I study Jewish communities that have died. Most of my academic career has been devoted to the East European Jewish civilization murdered by Hitler and Stalin. Born in America fewer than 30 years after the Holocaust, I grew up surrounded by those who had come from it and those who had survived the genocidal spree. During my childhood, in the 1970s, the familiar accent of nearly all seniors I knew was Yiddish. When I began studying at the Beth Tfiloh Community Day School (now Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School) in Baltimore, my first Judaic teachers were Holocaust survivors whose accents, personal stories, and ideologies transported me to the destroyed civilization that had shaped them and, by extension, was shaping me. My second-grade teacher, Nechama Spector, had grown up in Rovno, Poland (now Rivne, Ukraine) and had studied at Vilna’s Tarbut Hebrew Teachers Seminary. She taught us the classic song about the death of the Zionist hero Yosef Trumpeldor:
In the Galilee, in Tel Chai, Trumpeldor fell,
On behalf of his nation, on behalf of his land
The hero Yosef fell…
From this secure base, I set out on a journey of historical recovery. I learned Yiddish in the nick of time from some of its last native speakers from prewar Lithuania and Poland, aware that I was being gifted with knowledge from people who had come from a world that was no more. Alas, as early adulthood gave way to middle age, I discovered that not only had the remnants of the East European Jewish legacy that had once surrounded me vanished, but the majority of American Jewish scholars my age and younger no longer felt motivated by the arc of history that had given me purpose—the fact that national and religious destruction had been followed by an astonishing rebirth.
I have written about and studied the religious and national distinctiveness of East European Jewry in its various incarnations: from Diaspora nationalism and Yiddishism in my first book to rabbinic (counter) culture in the Soviet Union in my current research. Now, however, most Jewish-studies scholars in America are downplaying Jewish distinctiveness in their primary concern with acculturation—the adaptation to and adoption of the majority culture, in which they view Jews more as Russians and Poles and less as Jews.
In December 2020, I participated in a Zoom panel at the annual Association for Jewish Studies Conference that discussed the state of the field of Jewish historiography over the past two decades. One participant noted that the first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed a rise in studies of the history of anti-Jewish violence. In response, I offered what I considered an innocuous explanation. Over the past two decades, I suggested, Jews have experienced an alarming rise in violent attacks. Between 2000 and 2005, the second intifada targeted the Jewish civilian population of Israel, leaving nearly 1,000 dead. Here in America, we have witnessed synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, as well as a steady stream of attacks, some deadly, on Jews who “look” like Jews—Orthodox men.
This explanation did not sit well with a senior scholar in the audience. “What you said was exceedingly Jewishly focused,” she lectured me. She then went on to “enlighten” me that those who attack Jews are not primarily targeting Jews. Rather, the true targets of their hatred are African Americans. These hatemongers simply are angry at American Jews for promoting African-American rights. She ended her disquisition with a challenge. If I were really serious about fighting anti-Semitism, she told me, I would openly ally myself with Black Lives Matter.
Try to explain to those attacked, beaten, and maimed that the attack was not directed at them, as Jews! Could it be that an award-winning historian resorted to this nonsensical argument because my position had struck a nerve? Earlier on in the conference, I had questioned whether the trend of focusing on Russified and Polonized Jews was leading to a general misrepresentation of the overall East European Jewish experience. In the czarist census of 1897, 97 percent of the 5 million Jews of Russia said Yiddish was their mother tongue. Similarly, during World War I, several informed observers estimated that religious traditionalists constituted 75 to 80 percent of Polish Jewry. And yet the most fashionable topic in my field is those who sought to assimilate or acculturate. While the stories of Russified, Polonized, and secularized East European Jews should be told, of course, these narratives should not lead us to neglect or forget about the 97 percent of Yiddish speakers, or about the overwhelming traditionalist (a.k.a. Orthodox) majority. We need to understand our subjects in their own thickly Jewish terms rather than remake them in our own acculturated image. In the American academy, Jewish studies has come to reflect the contemporary American Jewish reality of high intermarriage rates and overwhelming illiteracy in Hebrew and classical Jewish sources.
American Jewish studies, like American Jewry itself, is fast becoming de-Judaized.
This process of de-Judaization has only accelerated in the past two years. In April 2021, Noam Pianko, the president of the Association for Jewish Studies, based in New York, was forced to resign by his board. His sin: attending a Zoom meeting of scholars that included a sociologist of American Jewry named Steven Cohen who stood accused by young women scholars of sexual harassment. This is second-degree guilt by association. As Ruth Wisse has argued, the members of AJS’s Women Caucus who forced Pianko’s resignation had long since reviled Cohen for his advocacy of Jewish inmarriage and parenthood as the best tools to perpetuate American Jewish survival. This view, according to Cohen’s critics, served a larger capitalist and patriarchal agenda that aimed at controlling the romantic choices and reproduction of Jewish women.
