I’m not sure that’s actually true. I tend to think, first of all, that all scholarship is driven at one level or another by a personal set of issues by the author, whoever we’re talking about. This is just, again, betraying my own focus, in terms of studying the history of historiography I’m always looking at the context of scholarship and thinking about the factors that are causing people to study one thing or another. And I think that this is just as true for students as it is for scholars.
I also think there’s something interesting to be said about identity politics in the U.S. in general. There have been a fair share of think pieces that were published after the 2016 election, saying that the Democrats lost because they hitched their ride to identity as a motivating factor. When in fact, we see also that the Republicans continue to utilize identity politics—in this case, white identity politics—to motivate their their base, right? And all this is to say that, for whatever we might think or try to say that the university is shifting away from identity politics, in the society in which we live this is a a major factor on all sorts of different levels.
And so what I’m thinking about here is that our students often take classes based on wanting to explore their identity. I find this with some of my students. It’s a challenge. But I think that we shouldn’t really forget about that, when we talk about why people take classes in Jewish studies. They’re not all doing it for that reason. But it’s still very much part of this world of identity politics and identity-building which is one of the reasons, also, why as you mentioned there are some factors that insulate Jewish studies. One of them is the fact that the Jewish communities often support jewish studies programs, the study of Jewish history, because they believe it has this identitarian purpose.
JC: Well, yes. I mean, I agree with you on all of that. I tend to separate out the more individual identity issues that you’re talking about, and corporate responses to identity. And while individual students may take certain courses because they connect to them in some way, for some reason, universities are in my experience no longer supporting programs whose primary reason for existence is to educate students in their own identity area. African American studies programs are not being funded, if they are seen as courses for African American students, and women’s studies programs, I mean, they’re not even women’s studies anymore. They’re generally gender studies, and they are not being supported if they’re seen as only courses for women. Jewish studies, I think, is dealing with the same thing, that if they’re seen as classrooms for Jews primarily, then universities are not interested in supporting that. So to me there’s a divide between why any individual student might be in the classroom, and the way that the program has to conceptualize itself, in terms of the larger university project.
JL: I want to stress here that I agree with you on all of this, which is to say that what I was kind of describing is the reality on the ground, that identity politics is still a major issue. I think, like you said, universities institutionally, when they think about where they can cut, what they want to focus on, they’re not interested in hosting a glorified Hebrew school, right? And neither should scholars be interested in that. I don’t think that is really the goal of Jewish history, studying Jewish studies, and I don’t think that when we think about this entire initiative, talking about why Jewish history matters, a big part of what I’ve been trying to get people to think about and to engage with is this question: why does it matter, beyond the Jews? And so I think that when we talk about teaching, it really gets at the heart of it. Which is to say, how do we convince people who are not interested in the topic to take a class, or to support a program?
JC: Obviously, the mercenary answer is that the easiest way to convince students that they need to take a course in Jewish history is to make it part of the core. And you will never have a lack of students taking your courses in Jewish history regardless of whether they have ever met a Jew. But if it fulfills some sort of humanities requirement for them, they will be there. And that actually, you know, I think is the really interesting challenge. I mean, I think that a lot of a lot of smaller humanities-driven programs have figured out that calculus. And even if they are not at a university that is going to require religion, for example; and I don’t know many, if any, that require Jewish studies. So even if they’re never going to actually be a service program in that way, they have they have figured out the calculus on getting their courses into whatever sort of gen ed core their university has. And that’s going to be the primary driving factor behind enrollment.
And so, then, what that creates is, instead of having a classroom made up of students who are there because the subject matter speaks to them in some way and students who are there because—for whatever non-identity related reasons—they find Jewish history interesting. Now, you have predominantly students who are there simply because it’s the course that fits into their schedule that fills the gen ed requirement that they need.
So, in some ways it’s easy to think about how we present Jewish history to students who for one reason or another are interested in Jewish history. I think it’s a more challenging and more interesting question to think about how we present Jewish history and Jewish studies to students who really don’t care what it is that they’re getting. It’s the course that they needed to take, but we still have to come up with a way to to frame it and find a way to make the material accessible to students who are not coming with their own preconceived “in” to the material, whether that’s their identity or their interest.
Jewish Studies Pedagogy and Identity Politics
JL: Not to harp on this, but it raises this question of, how do we convince students or administrators or the public that this (Jewish studies) is important; when a student shows up because it’s what fits into his or her schedule, and that’s the only reason why they’re there, you have sort of an even higher bar to grab their attention and say, this is really important and you’ve got to pay attention.
JC: Exactly. And that’s where I think it’s interesting, and that’s why I started out sort of talking about the post-identity politics conception of it. Because that’s what I was getting at, is the students who are coming to the courses with no connection to Jewish history, to Judaism, to anything—and not even a corollary interest like, “well, I am not Jewish but I grew up in a very Jewish part of New Jersey and I’m interested in hearing about this” or “I’m not Jewish but I come from a very Evangelical church that has always talked about this connection,” whatever sort of personal reason that isn’t Jewish-adjacent but still provides them some kind of identity reason for being there. To me, that’s a that’s a less interesting pool of students than the ones who are there for completely non-identity related reasons.
