Name: Josh Lambert
U-M Degree: PhD in English language and literature, 2009
Title: Academic director of the Yiddish Book Center; visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; contributing editor at Tablet.
Author of: Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture
Name: Anna Cichopek-Gajraj
U-M Degree: PhD in history, 2008
Title: Assistant professor of history and Jewish Studies at Arizona State University
Author of: Beyond Violence: Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia in 1944–1948
How did your education at U-M prepare you for the work you do today?
LAMBERT: I'm tempted to say: How didn't it? I could go on, at length, about the faculty, classes, peers, and support I had in Ann Arbor and while writing my dissertation. But I'll focus on one of the main aspects of my current role: the discipline-straddling role I play in a number of contexts. Whether I'm shuttling from the Yiddish Book Center to the English department at UMass Amherst, trying to find ways to make academic scholarship more accessible to K-12 educators, or organizing panels on social media in teaching for the Association for Jewish Studies conference, I'm always energized by the prospect of bringing people and ideas together in new ways. Optimism about interdisciplinarity was one of the most valuable things I took away from Ann Arbor. At U-M, I found so many scholars, from multiple disciplines, who are genuinely committed to excellence, and who are dedicated to doing the work to make their voices heard both in Jewish Studies and in other disciplines, both inside and outside the academy.
CICHOPEK-GAJRAJ: Quite simply, I learned to think as a humanities scholar at the University of Michigan. I learned that at the heart of intellectual production lies rigor, humility, and collaboration. These were the most valuable lessons from Ann Arbor.
Which U-M professors helped inspire your work?
LAMBERT: When I came to visit U-M for the first time, Anita Norich—upon discovering that I'm Canadian—told me how important, and deserving of rediscovery, she felt Adele Wiseman's novel Crackpot was. I read the novel a few weeks later, and began thinking about why an author like Wiseman would have written a novel about a Jewish prostitute. My answer to that question is at the center of the third chapter of my book, Unclean Lips.
CICHOPEK-GAJRAJ: I came to the U-M history graduate program from the Jagellonian University in Poland with an MA in Jewish history. My three advisors, Zvi Gitelman, Todd Endelman, and Brian Porter-Szücs were each, in their own way, incredibly influential in my academic development. They introduced me to the world of American academia and helped me navigate a cultural transition where reading, writing, and thinking in English were the least of my worries. Each of them taught me valuable lessons. Zvi’s vast knowledge of the East European Jewish experience has always inspired me and sets the "gold standard" to which I aspire. Todd made me feel at home in modern Jewish social history and showed me how to use historical theory as a means and not the end of research. And Brian forced me to think outside the box, outside the intellectual paths familiar to me from the Polish historiography.
What projects are you working on now and/or hope to work on in the future?
LAMBERT: On the research side, I'm working on two books. One, which I want to call The Literary Mafia, is about Jews, American publishing history, and questions of nepotism and fairness, with a focus on the decades after the end of World War II. The other is a series of essays on American Jewish culture in the age of the internet, lookingat the ways that new media technologies and the rise of foundation funding created a boom in Jewish culture.
In terms of my work at the Yiddish Book Center, I created a program this past summer called the Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop. The workshop brought together teachers from Jewish day schools and supplementary schools to think about new ways of bringing modern Jewish literature and culture into their classrooms. As part of that project, we'll be launching a website that will share resources with teachers in the field, and I'm really excited about that.
CICHOPEK-GAJRAJ: My new project deals with a topic close to my heart, immigration, and builds on Todd’s work on Jewish integration and assimilation. It focuses on the immigration and assimilation of Holocaust survivors and their children who were born in prewar, wartime, and immediate postwar Poland. Questions about assimilation, acculturation, and integration of Holocaust survivors and their families to the United States and the “American way of life” are at the heart of this study. How did they rebuild their lives or build a new home here? How did they “become American” and what did that mean to them? How did the trauma of the Holocaust and memories of the old homeland, Poland, impact the immigrants’ postwar socialization in the United States?
What advice would you give to students who are considering Judaic Studies at U-M?
LAMBERT: As far as I can tell, there is simply no better place in the world to pursue a degree in Judaic Studies than at the University of Michigan. In terms of advice, I think it's important for graduate and undergraduate students to think broadly about the ways in which their studies could be useful in a variety of professional contexts. The fields of education, publishing, and nonprofits are changing so rapidly, and I'm hopeful that Judaic Studies students and scholars will have increasingly influential voices in all of these areas.
CICHOPEK-GAJRAJ: Take advantage of the incredible, intellectually rich environment at U-M. It’s a wonderful school full of exceptionally passionate scholars who are at the top of their fields. And read, read, read. Chain yourself to one of the greatest libraries in the country. After graduate school, you will have fewer and fewer days available for the simple pleasure of reading. Finally, and probably most importantly, learn to find balance in your life, because the atmosphere at U-M can get quite competitive. But every scholar works best at his or her own pace and graduate school is where you should find out what works best for you.
(Frankely Speaking, December 2015)