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Archive for the 'Jewish studies' Category

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Remembering Slavery: Passover, Caribbean Literature and Black-Jewish Relations

Calypso Jews

“Like the Caribbean literature I examine, the Passover seder encourages us to make connections between different histories of oppression.”—Sarah Phillips Casteel

The following post is by Sarah Phillips Casteel, author of Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination.

The annual Jewish ritual of the Passover seder transports its participants back to the time of Egyptian slavery. During the seder, ancient history is reanimated through storytelling and eating symbolic foods. The Haggadah (or “telling”) instructs Jews that it is incumbent upon them to narrate their suffering in Egypt and liberation from bondage: “In every generation each individual is bound to regard himself as if he had gone personally forth from Egypt, as it is said, ‘And thou shalt relate to thy son on that day saying, this is on account of what the Eternal did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.’” At Passover, Jews transmit this story from one generation to the next through a process in which, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, “we not only remember that we were slaves but also re-experience ourselves as slaves.”

As a scholar of Caribbean literature, I am interested in how contemporary writers also use narrative to engage and reactivate the past. Just as the Passover seder compels its participants to actively recall the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom in order to shape the consciousness of the next generation, contemporary Caribbean writers transport us back into the slavery past in order to help us make sense of the present. Part of the power of this act of literary imagination is that it brings forgotten histories to light. As I explore in my new book, one of the lost histories recovered by Caribbean writers is that of the resettlement of Jewish refugees in the Caribbean from the seventeenth century onward.

Several years ago, while wandering through the Jewish cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados, I was excited to come across a tombstone bearing the name Benjamin C. d’Azevedo. I immediately recognized this name, which is shared by the Jewish protagonist of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. In Condé’s 1986 novel, which is set in Barbados and New England during the Salem Witch Trials, the Jewish merchant Benjamin Cohen d’Azevedo purchases the slavewoman Tituba and eventually frees her, securing her passage back to the Caribbean. Had Condé visited the Bridgetown cemetery and found her Jewish protagonist here, I wondered? Why was she so drawn to the Sephardic Caribbean story?


Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Man-O-Manischewitz — Roger Horowitz on Kosher Wine and Its Popularity among African Americans

Sammy Davis, Kosher USA

With Passover beginning tomorrow and with people starting to break out the Seder wine, we thought we’d share an excerpt from Roger Horowitz’s chapter “Man-O-Manischewitz,” from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. In this excerpt, Horowitz recounts the story behind the surprising popularity of Manischewitz and other Kosher wines among African Americans during the twentieth century. As Horowitz explains, the sweetness of Kosher wine was comparable to the homemade wines that many African Americans made. He also looks at how the wine companies began to market their products directly to African American consumers.

In addition to the excerpt below, here is a clip of Sammy Davis Jr. pitching Manischewitz Almonetta Wine:

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Harry Kassell: Kosher Meat Man

Roger Horowitz, Kosher USA

The following post from Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, was originally published on his blog. The post reveals the ways in which Kosher meat production was brought into the processes of the modern U.S. food industry.

I came across an amazing man while looking for information on kosher meat. A Harry Kassel came up in a New York Times search, appearing in a 1973 article about meat shortages and described as the largest wholesaler of kosher meat in the New York area. Other searches turned up nothing more; so I turned to one of the historian’s great resources—the telephone book—and found him living on Long Island just past the end of the Belt Parkway. Spry and sharp at 89, he told me about his remarkable life, and in so doing gave me the backbone of chapter seven in Kosher USA, which I called “Harry Kassel’s Meat.”

He was born in Racine, Wisconsin to a Jewish family that tried to keep kosher. He joined the military during World War II, and rather than trying to build up his military service, joked with me in his self-deprecating manner that since the US wanted to win the war, they kept him in the country. Recently demobilized in 1946, he agreed to a blind date with Zeena Levine, who was then a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. The two hit if off (even though she called him a “cheapskate” in our interview since he took her to a bar instead of a restaurant) and were soon married. Harry joked that since she wouldn’t go to work, he had to, and took the easy way out by joining his new father in law’s business.