And I think I think one of the most important things in reaching out to those students and in convincing them that this is not just something that they have to take for whatever reason, but this is something that they’re actually going to want to do, is the framing of Jewish history in terms of being an important narrative disruption, in the way that most minority histories are going to be important narrative disruptions. We can go back to the old canard the history is written by the winners; even if you wanted to make your general western civ survey history, even if you wanted to make that more inclusive, there’s just not time. There’s 15 weeks in the semester, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less… You cannot cover everyone, and you cannot include everyone. So even if you were trying to make a non-hegemonic approach to history, it is still going to leave things out.
And that to me is the both the important and the interesting feature of things like Jewish history, that you can present this to students as this is an alternative historical narrative that you’ve probably never learned. This is a narrative that’s running alongside these other narratives that you may have learned, and it’s filling in those piece—and it’s it’s not saying that those other things are wrong, but it’s just this is broadening your understanding of what is happening around you and what has happened around you.
And so, I think that is a good way of starting the process of framing for students who have no other reason to care about Jewish history why this is not just a thing for Jews. It’s not just a thing that Jewish students are going to care about, and they’re just going sit there for fifteen weeks or whatever it is and be bored and get through it. That this isn’t a course that’s speaking to any particular kind of student. It’s just a course that’s that, if done well, should help you see the world differently and it should help you unpack the way that history is written and told, and that’s not specifically because it’s about Jews. It could be about any other kind of subaltern group, but this course happens to be about Jews.
JL: Right. I think that’s just one of many ways in which you could talk about it. One of the things I talk about with my students is about how Jewish history is a global history, and that if we want to understand world history that the Jews provide a really useful mechanism. Of course, Jews have been pretty much everywhere—not actually everywhere, you’re not going to find that a history of the Jews is going to focus on southeast Asia, for instance—obviously it’s, in a certain way, still Eurocentric or at least Eurasian-eccentric. But all this is to say that because the Jews have been in so many places, I often talk to my students about how this allows us to use the Jews as a point of comparison between different societies and different times and places.
So I think there are all sorts of ways in which we can talk about why Jewish history should matter to our students. But there still remains for many students the kind of identity drive, that this is why they’re interested in studying in Jewish history—and I might even posit that this may have even been a factor for many scholars, at least at the beginning, when they initially began to study the Jews. It wasn’t out of purely scholarly or academic interest, right? You know, there’s a reason why, still, the vast majority of people who study Jewish history happen to be Jewish themselves. Though, of course, there are many more people who are non-Jews, who are pursuing Jewish studies—and I think this is a fantastic know development— but it’s interesting, because the field of Jewish studies, as it exists today in the U.S., really came into its own in an age of ethnic studies. Jewish studies is perhaps outgrowing its roots as an ethnic studies field. But this is its origins, in many ways.
Teaching Diverse Students at Different Institutions
JL: Anyway, one thing I wanted to talk about here is how all this affects the way that we teach Jewish studies, because this question of who is it that teaches and that writes about the history of the Jews is this central question, and also who is it who studies it, among the students. Who is it that reads these books among the public? Who attends lectures? Who makes donations? Who expresses interest in this field? I think that the major challenge that Jewish studies faces, as we go forward in the twenty-first century, is kind of twofold: first of all, it’s part of the broader struggle of the humanities to continue to justify itself in age when everybody’s like, “STEM STEM STEM.” Then, secondly, there’s also this question of how is it that we, as we were talking about before, how is it that we entice people? What is it about Jewish history that matters, that we can get people engaged with this this topic as something that is not just part of the sideshow of history, so to speak? And it raises this question of who the students are.
You wrote this very interesting article a couple years ago, about teaching Jewish studies in a series of different environments. So one of the things that I think is very interesting to think about here is how we teach diverse students, and also how the diverse environments change the way in which we teach about Jewish studies and about the Jewish past.
JC: Yeah, it’s interesting. Every university has its own kind of profile, and then within that there is the subset that you’re going to be encountering in the humanities, and within that there’s the subset that you’re going to encounter within religious studies and Jewish studies. And so I try to get a handle demographic on what the majority of my classroom is going to look like, two-thirds, three-quarters. And I use that to help me determine some of the best ways into the material for students. So, for example, when I was teaching at Syracuse and I knew that my Jewish studies classrooms would be 50% or more Jewish, it isn’t that I necessarily approached the whole course as an insular conversation that I was going to be having with a bunch of Jewish students who all had the exact same day school upbringing. You can’t ever do that. But my approach to the material there would be different, or was different, than when I taught at some schools in the South or the Midwest, where I knew going in that statistically I would probably have no Jewish students and the majority of my students were coming from an Evangelical Christian background.
Especially in the first couple of weeks, the way that I would frame the material… (It’s) not that the terminology would change, not that the texts I was having them read would change. But the broader picture that I started to paint for them can be slightly different, based on what your classroom is going to look like. You can change the narrative slightly if you know you’re going to have mostly students from a big city versus mostly students who come from rural and farming communities. And this is the important thing to remember in teaching, that frequently things that you think are universal references, if you’re making references to some sort of pop culture or a movie or a song or whatever, it is something that you think is a universal reference that they’re all going to get. They never are all going to get it, because then you zoom out even further, you’re going to have international students who don’t even pick up on some of the idiomatic American references.
