Longtime Judaic Studies faculty member Zvi Gitelman, Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies and Political Science will be retiring from the University of Michigan this year. The Frankel Center for Judaic Studies invites the community to join us for a celebration of Professor Gitelman’s scholarly contributions on December 4 in Rackham Assembly Hall. The day will begin with a 3 pm panel discussion on Jews and Politics featuring Anna Shternshis of the University of Toronto, David Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Todd Endelman of the University of Michigan, followed by a 5 pm lecture by Professor Gitelman, “Reflecting on Politics, History and Half a Century at Michigan.”
The opening of the Soviet archives during glasnost was one of the greatest finds in Jewish studies, arguably rivaled only by Solomon Schechter’s identification of the Cairo Geniza and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by three Bedouin shepherds. While numerous discoveries of forgotten Soviet Yiddish poets, Judaic religious practices in Ukraine, Holocaust-era killing sites in Belarus, and lost manuscripts in St. Petersburg have transformed Jewish studies, the central arguments that Zvi Gitelman has advanced—many long before the opening of the archives confirmed his views—have remained relevant, accurate, and influential.
His first book, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930, based on his Columbia dissertation and written during a period in which American scholarship was highly politicized by Cold War battles, presented a nuanced and revisionist account of the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union. In his reading, which he expanded in his monumental textbook, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present, the early revolutionary years were neither the culmination of Jewish political achievement nor the result of unbridled oppression, but rather represented a failed attempt at cultural, intellectual, and political rebirth.
Gitelman’s 1997 volume, Bitter Legacy: Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR, initiated a whole new direction of scholarship on both the Holocaust and the Soviet Union. He showed that the Soviet government did not completely suppress knowledge of the Holocaust, as had commonly been assumed, but rather reinterpreted the Holocaust to conform to a broader Soviet intellectual framework. More recently, Gitelman’s Jewish Identities in Postcommunist Russia and Ukraine: An Uncertain Ethnicity was the result of a decade of surveys among post-Soviet Russian and Ukrainian Jews about their attitudes toward Jewish identity and Judaism. This sobering account shows that while some post-Soviet Jews have taken on aspects of Jewish identity, it is what Gitelman calls a “thin” identity, and is unlikely to be sustained in future generations.
Gitelman’s scholarship has earned him accolades from Uzbekistan to Brighton Beach, but here in Michigan he is more widely recognized as a favorite professor for generations of Wolverines. Students who have had the good fortune to study with him recall how hard they had to work for that B+, and how much they learned in the process. His passion, wit, erudition, and high expectations often come up in student comments.
Although he is retiring from the classroom after 49 years, Gitelman continues to be an active teacher and researcher. He is currently working on at least two books, and is initiating a larger project to help Russian-Jewish immigrants learn about their own heritage. He remains engaged in charitable and professional organizations around the country, from the Joint Distribution Committee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. One of the founders of the Frankel Center, Gitelman remains a voice of authority and a stalwart defender of the highest standards of teaching and research.
When the last chapter of Deuteronomy is read in synagogue on the festival of Simchat Torah, it is customary for the congregation to chant “Chazak, chazak ve nitchazek,” (be strong, be strong, and let us gather new strength), after which the congregation immediately begins reading the Torah anew from the first chapter of Genesis. As one session of study ends, another begins. As Zvi Gitelman begins a new session of study, we all wish him chazak, chazak ve nitchazek.