Zeena’s father was a butcher—on a big scale. With his partner Sam Cohen, Joe Levine owned several large kosher butcher shops in Brooklyn and a small chain of non-kosher shops. Kosher meat was a thriving business after World War II, and Levine took in his son-in-law and taught him how to evaluate recently-slaughtered meat and decide which carcasses to buy for his butcher shops.

After a few years Kassel went into business for himself and established a meat wholesale company in the Brooklyn plant once operated by Swift & Co. His training made him acutely aware of the peculiar nature of kosher beef – that the same animal yielded kosher and non-kosher cuts. The Ashkenazi tradition was to only consume the forequarters, so even though these cattle yielded kosher briskets and rib roasts, the desirable loin cuts could not enter the kosher trade. Kassel made a name for himself by buying the hindquarters of prime, kosher-killed cattle and distributing the tenderloins and porterhouse steaks so prized in New York’s white tablecloth restaurants.


Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Kosher Coke, Kosher Science

Kosher USA

In the excerpt below from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, Roger Horowitz travels from his family’s Seder table to early twentieth-century Atlanta when Rabbi Geffen had to weigh in on the status of Coke. The excerpt exemplifies the challenge of balancing the laws of ancient religious texts with the demands of the modern food industry and consumer desires.

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Kosher USA, by Roger Horowitz

This week we are featuring Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, by Roger Horowitz.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Kosher USA to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 22 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Andrew Smith writes:

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Roger Horowitz’s Kosher USA! It is three-stories in one: a family narrative within a history of kosher within the industrialization of the American food system. Well researched, insightful, and delightful–even for goyim.”

You can also read the chapter, “My Family’s Sturgeon”:

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Tahneer Oksman on Writing a Jewish Book

“Why did I write a Jewish book? Because I was trying to reclaim my Jewish self, however unfamiliar its now ragged shape.”—Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

When Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, first began as PhD. student in literature, focusing on Jewish women’s comics was not on the horizon As she explains in a recent essay in Lilith, while women’s literature was of great interest to her, she had decided to put her Jewish upbringing behind her:

Somewhere between my upbringing in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in the Bronx, and the years of slowly replacing that orthodoxy with new modes of belief and practice — feminism, writing, literature and, yes, yoga — I decided that my Jewish history would never figure, could never figure, in my life as it — as I — had been remade. It would certainly never become a centerpiece.

However, as she pursued her studies, she found herself drawn to the lives of such Jewish writers as Anzia Yezierska, Sara Smolinsky, and Grace Paley. This shift to concentrating Jewish women writers was not necessarily the best career move. Oksman explains:

Writing about a Jewish topic also meant transforming myself into the very worst thing you could become as a graduate student: unmarketable. I was now too Jewish for English Literature programs, and I would never be Jewish enough for jobs in Jewish programs. This left me, as usual, between worlds; if you write your first book on a Jewish topic, after all, you’ve pigeonholed yourself: you’re a Jewish writer. Haven’t you seen how so many of those popular “canonical” Jewish writers (and actors, and painters, and critics) reject that title? Write about something else; take the word Jewish out of your title, for heaven’s sake!


Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

An Interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

Tahneer Oksman,

“What’s interesting about comics is that you have artists drawing versions of themselves over and over on the same page. You can actually see their serial selves, their past, present, and future self-portraits in relation to one another.”—Tahneer Oksman

The following is an interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”" Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs:

Question: The graphic memoirists you write about in your book have complicated relationships to Jewish identity. What are some of the ways they express or articulate their ambivalence?

Tahneer Oksman: For someone like Aline Kominsky Crumb, her reflections on Jewish identity read, at least initially, like a general distaste for the Jewish Long Island community that she grew up in. Her memoir is saturated with visual and verbal stereotypes about Jews, and Jewish women in particular. But the more closely you examine her work, the more you recognize its complex push-pull: she incorporates those stereotypes in order to fully explore her own sense of self. In a way, she is continually mocking her own mockery.