So I always try to really think critically about what my reference points are going to be, what my touchstones are going to be. What do I think the majority of the students in that classroom, what’s going to make the material click for them? What’s going to make it all lock into place for them? What sort of connections do I need to make to speak to them as opposed to some other version of the same class where, again, I’m teaching the same texts in the same order, but I’m conscious of who they are, and where they’re coming from. And I’m trying to use their experience, not my own, to dictate how I present the material.
JL: One of the ways you talked about it is the way in which, for some people, for some students, and maybe even for some who teach—though I would say that’s probably only in, say, a seminary environmen—but for some students, the Jewish studies classroom is something very personal, it’s even kind of a confessional space. I’m curious what you meant by that, when you talked about it, and what is the implication of that for the way in which we talk about and present Jewish studies.
JC: Yeah. I mean, I continue to think that that’s really one of the pressing issues. And to me that all is tied up with the question of who has ownership of the discipline, from the top down, and the scholarly profile. Because, to go back to some of the superficial comparisons, it’s easier in some cases for a student who is walking into a gender studies classroom or a student who is walking into an African American studies classroom, to believe—whether rightly or wrongly—that the professor reflects who they are, or does not reflect who they are. They may be making wrong assumptions, but students are more easily able to make an assumption, “oh, that professor looks like me, that professor is like me, I’m in thispart of the conversation.”
In Jewish studies and in religious studies more broadly, I have found that students assume that I am whatever I’m teaching. For whatever reason, most American students don’t recognize Kaplan as being a particularly Jewish name, even though it is, and so when I’m teaching American religion or when I’m teaching Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, almost all of my students assume that I’m Christian. And in Jewish studies classrooms, they by and large assume that I’m Jewish. And in both cases, it creates immediate in-group/out-group feelings amongst the students. Within Jewish studies is where it tends to be most problematic, because I have taught Jewish studies classes that had zero Jewish students in them and yet the other thirty students in the room all thought that they were on the wrong side of some sort of imagined majority that I was naturally predisposed towards, because they had this belief that the other students were Jewish and they had this belief that I was Jewish and therefore they had a belief from the beginning that their work was going to be subpar, that they were not going to understand things as well.
So I try to establish right from the beginning that, as you said based on what I wrote, that my classrooms are not a confessional space, that comments in class cannot and should not begin with “well, this is how I think about this because I’m (blank), you know, because I’m Jewish, because I’m not Jewish, whatever it is.” That’s not what matters to our conversation. What matters in our conversation is how you’re approaching it as a scholar, because in my classroom, you’re all scholars, and you have every tool you need to understand what we’re reading and what we’re talking about, and you don’t need to either second-guess your understanding of it because you think you’re on the wrong side of some divide, or you don’t need to assume that you have some sort of arcane “in” or knowledge because you’re on the “right” side of the divide. And, in fact, I tell students, statistically, that um across the years as a data pool non-jewish students do better in introduction to Judaism than Jewish students do.
JL: I find this, myself, that in a certain way the students who come with preconceived notions, those who learned about Judaism and Jewish history in Hebrew school or day school or whatever—these are often the students that are the hardest to teach. Because they have to unlearn what they have learned, in many cases, for their entire lives, certain myths or certain beliefs.
JC: Yeah. And they have to actually do the work. And they don’t think that they have to. So it often takes until after the midterm before they realize that they’re not actually getting what they’re supposed to be getting (grade-wise), and then they panic for the second half of the semester. And in some cases, they can still right the ship, and in some cases they can’t. But the students who believe that they’re on the seemingly “wrong” side of the issue are studying harder from the beginning, because they think they’re at a disadvantage. And they’re really not. That is just, I find, an instinctualthing that happens with students from the first day. And so, therefore, it’s super important for me that I not let that become more of an issue and I not let it fester by getting into a routine where students are prefacing all of their comments by putting it in terms of their own positionality on the insider-outsider question. So it eventually, by the second half of the semester, some of those statements start to creep back in.
By that point, I don’t police it nearly as stringently, because the students they kind of know each other at that point. They’ve started to gel, there’s a routine to the class by that point. You’ve got your quarter of the class that is talking, and your quarter of the class that never talks, and your middle half of the class who occasionally talks. By this time we sort of have a classroom identity. I’m less worried about really strictly shutting down those kind of first-person, confessional introductions to comments, but for the first third of the class in particular, I’m very rigid about that. Because I think that as soon as those statements start to happen, the students who already are imagining themselves to be at a disadvantage, they can start to shut down. They can start to assume that they’re never going to be able to climb this insurmountable mountain that is standing between them and this side they imagine that I’m standing on with these other students. And so I find it pedagogically so important that I not let those students psych themselves out, thinking that I naturally am agreeing with the students who are self-identifying as Jewish, that those students are always right about everything and that I’m on their “side.” I need to make it clear, I’m on everybody’s side. I want everybody to learn the material, and I want everybody to do well. There are no “sides,” and I’m not on one or the other. But, yeah, they (the students) come in thinking that there are. And so you have to try to break down that wall that is there before you’ve even handed out the syllabi.
