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2008-2009 Studying Jews

Alongside the rapid institutional growth of Jewish studies in recent decades, there has been an equally remarkable expansion of the subjects and themes that Judaica scholars explore. The Frankel Institute theme for 2008-09 will address the intellectual dimensions involved in extending the borders of Jewish studies. At mid-century, the content of the field primarily focused on studying the development of Jewish thought and literature in addition to the history of persecution, self-governance, and religious controversy. Then, beginning in the 1970s, a sea-change occurred as scholars began to address themes that expanded the topical range of Jewish studies and reflected changes transforming academic life. The perspectives of social history and women’s studies, in particular, reoriented the way Jewish history was taught, while challenges to the canon in literary studies made room for the study of the cultural production of Jews other than rabbis, philosophers, moralists, and poets. Further shifts in the configuration of the liberal arts, including the rise of cultural studies, gender studies, post-colonial studies, and interdisciplinarity reverberated as well, changing both the ways Jews were studied and the kinds of Jews who became objects of study.

As a consequence of these changes, there is no consensus among those who view themselves as practitioners of Jewish studies about the “core” content of the field; indeed, there is often friction and tension about which subjects and practitioners are “in” and which are “out” or whether there even is or should be a “core.” While some debate is attributable to identity politics and competition for resources, there is a substantive intellectual dimension involved that has not received the attention it merits. Every choice of subject and of method is laden with meanings and implications. Shifting the focus of one’s gaze, stressing this rather than that, may not necessarily be an overt political or cultural move but it does reflect, at a minimum, some sense of what one values as vital and noteworthy. These choices, in turn, shape thinking about the nature and contours of Jewish history, culture, and society.

Applications to the Frankel Institute are welcome from scholars in history, literature, religion, and the social sciences whose work both shifts the focus of scholarship and explores the resulting implications and consequences. The central questions to be explored include: How do we make choices about what is central and what is peripheral? How do we decide what is worthwhile and what is insignificant? What do we gain – and what do we lose – by our choice of method and subject? Equally important to this theme is a consideration of how shifts in the focus and method of research influence the larger picture, the driving narratives of Jewish history and culture.

The 2008-09 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on "The Culture of Jewish Objects".


Anthony Bale
Birkbeck College - University of London
"Fear, Pleasure and the Medieval Jewish Image"

Amir Aharon Banbaji
Ben Gurion and Sapir College
"History of Hebrew Literary Criticism and Theory: The Haskala Period"

Gabriele Boccaccini
University of Michigan
"Diversity without Unity, Judaisms without Judaism? The Search for Rabbinic Origins as a Quest for the Elusive Core of Judaic Studies"

Alanna Cooper
Hebrew College of MA
"Communities on the Margins: Re-Centering Jewish Studies"

Todd Endelman
University of Michigan
"Studying Jews"

Chaya Halberstam
Indiana University
"Sacred Possessions: Material Culture in Early Jewish Texts"

Madeline Kochen
University of Michigan
"Property and Justice in the Talmud"

Mikhail Krutikov
University of Michigan
"Discourse of the Shtetl and the "Jewish Renaissance" in Eastern Europe"

Howard Lupovitch
Colby College
"Toward a New Hermeneutic of Religious Reform:  The Life and Legacy of Aron Chorin"

Regina Morantz-Sanchez
University of Michigan
"Ghetto Girls and Reforming Men: Love, Inter-Marriage, Politics and the American Melting Pot, 1900-1930"

Aharon Oppenheimer
Tel-Aviv University
"The History of the Jewish People from Bar Kokhva till the Moslem Conquest"

Barry Trachtenberg
University at Albany (SUNY)
"Write and Record!  The Yiddish Encyclopedia Project and the Holocaust"

Hana Wirth-Nesher
Tel-Aviv University
"Cross Scripts: Hebrew Letters, English Writing"