Just when I thought that the situation couldn’t get worse, it did. In late May 2021, more than 220 Jewish studies and Israel studies professors signed a “Statement on Israel/Palestine.” The statement reads more like a Palestinian manifesto than a qualified scholarly assessment. Historians are supposed to choose how they frame events very carefully, which is why I found the opening sentence of the statement particularly horrifying: “As scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies based in various universities, departments, and disciplines, we condemn the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza; their evictions of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; and their suppression of civilian protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jewish-Arab cities, and Palestinian towns and villages in Israel.”
Having squarely blamed Israel for the fighting, these scholars then went on to reserve the majority of their empathy for the Palestinians: “We share and hold the pain of Gazans, who have lost and are losing family members, homes, property, businesses, cultural institutions, medical facilities, and civilian infrastructure to Israeli bombings and of Palestinians in the West Bank who have lost loved ones in shootings by security forces.” Only afterward, and half-heartedly, did they “affirm the pain, fear, and anger of Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel who have lost loved ones and homes to unjustifiable and indiscriminate Hamas rockets.”
The entire Zionist experiment and the State of Israel, these scholars insisted, were rooted in a “settler colonial paradigm” that had given rise to “unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians.” Although they made a nod to the diversity and robustness of Israeli Jewish culture, the authors of the statement concluded that the enterprise of a Jewish state itself was illegitimate: “Israeli culture, society, and politics, moreover, continue to unfold on land whose majority Palestinian population the state displaced, whose lands it confiscated, and whose return it prevented during and after the 1948 war, and on lands that it has occupied and settled since 1967.” The senior scholar who had attacked me several months before was one of the signatories of the statement. The statement was an articulation, writ large, of her logic of inversion.
Nearly a half century ago, Soviet propaganda sought to alter the image of Zionism from the national liberation movement of the most persecuted nationality on earth into the epitome of white racist colonialism. Under the influence of the events of the summer of 2020, this Soviet calumny joined with the rhetoric condemning American “systemic racism” to rebrand Israel as the symbol of white supremacy (despite the fact that over 50 percent of the Jewish population of Israel is of Middle Eastern descent). The progressive Jewish left, heavily represented among American Jewish-studies scholars, used a term borrowed from the Nazis to describe what they considered the existential sin of the existence of a Jewish nation-state: Jewish supremacy. In the tradition of generations of anti-Semites, many of my colleagues in Jewish studies thus identified the Jews with the most monstrous sin of their era, thereby inverting the relationship between perpetrator and victim and holding the Jews responsible for the hatred and violence directed against them. One even had the audacity to write on Facebook, “Israel über Alles”!
The immediate stimulus for the “Israel/Palestine” statement was the scholars’ tacit accommodation to the same quid pro quo demanded of Jews since the emancipation of the Jews during the French Revolution: acceptance into the political and cultural mainstream in exchange for a disavowal of Jewish national particularism. The academic corollary of this trend was the de-Judaization of their scholarship. Their own often scant Jewish knowledge has abetted this process. With up to 80 percent of contemporary American Jewish scholars not able to read Hebrew sources fluently, is it any wonder that they have adopted the progressive left’s rejection of Zionism and Israel as a “settler colonialism” that displaced “indigenous populations”? If they had bothered to master Hebrew, perhaps they would have studied the Jews who prayed three times a day for the return to Zion rather than the acculturated elites who sought home in Russia, Poland, Germany, and France.
What a shame that these colleagues had never met Mrs. Spector, my childhood teacher. Knowing a woman who had learned to speak fluent Hebrew in Poland, where she considered only the land of Israel her native home, might have unsettled their adopted narrative of the Jews as colonial usurpers. Having learned from such people means that I take the words of S.Y. Agnon’s 1966 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as the lived experience of millions of Jews, only a few whom survived to see the creation of the State of Israel:
As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem, and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the exile. But I always regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.
Without that consciousness of our own nativeness in the Holy Land, of a people exiled and yearning to return home, the national culture, language, and civil society of Israel would not exist, let alone thrive, today. This is how olim from Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia—and Russia—have come together so quickly to become Israelis. The astounding success of this experiment should give pause to those who reject Jewish national distinctiveness as nothing more than a “constructed,” “invented” identity.
I struggled with the question of what and who constituted my academic community now that so many of my colleagues had joined in the war against Israel. I was grateful to Jarrod Tanny, associate professor of Jewish history at the University of North Carolina, for founding the Jewish Studies Zionist Network, and I gladly signed its statement pushing back against the demonization of Israel among American Jewish-studies professors. Still, the fact that significantly fewer professors signed Tanny’s statement than the “Jewish Studies Statement on Israel/Palestine,” and even then only at a slow pace, revealed that the Jewish Studies Zionist Network represents a minority of American Jewish-studies scholars, swimming against the prevalent stream in the field. In that context, my friend and colleague Steven Fine, director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, suggested we send a contingent of YU doctoral students to attend the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Since the 1950s, the World Congress of Jewish Studies has held an international conference every four years on the campus of Hebrew University. By sponsoring our doctoral students to attend the World Congress, we could demonstrate our support for Israel and identify ourselves with the Judaic-centered vision of Jewish studies that, not surprisingly, thrives in Israel.