Jewish Studies Outside the Classroom
JL: You’re talking about the idea of breaking down the concept of the classroom as a confessional space, or starting down that (path), you’re talking about the way the students talk about the material, when they insert themselves into the classroom discussion. I guess it raises this other issue, which is, what does this tell us about the wider public sphere of Jewish studies? If a goal is to make a classroom a safe and inviting space for students of all kinds, of all backgrounds, that’s one thing. And I think that that’s a great goal. It’s something that, I think, we should all aspire to, to have a welcoming classroom to diverse students. But what is the implication of that? What is the importance of this outside of the classroom, when we talk about Jewish studies and Jewish history? Or is this just about how we teach?
JC: No, it’s not just about how we teach, although it’s maybe harder to articulate what the kind of ripples of that are into the larger sphere, outside of the classroom and even outside of the academy. I think it’s important, and has been important for quite a long time now, that in order to combat antisemitism both locally and globally, Jewish issues need to not be just about Jewish people. That is the sort of insularity that I think breeds a lot of systemic antisemitism, going back even to the idea that we only got involved in World War II to rescue the Jews, things like that.
So I mean, I think that the classroom is the starting point for a larger breakdown of the idea that Jewish history only matters to Jews, that Jewish social ethics only matter to Jews, that Jewish whatever—Jewish humor is only done by Jews. This is a this is a much bigger fight that I’m going to be having with certain interlocutors over the next five years, as to whether Jewish humor can be done by non-Jews, and I’m gearing up for the fight. But I think that’s one of the ways—not that that’s the only thing that’s going to stop antisemitism, obviously, but I think that’s one of the ways, to break down this idea that things that are about Jews are only important to Jews.
You know, we started the conversation with all of these different ways of framing Jewish history as being interesting and important and valuable to non-Jewish students. And I think that, then, the ripples of that start to go outward and to push against or to try to break down this wall that surrounds Jews and Jewish issues and Jewish studies, to make more of a case that this is something that everybody should care about, and this is not something that only two percent of the American population, 0.2% of the global population… Statistically, anything that is just talking about 0.2% percent of the global population shouldn’t matter. And so we have to find ways to convince people that it does.
JL: I agree with you one hundred percent: If we think about the Jews on purely demographic lines, this is an insignificant group, right? I think the real challenge that we have is to break out of that. And I think that, broadly speaking, one of the the things that we should perhaps take away from Jewish history, from Jewish studies, is that small groups are important. And it’s not just the Jew,t you could talk about any other minority group or a small country that is not that significant on a global scale, (but) that really represents something bigger.
And I think when we talk about why many people see Jewish studies and Jewish history mattering, why many people understand that Jewish history is important, it’s because they have this view of the importance of Jewish culture and Judaism as a religion, that even if the Jews are a small group of people and always have been it’s still the the elder sibling, so to speak, when we’re talking about Christianity and Islam. This whole framework breeds interest in the Jews in and of itself and so there’s something to be said there, about how the way in which we portray and the way in which we talk about the Jewish past is important because we’re not trying to emphasize the contributions of the Jews, but I think that we need to be speaking to a wider audience. This goes both in terms of thinking about speaking outside of just talking amongst scholars, and also thinking about the the way in which Jewish studies and Jewish history has something to contribute as a field to the wider community and not just to internal Jewish issues.
But of course, there’s this entire tension as well, which is just to say that Jewish studies is often very dependent upon the Jewish community for resources, for support in one kind or the other. This has been the case for quite a long time. And I think also part of the story with university administrations is that as it becomes apparent that communities are willing to support Jewish studies, the university might feel less inclined to devote their own resources to it, because they know that this department or that professor or that program can turn to outside sources for support. So it raises a whole series of tensions about how we teach about the Jewish past and how it is that we engage with it within this entire broad landscape.
JC: It’s such a double- or even triple-edged sword. I don’t know that a triple-edged sword is a real thing. On the one hand, it’s great that there is community interest in Jewish studies, and that there are people who care passionately about the survival of this as an academic discipline. On the other hand, as you just said, there is the potential for universities to underfund Jewish studies programs, proportional to other similar programs, because they’re counting on the fact that there is community support. On the third hand, there is the problem that outside support can keep a Jewish studies program afloat after all other similar programs have lost their university support, which then creates a sort of optics problem of a disproportionate focus on Jewish studies—why did you get rid of gender studies? Why did you get rid of Af-Am? Did you get rid of Native American studies, but you still have Jewish studies? There are so many fewer of them (Jews). And that’s an unfair criticism, but it is nevertheless a sort of optics issue, when these external funding sources support Jewish studies programs after the university has stopped supporting other smaller programs. So there are all of these swirling issues around that, some of them are wonderful and some of them are are tough to navigate and to negotiate.
And then you have issues where some of these external funding sources believe that their financial support of the program means that they can and should have some sort of say in hiring, and that they should have a seat at the table when searches for professors are happening, particularly if they’re funding named chairs. Does that mean that they should have a voice in who gets that job? And there have been some public kerfuffles about that in the last few years. So there are a lot of really good things about having a very active, engaged, devoted community who wants to make sure that Jewish studies survives at the higher ed level, and then there are some some downsides to that which need to be dealt with.