Some of the other cartoonists I write about tend to be more overtly ambivalent. Vanessa Davis, for instance, expresses a clear adoration for various tenets of her Jewish identity, many of these associated with childhood and family. But within images portraying precious memories—of her Bat Mitzvah, for example—she incorporates words or body language that contradict the celebratory, engaged atmosphere depicted around her. Other artists, like Lauren Weinstein, express ambivalence indirectly, as when her young persona writes a letter to Mattel, complaining about how “All your Barbies look like Aryans!,” and then later laments her own so-called Jewish looks (including her nose).

Q: How does this differ from the ways in which Jewish male graphic artists might grapple with these questions in their own work?

TO: I don’t believe there’s any essential difference in the ways that Jewish women and men—or women and men more generally—portray identity in comics. In the book, I selected seven memoirists who, to my mind, successfully model this ambivalent Jewish identity that I set out to explore. There are plenty of other Jewish cartoonists who didn’t make it into the book, not because they don’t fit into this model but because I had to set limitations in order to effectively develop my ideas. The book is meant to introduce a way to start thinking about how identity functions in comics, and not as any kind of end point.

To my mind, crucial differences emerge when it comes to how different kinds of comics (and artistic and literary works more generally) are perceived. Certain subjects and styles are still considered amateur or frivolous both in and out of academic contexts. It’s still a very male-dominated medium in this way, no matter how many women skillfully assert themselves in various forms of print and online. This reception ultimately influences the ways that comics get made. In other words, there’s going to be an awareness, for artists and writers who have been marginalized, of certain critical tones, and that will inevitably find its way into the work, for better or worse.


Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Book Giveaway! “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

This week we are featuring “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, by Tahneer Oksman.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, February 26th at 1:00 pm.

Jeremy Dauber, Director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University, writes:

“A careful and nuanced exploration of the complexities of identity and identification, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” is an excellent and ground-breaking work.”

Below is the introduction, “To Unaffiliate Jewishly”:

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Introducing Jerusalem Unbound

Jerusalem Unbound

“Thus at the heart of the study of Jerusalem lays the peculiar conundrum of the city–it has little military or strategic value but, at the same time, it is sought after and contested by many.” — Michael Dumper

This week our featured book is Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History, and the Future of the Holy City, by Michael Dumper. Today, we are happy to present Michael Dumper’s Introduction to Jerusalem Unbound, in which Dumper explains why he felt that he needed to write a third book on Jerusalem and lays out the themes that he intends to explore throughout his book.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Jerusalem Unbound!

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Jerusalem Unbound, by Michael Dumper

Jerusalem Unbound

This week our featured book is Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History, and the Future of the Holy City, by Michael Dumper. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Jerusalem Unbound. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, June 13th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Judith Butler on Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism

In the following video, Judith Butler discusses some of the themes, arguments, and experiences that shape her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (now available in paper).

Butler considers Israel’s policy in Palestine and the Jewish response to the occupation and state violence. A critic of Israel, who believes Israel’s occupation violates international law, Butler argues that her critique is not anti-Jewish. In the video, Butler also briefly addresses her own sense of Jewish identity and her family’s suffering during the Holocaust.

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Part 2 of an Interview with Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet

The Lives of Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, and died almost eighty years later, on March 18, 1980. In celebration of Fromm’s life, we have a two-part Q&A with Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, looking back at Fromm’s many intellectual contributions and accomplishments.

In part two of the interview, Friedman discusses how Fromm’s ideas can be applied to modern political problems.

Question: Fromm led efforts to revitalize American democracy. What did he feel was wrong with our system?

Lawrence Friedman: Fromm was the principal funder and platform architect for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s bid to win the White House in 1968. McCarthy ran as a peace candidate determined to extract America from the Vietnam War. This fit with Fromm’s antimilitarism. On a deeper level, he felt that pointless wars like Vietnam might be avoided if American democracy were restored. Invoking the old New England town meeting as his point of departure, Fromm tried to promote a small, community-based government structure with all officials directly and personally responsible to the local citizenry. Fromm continued to promote this view of democracy throughout his life even as, in his opinion, a Big Brother–like national-security state thrived under less democratic presidencies such as Nixon’s.

