Non Jewish Jewish Studies (Apropos to Something Aaron Hughes Said)

horsecarcassnewyork1900

Not at Syracuse University in the Department of Religion. Apropos to the point made by Aaron Hughes in The Study  of Judaism: Authenticity, Identity, Scholarship,  I’m delighted to report that Jewish Studies is not too Jewish. This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar in American Judaism. One advanced PhD student who’s auditing the class has as her focus modern Jewish thought and culture. Another student has as his focus Mormon Studies and masculinity studies. Another student’s thing is technology and American religion. From Nanjing China and very much in the process of figuring things out from the ground up, another student’s interest in Jewish Studies is still inchoate.

What thrills me about the seminar student body is that, for the most part, there is no necessary interest in Jews and Judaism. But there they are. Given the student body, that thing called American Judaism which is so familiar to so many Jewish Jewish Studies people stands out more sharply in its relative strangeness.

The questions posed by my students are no different than the ones that interest Jewish Studies students. These relate to the plastic transformation of identity, history, religion, culture. What’s raw is that all the things that too many of us in Jewish Studies think we can take for granted (Jewish style, Jewish look) can’t be taken for granted, starting with basic spatial orientation relating to Eastern Europe, New York, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, the shift in scale from small village Judaism to big city Judaism.

From the ground up, the basic orientation required visual information provided by means of short throw project hooked up to a computer. I think we’re going to use this thing all semester. Yesterday, we spent a lot of time looking at pictures of New York, Baltimore, old synagogues, street scenes, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Mordecai Kaplan as a way to frame our discussion of Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City and Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization. JB found this picture online of children around the body of a dead horse.  It is uncredited from around 1900.

Thank you, Aaron for setting up the question. I hope to think there’s a way beyond the problem you posed. As Kaplan understood, the study of Judaism has to be interesting, to reinvent its discourse from the ground up starting with the basics, namely the aesthetic form of historical time and geographical space.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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