Jewish Studies and the Jewish Community
JL: Right, I mean, I think that there’s a lot to think about in terms of all these issues. I can only speak from my own personal experience and from my own knowledge of history… You know, when you look at the creation of some of the first chairs in Jewish studies in the U.S., like the chair that ultimately Salo Baron would hold that Columbia, there was in the 1920s a little bit of a struggle, at the beginning, where some of the funders had to be told by by Columbia at the time that, no, you don’t get to make the choice, that you give the money but we, the university, decide who we hire. There are all sorts of potential issues when you talk about managing donor expectations in any kind of context, but you know that that is only one part of the story.
There’s also sometimes an expectation from people within the Jewish community that Jewish studies, or the teaching Jewish history, will serve Jewish students in particular. when of course the student body is much more diverse. It is increasingly International, there are still of course many Jews, perhaps disproportionately so, who are at elite universities around the U.S. But as scholars, as teachers—I think, broadly speaking—I would say that we want to have larger classes, we want students who want to learn from us. It’s not worth it for us to to teach a class to five students, to ten students. I mean, we’ll do it, but it’s difficult, we want people to learn from us. That’s why we do it, in the end. This, for me, is my motivation: if you teach a classroom of zero, what’s the point? Anyway, what this means then is that, as we seek to develop classes that are of interest to many students, to articulate ways in which studying the Jews is something important that they can learn from, that they can learn about the world in ways that they can then apply throughout the rest of their lives, in terms of their understanding of culture, their understanding of religion, their understanding of history, we ultimately end up with these diverse classroom environments. I think having this mix of insiders and outsiders as you put it, of Jewish students and also, hopefully anyway, many non-Jews too, who take Jewish studies classes out of their own personal interest—if not because of their own identity, but because they’re personally interested in the topic and what they can learn from it—
JC: They just want to learn more about it.
JL: Well, right, exactly. So this presents both opportunities and also many challenges.
JC: Yeah, it does. And it’s interesting. There’s an ongoing conversation at my current institution about the fact that, being where we are in the suburbs of Baltimore, which is a city with a historically large Jewish population and a long Jewish history, and the university has a fairly significant Jewish population… I think it’s between 15% and 20%. And we have very few Jewish students in the Jewish studies courses. We have Jewish students in the Jewish studies minor, and in the graduate program in Jewish studies we have a fairly large number of non-Jewish students. There is a certain amount of behind-the-scenes conversation about, are we doing something wrong, that our Jewish studies classes are not attracting Jewish students, who are here in fairly significant number? We have several thousand Jewish students at this university. Why do we only have two or three (in our classes)?
I mean, I taught a Jewish studies course this past semester with one Jewish student. And I think that’s great. I mean, maybe one is is a bit low. But I’m not I’m not bothered. Like, I think that’s the wrong conversation, to be worried about why we’re not attracting Jewish students. The ones who are interested will come. But it does create the kind of inverse of some of the issues we were talking about earlier, in thinking, have we gone too far in framing this as something that is universal? Have we have we pushed against the parochial so hard that we’re now losing some students, Jewish or not? Have we made it too universal and not particularistic enough, and now we’re losing students in the other direction? I don’t know if I think that’s the case, but if that is the case, then we need to walk that back and try to find where that middle ground is between universal and particularistic.
JL: I mean, one of the very interesting stories here, that to be honest I don’t know enough about personally to really say too much about but I know that this is a real phenomenon, is that Jewish studies programs have competitors, so to speak, for the Jewish students. It’s just to say that students who are interested in “Jewish learning,” so to speak, as opposed to Jewish studies, they go to places like Hillel or to Chabad, and then there are other groups like the Jewish Learning Initiative or Aish, so on and so forth, that are trying to in various ways create programs of study about Judaism. Jewish studies and Jewish history have very particular religious and ideological objectives, in ways that I think Jewish studies scholars are pursuing a kind of “noble dream” of objectivity… We (as scholars) sort of try to (for that), even though of course I think that everything is fundamentally personal in one way or the other…. We say that it is “objective,” but everything is really subjective to some extent.
But my point is that there is this competition. So, many of these students who you say, “why aren’t they taking courses in Jewish studies or in Jewish history in my department?”—they are engaging with it in some way. But they’re doing it through alternate means and alternate avenues, outside the classroom.
JC: Yeah. And I think that some of those some of those “fights,” if you want to call them fights—I mean, if we’re talking about competitors, then I guess that’s naturally competitive—some of those competitions are probably more worth going after than others. I think the student who was finding what they need Jewishly at Chabad is not going to find what they’re looking for in that way in the Jewish studies classroom. And that’s okay. You know, college is a very specific, weird time where a lot of students are away from home for the first time and are figuring out who they are as people. And if some of them are figuring out that the academic study of their own religion makes them uncomfortable, that’s okay. That’s valid. I mean, I was that student, to some extent. I didn’t engage with Judaism academically, really, until my Ph.D. Through my bachelor’s in religious studies, and my masters at Harvard, I concentrated mostly in Protestant Christianity, in American protestantism, because I wasn’t yet at a place where I was comfortable being that objective about my own personal belief system, what I had learned growing up and my family and things like that. I just I wasn’t there yet.
And so for the Jewish students who are getting what they need, particularly at someplace like Chabad, I don’t want to try to shoehorn that student into my classroom at the risk of making them unhappy. College is not just about getting an education. It’s also where they live, it’s their home for four years or more. And so it is important that they figure out these other pieces of who they are. And so while there’s a problem if you have a significant Jewish population at your school, and nobody is taking Jewish studies classes, then you’re probably doing something wrong. But I don’t see it as being as big a problem if that just not everybody is signing up for Jewish studies classrooms. I think that’s natural and normal and and okay and healthy.