Fromm would have seen the possibility of democracy restored in the 2008 Obama campaign, with Obama’s appeal to racial minorities, women, and students and his ability to spark excitement about the political process. But he would have been less enthusiastic for the Obama of 2012 because the president sent additional troops to Afghanistan and essentially ordered the assassination of Bin Laden. But he would have voted for Obama a second time because he was somewhat more democratic and less elitist than Romney. Fromm had strong ideals and democracy was one of them. But he was also a pragmatist, willing to take half a loaf as a first installment on any basic goal. He would have supported Obama with this perspective.

Q: While Fromm was a strong advocate for democracy around the globe, he was also critical of how bureaucratic state socialism (such as obtained in the Soviet Union) and corporate capitalism (such as in the United States) both alienated modern man. He envisioned a “Third Way”: a humanist society that valued the happiness of the individual in a democratic polity. Can this type of government ever truly exist and function?

LF: Fromm saw both the alienating capitalism and consumer culture of the West (especially the United States) and the bureaucratic socialist societies of the Eastern bloc as anathema to the human condition. Western societies for the most part offered only the façade of democracy while covering selfhood in a plethora of estranged consumerism. The Russians were more dictatorial, Fromm argued, and the Russian leadership promoted inhumane and inefficient bureaucracy.

Fromm cooperated with intellectuals and activists in “Third Way” countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland that were trying to break from the Soviet sphere of influence while distancing themselves from Western “democracies.” They were relatively small countries and the citizenry passionately sought small community-based democratic socialism free of both Soviet bureaucracy and Western alienation. In our contemporary world where there is no longer a Soviet Union and the United States can no longer impose its will abroad. Fromm would see continuing potential for a “Third Way,” especially in small countries like Finland, Denmark, and even Tunisia.

Q: Fromm challenged the dominant Freudian model of psychoanalysis and paid a professional price for doing so. His approach encourages “central relatedness,” where confidentiality breaches may sometimes occur and the clinician is personally involved with the patient rather than distanced by therapeutic neutrality. What is his legacy in the psychiatric world and has his approach been embraced or rejected by modern psychoanalysis?

LF: Orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis involved a seemingly neutral and distant analyst. The patient projected his repressed concerns on the analyst so these concerns could be studied. Fromm’s “central relatedness” was markedly different. The analyst was not neutral but opened himself to his deepest personal issues and encouraged the patient to similarly open his “center” to the analyst.

Traditional Freudian analysis is essentially gone. Given Fromm’s and other clinicians’ affairs and other professional breaches with their patients, rooted in the temptations of “central relatedness”, it, too, has a problematic legacy. But Fromm, like his friend Harry Stack Sullivan, emphasized the clinical relationship as an interpersonal one– the connectedness between people as the way to understand what troubled patients. Because the interpersonal is perhaps the dominant clinical approach today within psychoanalytically informed therapy, Fromm and Sullivan have reemerged as significant figures. From a therapeutic perspective, Fromm has finally come of age.

Q: You write that mental health and illness are heavily social constructs. If Fromm were living today, current clinicians might have labeled him as bipolar. Yet there were “stabilizers” in his life that pushed away bipolarity and let Fromm be very productive. What can we learn from Fromm’s approach to dealing with the effects of mental illness?

LF: Contemporary psychiatrists and other mental health experts are too quick to label their patients “bipolar” and “schizophrenic.” Both tend to be seen as genetically rooted organic maladies; psychotropic drugs are the remedies or alleviants of choice. Coming from the social misery of a deeply depressed mother and a manic father and trying somehow to keep the family together, Fromm adapted. By his own admission, he would have been called manic depressive or bipolar. However, considering the way he led his life, “manic depressive” is diagnostically far off the mark even if he was genetically or temperamentally disposed.