The sessions that I attended at the World Congress demonstrated how scholars can be at once, to quote the senior scholar from my AJS panel, “exceedingly Jewishly focused” and exceedingly academically rigorous. From the outset, it was clear that Jewish studies in Israel is a national endeavor. On the first evening, the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, addressed the attendees. He spoke about the connection between rigorous academic Jewish studies and Jewish identity from the founding of our field in 19th-century Germany to its flowering in Israel today. Professor Moshe Idel, a distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism and the current president of the World Congress, talked about the expansion of Jewish studies in Israel to include once-neglected fields such as mysticism, folklore, and Diaspora Jewish languages. For Israeli scholars such as Idel, Jewish studies is the living legacy of their national community. An excursion of our YU group to the Israel Museum solidified this realization. In all its displays, the Israel Museum curated Jewish ritual objects such as menorot and parokhot (Torah ark covers) to emphasize the shared religious heritage of the Jewish nation in the Diaspora. Walking through the museum’s preserved remains of synagogues, ranging from early modern Surinam to 19th-century Germany, I realized that the Israel Museum tells the story of those Jews who in every generation and every geographical locale had struggled to preserve their Jewish distinctiveness and transmit it to the next generation. And I had an epiphany: Ultimately, this is the story of the entire State of Israel and its Jewish national community in all of its variety and complexity. The rigorous academic study of that distinctiveness in all its specific forms and incarnations serves as the mission of Jewish studies as it should be practiced everywhere, and as it is most often practiced in Israel.
Standing under the wooden ceiling of a reconstructed Bavarian synagogue, I realized that I had found my academic community among my Israeli peers and colleagues. They share in my mission of exploring the thick Jewish identities, textual and oral, of previous Jewish generations. It is these identities that have merged into the organic whole that is Jewish identity in Israel today.
A century ago, one of the reigning Zionist paradigms was shelilat ha-golah, the negation of the Diaspora. The new Jewish identity would emerge, it was argued, only through the nullification of the old. Today, however, Israeli Jewish identity has emerged not as the negation but rather as the apotheosis of Diaspora Jewry in all of its variety.
Having spent years studying the Jews of Vilna, dubbed “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” I feel its spirit living on in the hundreds of yeshivot and synagogues of present-day Jerusalem. Its spirit also lives on at the National Library of Israel, currently located on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, soon to be relocated to a larger building nearby. The 1986 documentary Partisans of Vilna begins with a scene of Abba Kovner, the great Hebrew poet and former partisan, standing over a model of the shul hoyf, the synagogue courtyard, in Vilna that he had designed for Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum (now renamed the Museum of the Jewish People). In describing the various synagogues and study houses of the shul hoyf, Kovner paused when speaking about the Strashun Library, which had been created from the vast personal collection of the 19th-century Vilna scholar Matisyahu Strashun. Here, “perhaps for the last time,” mused Kovner wistfully, old and young, religious and secular, sat side by side, united by their joint passion for Jewish study.
Happily, Kovner has been proven wrong. One can find this ecumenical spirit living on…in the National Library of Israel. One walks into the manuscript and archive room to find young secular Israelis sitting side by side with an elderly rabbi in a wheelchair. Increasingly, Haredim also make regular use of it. A warm and collegial atmosphere pervades the library, which extends beyond the scholars and librarians to the other staff as well. After several days at the library, I found myself on a first-name basis with the guards no less than with the librarians. Very often, it is the Jewish textual tradition that serves as the bridge between the visiting scholars and this library staff. I asked one of the guards if he would mind keeping an eye on my computer for several minutes. With a twinkle in his eye, he retorted, “Mah atah ḥoshev, sh’ani shomer ḥinam?” “What do you think? That I am a free guard?” This was a textual quip based on the Mishnah in Bava Metziah, which differentiates between a paid and unpaid guard. It was an “only in Israel” moment, in which an average Israeli citizen related his job to a Talmudic debate.
Another Vilna native, the Yiddishist Max Weinreich, famously referred to Yiddish as di shprakh fun derekh hashas, the language of the way of the Talmud. Weinreich, who earlier in his career had espoused the secular origins of the Yiddish language, did an about-face after the Holocaust. The distinctiveness of Yiddish, he asserted, came from its origins in the bes-medresh, the Study House, and its Talmudic discourse. Today, di shprakh fun derekh hashas is no longer Yiddish but rather modern Hebrew, which has naturally absorbed the biblical and Talmudic layers of language and knowledge that have allowed every Jewish civilization from Poland to Yemen to remain distinct.
After the conference, I left my national home, Israel, for my academic home, Yeshiva University, proud to be conversant in both the classic and contemporary shprakh fun derekh hashas and even prouder to be part of an academic community that studies the Jewish past and present in that language and from that perspective of distinctiveness.
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