Reaching Diverse Student Constituencies
JL: Right, you know, I think that when we talk about all these issues, it raises a really important and serious question about how we reach diverse constituencies and how we can learn to talk about Jewish history in a way that matters to a wide range of people, but it still also matters to Jews. And I think that with this in mind, I think it’s interesting to think about how we can teach Jewish history so that it is accessible to a wide range of students, that it’s not just Jewish students versus non-Jewish students, so to speak… Many students come with varying degrees of pre-existing knowledge. And this is true, I think, in lots of fields. If somebody teaches a class in biology, some people took AP Bio in high school, others didn’t. Some people grew up devouring books on the subject. That’s why they’re taking the class, and know a little bit more, and others know very little. So I think this is a broad pedagogical issue.
JC: Someone might be a heritage Spanish speaker, but their grammar might not be any good, in the same way that there are people who English is their first language, but that doesn’t mean that they would do they would naturally do all that well in a very grammar-Intensive English course. Yeah, that goes back to that question of students coming into the classroom just assuming they’re at this instrumental disadvantage and they’re really not.
JL: Yes, exactly. What I tend to do is, I try to level the playing field. I’m not always successful in doing this every single week, because some weeks are crazy, but I tend to send out an email to my students with some notes about the readings that they’re doing, to give them questions they can think about while they’re reading and so on, because not everybody knows what to look for. There are, I think, a whole bunch of strategies that we can talk about, to engage with a diverse student body. And I think that as we talk about why Jewish history matters and why people should be studying the Jews, engaging with Jewish studies, this is fantastic when we get large classes, or alternately, when we think about it, this is a great thing when we publish something in a journal that is not just read by Jewish study scholars. But it it means that we need to unlearn what we have learned, too, about some of the assumptions that we might assume that our readers and our students might might have this pre-existing knowledge.
JC: That’s absolutely true. I think that what leads to a certain amount of faculty tension, sometimes. And this is, again, not something that I see as being specifically a Jewish studiesproblem. I see this as an issue in a lot of different programs, that you have some members of the faculty who, because they are—let’s use Jewish studies as an example—because they are Jewish studies faculty, they see themselves as part of the Jewish life on campus, and some faculty who do not, who see Jewish life and Hillel as a separate thing. And that makes it hard to have a consistent message or a consistent identity as a department, as a program, and it makes it hard to figure out whether you’re having a conversation for a Jewish studies journal or whether you’re having a conversation for a more general interest journal. Whether you are trying to figure out how to articulate that on a departmental level or programmatic level, or you’re thinking about it within your own scholarship and who is your audience, it’s the same question who is your audience and and if you see your role as being partly fostering Jewish life on campus, then that means you see your audience as tilting more towards Jewish students or Jewish readers or however you want to extrapolate out from that. And if you are sort of opposed to the idea that you should be expected to be engaged in Jewish life on campus or that going to Hillel events is something that should be an expectation of Jewish studies faculty, then you’re thinking about your audience differently. And so I think that in the same way that those issues manifest themselves at the department level, we’re having that same conversation as scholars about who our audiences are and how we’re framing what we’re doing and how we write for people who are not just our tiny little corner of the sky.
Making Jewish Studies Matter Today
JL: I think, in a certain way, it might sound like we’re just talking about the internal politics of Jewish studies and Jewish history, how is it that the individual scholars or programs at individual universities, how do we survive? How do we thrive in the twenty-first century university environment? How do we get administrators to support the programs—
JC: That’s the conversation every humanities department is having everywhere in country right now.
JL: Right. Well what I’m interested in thinking about here is, what is it that that we can take away from this discussion that goes beyond this struggle for survival that I think not everybody, but many people feel—that when we look at the number of jobs in Jewish history or Jewish studies, there’s not a lot. And this represents, again, this struggle to justify why is it that Jewish history matters. That when somebody is opening up a line for a job, say in American history, where they’ll say, “oh, you know, Jewish history is important enough, it matters enough for that topic, that we’re open to hiring a historian of American Jews or American Judaism.” Or somebody who’s interested in hireing a Europeanist. Okay, so they want to perhaps look at someone who studies European Jewish history for that position. I think that it’s part of this broader struggle. Jewish history and Jewish studies face particular struggles, that we’ve talked about, but it raises I think a big question, why does this set of issues matter beyond this eternal quest for institutional support and funding?
JC: Well, I think to some extent you hit on it a little bit there in something you said. I mean, I think part of it is the ongoing need—and I see this as a really deeply existential need—to establish why subaltern studies in general matter. I think you said this earlier as well, that minorities matter. It doesn’t matter how small a group is, it matters. And so you see those postings, sometimes, that say “American history, preferred specialties: African American, Native American, Latinx, American Judaism.” That’s deeply problematic in its own way. Like, “we just want someone who’s not doing American Protestantism, but we really don’t care if it’s African American, Native American, Jewish, Hispanic, whatever it is. We just want somebody who’s doing something different.” And while doing something different is good and laudable and important, all of those other specialties need to matter in their own right.