Fromm developed an array of daily habits that “stabilized“ or fine-tuned his existence. He wrote regularly, meditated, conversed with a small circle of convivial friends, cultivated a love for political activism, and corresponded regularly and caringly with those close to him. Succinctly, Fromm’s life and the social emphasis behind his therapeutic approach suggest that our daily social arrangements may keep us healthy and happy without recourse to drugs. At least these arrangements should precede drug trials that may be unnecessary. Fromm thought so and always emphasized social circumstances in caring for his patients even as he never dismissed the possibility of drugs as periodic supplements down the line.

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Part 1 of an Interview with Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet

The Lives of Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, and died almost eighty years later, on March 18, 1980. In celebration of Fromm’s life, we have a two-part Q&A with Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, looking back at Fromm’s many intellectual contributions and accomplishments.

In part one of the interview, Friedman discusses Fromm’s views on love and politics, and how his works still have political impact today.

Question: Fromm was a believer in love or, as you call him, “love’s prophet.” How did his relationships with women influence his philosophy about the role of love in the world?

Lawrence Friedman: The Art of Loving (1956) sold over 25,000,000 copies and still sells well globally. The theme is easy to fathom. At a very deep level, one must simultaneously love oneself, the cherished other, and all of humankind. Love starts as a specific relationship and then becomes a global transformation of humankind into a peaceful and caring society.

Succinctly, a self in love with another is transformative. This was a perspective on love that connected to Fromm’s view of humanism and spirituality. The theme of love had an overwhelming dose of authenticity. It was rooted in Fromm’s own life. Fromm’s unhappy first marriage led to a divorce; in the second, his wife committed suicide; the third, with Annis Freeman, was love from the start. Sometimes Fromm would write six or seven love letters to Freeman every day, and she would reciprocate. The expressions of love through letters bound their lives together and energized Fromm’s spiritual crusade to humanize the world.

Q: Fromm was a founder and major funder of Amnesty International. How has Amnesty transformed our understanding of social justice and human rights?

LF: Fromm was a founder of Amnesty International in the early 1960s and was its principal funder for the next twenty years. He did much to make Amnesty perhaps the most vibrant and effective global agency for human rights and against government brutalities. To free incarcerated victims of harsh regimes, Fromm could play the part of global diplomat, shuttling among Washington, New York, London, and Moscow with remarkable skill and effectiveness. His money and his strategies to free people from governmental barbarities did much to make Amnesty International the most important human rights organization in the world today.


Friday, November 30th, 2012

Ross Melnick and Toby Talbot to Discuss the Jewish Experience in Film

Ross Melnick, American ShowmanOn Sunday, December 2, (1 p.m.– 5 p.m), Columbia University Press is co-sponsoring the event “Exhibitors, Distributors and Showmen” at the American Jewish Historical Society as part of their Culture Brokers series.

The program will include two Columbia University Press authors: Ross Melnick, author of American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908-1935 and Toby Talbot, author of The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies. Melnick and Talbot will be joined by Phillip Lopate.

This program will take a look at the Jewish experience in film, including the great impresarios of both commercial and art film houses, the distributors, and the theater owners who brought movie entertainment to urban and small town America alike.

Tickets: 212.868.4444 or smarttix.com

Price per event: $15 General Public • $10 AJHS & CJH members, Students & Seniors

For more information: info@ajhs.org or call 212-294-6160

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Todd Gitlin Defends Judith Butler

Judith Butler, Parting WaysTodd Gitlin is perhaps not Judith Butler’s most ardent supporter. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Trouble with Judith Butler—and Her Critics, Gitlin, author of The Intellectuals and the Flag and other titles, faults her for her somewhat obfuscatory writing and her devotion to what he terms, “theory.”

However, he does take issue with the Jerusalem Post’s recent articles attacking Butler in the wake of her winning the Theodor Adorno Prize, awarded by the city of Frankfurt. Gitlin points out that the Jerusalem Post‘s claims that Butler has defended Hezbollah and Hamas lacks any real evidence beyond a misreading of her remarks given in front of an academic audience. (Butler herself refuted the Jerusalem Post in an article in Mondoweiss. For more on her views about Israel, please see her recently published Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.)