And, that, I think, is the biggest takeaway, is to understand that Jewish studies doesn’t matter simply because it’s a way of articulating difference and diversity. It matters because all of these different conversations matter on their own. It isn’t enough to just say, “Well, it helps to combat the whitewashing, the WASP-washing of the academy.” You can’t just, or you shouldn’t be able to just plug a scholar from any particular minority discipline in, or plug a course from a particular minority discipline in, and call that a day. So I think that because Jewish studies does have a particularly deep history within the academy, going back to Wissenschaft (des JUdentums) and because there are frequently community supports and outside funding that will allow Jewish studies to thrive and to be visible.
I think to some extent Jewish studies needs to carry a disproportionate amount of that burden and needs to carry the banner for making sure that academic tokenism isn’t allowed to become the de facto mode of filling positions, that the field as a whole—whether you want to talk about the field as a whole being history or being religious studies, which is more my field—that the field as a whole needs to re-evaluate the value of all of these different subaltern and minority narratives and needs to Value them individually and not just as a way of checking off a box that says that you’re doing the right thing and trying to trying to disrupt things a little bit. And I think Jewish studies is in a position to have more to say about that than some other programs that are even more threatened on a year-to-year programmatic basis. Jewish studies programs—not all of them, I mean, some of them are are endangered—but those Jewish studies programs that that don’t have to year-to-year fear for their existence, I think they can be doing more to help the field appreciate and represent and embrace these other conversations.
JL: You know, I think that you’re bringing up something here that’s really important, that I think mirrors a broader set of issues within Jewish history. Jews tend to see themselves, and many Jewish historians also have understood Jewish history, as the Jews as the great example of the persecuted people, to see Jews as victims throughout their history. Now, you know, there’s of course a huge debate over this lachrymose history of the Jews. But one of the things that’s so interesting that you just mentioned about the state of Jewish studies as a field is that it’s actually doing okay. When you compare it to other areas of the humanities, Jewish studies has a lot going for it. The Jewish community, for all that we can go back and forth abou, some of the issues witw funding from Jewish communal sources… Let me put it a different way, because I don’t like to talk about “the” Jewish community: there are so many Jewish communities, and so many Jewish institutions and Jewish individuals who are open to and willing to supporting Jewish studies financially. There’s that. There’s also, a tremendous number of endowed chairs in Jewish studies across the entire U.S., which is to say that when somebody retires who teaches German history that line might not be opened up, that position might not get rehired for many years, if ever. And it’s a constant struggle to get that position back once somebody leaves. But if somebody has an endowed chair and then they leave for whatever reason, then they basically have to hire somebody to take that spot, or else that money goes to waste. So Jewish studies and Jewish history has kind of a baseline of the number of positions that exist in the field.
So Jewish studies is threatened, yes, but there are other areas—look at comparative literature, right, or the study of foreign languages—where there are many universities, some smaller ones maybe, that say, you know, “Why are we teaching French?” There was a brouhaha a couple years ago, I want to say, when SUNY Albany talked about cutting their entire French Department.
JC: Well, I can say that one of my previous institutions, the year after I left, they cut religious studies, philosophy, African-American, and gender studies. They cut all four programs in one big budget cut, entirely.
JL: I mean, that’s horrible. That’s horrific. But I think it’s difficult to imagine Jewish studies in that position. Even though I think it could happen in some institutions, Jewish studies is actually in a stronger position than many others. And so I think that what you brought up here is very important, that Jewish history and Jewish studies are not as threatened as some people might think within the current crisis of the humanities.
JC: Yeah, and as you say, that’s not to say that Jewish studies is in any way on as stable ground as STEM or as business programs or even as English… You know, colleges will always have English departments. That’s that’s just going to be a thing.
JL: So that’s what I’m saying, that there are some people who like to think, in a parallel way to the Jews as victims, that Jewish studies is in a frail state. In reality, it’s not so bad. And the fact of the matter is that this in a certain way represents the whole process of the whitening of Jews, that Jews are in the mainstream, at least in the U.S., Jews have entered the social, political, economic elite. So I think the entire position of Jewish studies, how it’s changed over the past fifty years, represents the broad shift in the position of Jews in America as a whole.
JC: Yeah, I mean, I think as scholars of Jewish studies, to some extent we have a bit of a bully pulpit. And we can use that to advance a lot of different conversations about American society, about politics, about difference, about all sorts of things, and both as a program within the society of the university and as Jews within, at least, American society, we’re doing that from a position of relative privilege, compared to some other programs and compared to some other groups. And so I just think that’s important to remember, that Jewish studies has a voice and has visibility, that sometimes other programs don’t have, and we can we can use that for a lot of different ones.
JL: So I guess I want to bring it back to this teaching issue, as we conclude. I think that all of these issues that we’ve talked about bring us back to this question of pedagogy and of teaching because when we talk about the survival of of Jewish studies as a field, as a field of teaching, as a field of scholarship, it ultimately comes down to convincing people that it matters, convincing people that this is something important, something that deserves support, something that deserves people’s attention. And as we were just discussing, there very clearly is a broad interest In Jewish history and in Jewish studies, at least as reflected in the funding that gets raised or in the fact that people still do take these classes, even if enrollment maybe is lower than we would like. People are still reading books in Jewish history. So I think that what’s interesting here Is that, as we think about the way in which we teach and the way in which we engage with the public at large, I’m curious what you think about how the interest in Jewish studies and in Jewish history among your students, or more broadly, how that represents the way in which Jewish history matters to them.
JC: It’s a it’s a great and important point, and I think it has a bit to do with something that you said earlier, about the way that you frame Jewish history as a global history. I think from a pedagogical standpoint, or from the standpoint of pedagogy, one of the things that matters, at least for me, is my ongoing mission to break down the normative conception of Judaism. And I think that really serves several important teaching functions. Part of what makes students feel as though or think that they are unable to learn the material is that they think that they have a conception of Judaism and of Jewish history as being very hegemonic. It is the the American monomyth of Ashkonormative Jewish experience. And so, I’ve been to panels at conferences that shall remain nameless, but are mostly AJS, where there have been pedagogy sessions about best practices in teaching diverse student groups and non-Jewish students in particular. And I’ve heard suggestions like, well, you should limit the amount of Yiddish that you use without glossing, as though that is the default place that Judaism comes and the Jewish history comes from. I’ve never heard somebody suggests that you should limit the amount of Ladino, or Judeo-Arabic that you are using in your classroom. I think when when we as scholars can start to broaden our thinking about the various Judaisms and Jewish histories and Jewish communities around the world, then we’re going to be better equipped to teach Judaism that way and to frame it that way and to let students know.
And it’s more than just, I do a week on the Jews of India towards the end of my semester, and I talked about the Jews of Kaifeng. That just as bad as the tokenism within hiring. I think the key to teaching Judaism to a broad audience and to making it matter to a broad audience is reminding ourselves that Judaism has never been as hegemonic as we sometimes think of it as being, and that there’s so much more diversity within Jewish history that we can explore and play around with and present to students. A that will not only appeal to a broader range of students, but it’ll also—this is going to sound harsh—but it’ll also make it more apparent more quickly to heritage learners, to Jewish students or Jewish affiliated students, that what they think they know is not the full picture. And it might help that constant problem of Jewish students who get partway through the course kind of coasting before they realize that they’re not actually engaging with the material the way that they want to, if their whole notion of what Jewish history is is disrupted from the beginning. That may help. That may help them dig in better and come to the work of the classroom from a more engaged place as well as bringing everybody else in the classroom in. So I think that, for me, one of the most important pedagogical pushes is also tied into one of the most important scholarly pushes, which is just to keep broadening the understanding of what global historical Judaism is as a phenomenon.
JL: If I can just add on to that, I think there’s something to be said here about what we can teach the public too, in about what the Jewish public in particular can learn from scholars of Jewish history and Jewish studies and Judaism. If we de-center the normative narratives of Judaism and Jewish culture, I think people can come to recognize that no one is a true heritage learner in the subject. Which is to say that there are so many experiences within Jewish history and Jewish culture that even a Jewish person who was interested in their past does not know everything just because of where they came from, because there are so many other experiences, so many other historical pathways that they have nothing to do with. They may come from a Polish Jewish background, they may be a a descendant of Holocaust survivors or not. But there were Jews living in North Africa, there were Jews who settled in South America, there were Jews in China, Jews in India, Jews all over the place.
And if we forget about—as you put it, I think this is a great term—Ashkonormative. I think this is a great term, Ashkonormative judaism is not really hegemonic. And I say this as somebody who studies European Jewish history. I think that there’s something to be said about the way in which we teach about and talk about Jewish history and Jewish studies in the classroom and also outside of it that can help to teach, which again is the way that I think about the work that we do both in terms of what we write and what we talked about and what we teach about, it’s all a process of teaching. And so it’s a question of what can we teach: can we teach about the specific details of the histories that were engaging with? Yes, but we can also teach about these broader truths that we can see, that there’s such a diversity within Jewish history or within other kinds of social and political realms where we have something to add to teach about that is not just about historical case, but that’s much broader. And I think that’s in a certain way. the way that I see the whole process of teaching and scholarship and this podcast, too.
JC: And so much of that can be accomplished so easily, or even more easily, by starting at the syllabus level. You can have the greatest intentions of the world in the world of disrupting this narrative. But if, for example, I’m teaching a course on American Jewish literature and we start out looking at Philip Roth and we move on to Malamud and then we read Stern, we work our way through the canon. No matter what I’m saying, that document is reinforcing a certain way of viewing it.
If you hand students a syllabus on American Jewish literature and the first thing they’re reading is Jamaica Kincaid, that syllabus is going to doing so much more work for you than all of the talking about it that you might want to do. And it’s it’s uncomfortable, and a lot of people would feel like, but I can’t start with Jamaica Kincaid. I need to be able to frame that first. I need to introduce them to the canon first. Jamaica Kincaid is too complicated. She’s a woman of color. She’s a Jew by choice. She’s Caribbean. All of these different things. But the more we can let go of these preconceived notions about the way we have to frame things and the back work we have to do to prepare students for things that are outside of the norm, the more we can think about the fact that they’re not outside of the norm, because there isn’t a norm. Then I think we can really start to dismantle the idea that the Jewish studies looks a certain way or or has to be a certain thing, and I think that’s going to make all the difference in the way that we bring students into the classroom and what they get out of the classroom.