Gitlin argues the tactics of the Jerusalem Post reflect the current and lamentable state of debate in our society:

These days, even the most lucid writers fall victims to scurrilous, slovenly, sound-bite spitballing that pretends to be grown-up debate. The gotcha habit of seeking the author’s clumsiest, least defensible moments and waving them in the air like chunks of raw meat, is a disgrace and a curse. I imagine there is Talmudic support for this view.


Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Judith Butler on deriving principles from a Jewish cultural tradition

“What gives a tradition legitimacy is very often what works against its effectiveness. To be effective, a tradition must be able to depart from the particular historical circumstances of its legitimation and prove applicability to new occasions of time and space. In a sense, such resources can only become effective by losing their grounding in historical or textual precedent….” — Judith Butler

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of ZionismOur highlighted book this week is Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. You can enter our giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy!

Today we have part of the introduction of Parting Ways. In this excerpt, Butler explains “what it means to derive a set of principles from a cultural tradition” and then applies this explanation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can read the introduction to Parting Ways in it’s entirety on Scribd.

To Derive a Set of Principles

Let us reflect first on what it means to derive a set of principles from a cultural tradition and then move to the larger political issues at hand. As I noted, to say that principles are “derived” from Jewish resources raises the question of whether these principles remain Jewish once they are developed within a contemporary situation, assuming new historical forms? Or are they principles that can and must be, always have been, derived from various cultural and historical resources, thus “belonging” exclusively to none of them? In fact, does the generalizability of theprinciples in question depend fundamentally on their finally not belonging to any one cultural location or tradition from which they may have emerged? Does this nonbelonging, this exile, help to constitute the generalizability and transposability of the principles of justice and equality?

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Judith Butler on being Jewish and criticizing Israel

So, on the one hand, Jews who are critical of Israel think perhaps they cannot be Jewish anymore of Israel represents Jewishness; and on the other hand, those who seek to vanquish anyone who criticizes Israel equate Jewishness with Israel as well, leading to the conclusion that the critic must be anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating. My scholarly and public efforts have been directed toward getting out of this bind. — Judith Butler

Our highlighted book this week is Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. You can enter our giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy!

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of ZionismThe Theodor W. Adorno Prize is given every three years by the city of Frankfurt “to further and acknowledge outstanding performances in the fields of philosophy, music, theatre and film.” Past winners have included such luminaries as Jürgen Habermas, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Jacques Derrida. This year’s prize is being awarded to Judith Butler. However, the Jerusalem Post recently published an article critical of Butler and the awarding of the prize, “Frankfurt to award US advocate of Israel boycott.” Monday, Mondoweiss published a letter from Butler herself responding to the criticisms she faced in the Jerusalem Post article on her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Butler begins her letter by listing the three main criticisms leveled against her in the article in the Jerusalem Post:

The accusations against me are that I support Hamas and Hezbollah (which is not true) that I support BDS (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false). Perhaps I should not be as surprised as I am that those who oppose my receiving the Adorno Prize would seek recourse to such scurrilous and unfounded charges to make their point. I am a scholar who gained an introduction to philosophy through Jewish thought, and I understand myself as defending and continuing a Jewish ethical tradition that includes figures such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt…. I was taught at every step in my Jewish education that it is not acceptable to stay silent in the face of injustice. Such an injunction is a difficult one, since it does not tell us exactly when and how to speak, or how to speak in a way that does not produce a new injustice, or how to speak in a way that will be heard and registered in the right way. My actual position is not heard by these detractors, and perhaps that should not surprise me, since their tactic is to destroy the conditions of audibility.

Butler is particularly disturbed by what she sees as the silencing tactics of many of her critics.

It is untrue, absurd, and painful for anyone to argue that those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating. Such charges seek to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance. It is a silencing tactic: this person is unspeakable, and whatever they speak is to be dismissed in advance or twisted in such a way that it negates the validity of the act of speech. The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.


Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Judith Butler in conversation with Udi Aloni

You’d bring someone home, and the first question was “Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?” Then I entered into a lesbian community in college—late college, graduate school—and the first thing they asked was, “Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?” “Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?” and I thought, “Enough with the separatism!” — Judith Butler

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of ZionismOur highlighted book this week is Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. You can enter our giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy!

Today we have part of a conversation between Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni and Judith Butler excerpted from Aloni’s book What Does a Jew Want?: On Binationalism and other Specters. In this excerpt, Butler explains how her Jewish background led her to the study of philosophy and critical theory, which in turn led her back to a study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can read the conversation in it’s entirety on Scribd.

Udi Aloni: Now I must be Jewish: what was your parents’ relation to Judaism?

Judith Butler: My parents were practicing Jews. My mother grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and after my grandfather died, she went to a Conservative synagogue and a little later ended up in a Reform synagogue. My father was in reform synagogues from the beginning.

My mother’s uncles and aunts were all killed in Hungary. My grand¬mother lost all of her relatives, except for the two nephews who came with them in the car when my grandmother went back in 1938 to see who she could rescue. It was important for me. I went to Hebrew school. But I also went after school to special classes on Jewish ethics because I was interested in the debates. So I didn’t do just the minimum. Through high school, I suppose, I continued Jewish studies alongside my public school education.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Interview with Michael R. Cohen, author of The Birth of Conservative Judaism

The following is an interview with Michael R. Cohen, author of The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement

The Birth of Conservative Judaism, Michael R. CohenQuestion: When did you begin your study of Solomon Schechter and his rabbinical students? What drew you to this research?

Michael R. Cohen: This research actually began for me as an undergraduate. While working on my senior thesis, which analyzed the Jewish community of Portland, Maine, I came across a rabbi who failed spectacularly in his attempt to bring Conservative Judaism to Portland in the 1920s. Pressed by my adviser Maud Mandel to dig deeper, I tried to figure out if this rabbi’s colleagues struggled as much to bring Conservative Judaism to their own communities. My research suggested that while they did struggle mightily, they were ultimately the ones responsible for the creation of Conservative Judaism in the United States. I decided to explore this topic in greater depth with Jonathan Sarna, who was also deeply interested in the ways in which Conservative and Orthodox Judaism separated and became distinct movements.

Q: Much of your research took place in incredible archives including the archive of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Archives. Can you describe some of the documents you worked with?

MRC: Some of the most fascinating documents I discovered were letters between the disciples, where they debated the meaning of a movement, the qualities that bound them together, and the future of American Judaism. What really shone through in these materials were the close personal friendships that remained with them throughout their lives. I also found letters between Schechter and his disciples, which vividly showed both the difficulty faced by the disciples in the field as well as the mutual respect and friendship between Schechter and his students.

Q: You draw some distinctions between the vision Solomon Schechter had for Conservative Judaism and the reality of its present form. How do you think Schechter’s Conservative Judaism differs from twenty-first-century Conservative Judaism?

MRC: Most importantly, Schechter never saw his form of Judaism as a third, separate movement. Instead, he believed that it would unify the American Jewish community. So, in that sense, twenty-first-century Conservative Judaism is far from his vision. But, in another sense, his broad platform of traditional Judaism infused with English, decorum, and modern education had failed miserably at the time of his 1915 death, but now, today, it characterizes the movement. In one sense, then, Schechter’s vision came true and in another sense it did not.


Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Udi Aloni and Slavoj Zizek in NYC

What Does a Jew Want?

Over the next couple weeks, New York City is going to be treated to a couple of unique events featuring CUP author Udi Aloni and CUP Insurrections Series editor Slavoj Zizek.

First, this coming Sunday, April 15th, Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek are presenting a multifaceted theatrical performance loosely based around Aloni’s recent book, What Does a Jew Want?. After the performance itself, there will be some discussion and a book signing. Here are the details: