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2012-2013 Borders of Jewishness: Microhistories of Encounter

Jews live in a world of other peoples, differing faiths, and shifting politics, usually as a minority but occasionally as a majority; Jewish cultures, experiences–indeed the very horizon of possibilities of Jewish identity and being–have long been shaped in relation to the peoples among whom Jews live. How have these relations worked themselves out in the negotiations and contingencies of daily life? How have these encounters been refashioned and re-imagined, as they get represented in literary, musical, or artistic form? How might we use these encounters to get beyond the language of assimilation or acculturation (even, at its subtlest, "inward acculturation") to one more subtly responsive to the shifting mutual constitution of Jewish and non-Jewish self-identifications over time? And how can we deploy these narratives to account more forcefully for the constitutive role Jews have played over the long history of the Diaspora in the cultures to which they belong, from which they are excluded, with which they are engaged?
Borders of Jewishness: Microhistories of Encounter proposes to look at the work done on the borders of Jewish identity, with attention to the ways in which Jews as historical subjects, Judaism as faith and practice, and Jewishness as a set of cultural expressions shaped and were shaped by this dynamic interplay. This Frankel Institute theme year will explore how, when and where the boundaries between Jews and other peoples and Jewish and other cultures were set, calibrated and recalibrated. It will inquire in response to what currents of thought—cultural, social and for that matter scientific—such mutually modifying transformations were effected. Issues of interest will include where and under what conditions new definitions of Jewishness have emerged from such encounters, and under what political pressures and urgencies they were articulated and refined. The theme invites applications that ask what the impact of this interplay might be not merely nature and properties of identities generated by Jews themselves, but on such conceptions held by non-Jews about Jews—and, ultimately, themselves. It seeks not inconsequentially, to probe what the relation might be between imagined and actual borders between Jews and non-Jews, in a variety of contexts. For example, these contexts range from the medieval ghetto, where such boundaries were oppressive; to the spaces of the contemporary West, where they are sometimes extremely fluid, sometimes established by eruv and attitude in traditional communities; to the contemporary state of Israel, where they are sites of threat and danger as well as utopian spaces of exchange.
This proposal emerges from older paradigms of Jewish experience, and stretches toward a language that would permit writing about the interplay between dominant cultural authorities and Jewish sub-cultures in a more fluid, transactional, context. Such contexts include not just more obvious examples of American Jewry and its relation to African-Americans or new work on Jews and Native Americans but also Jews in the Caribbean and "the Christian Atlantic" in the late early modern period, the late medieval and early-modern interplay between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Iberia, and the theological and communal discourses of the medieval Mideast. Obviously the list here could be expanded to work underway in Jewish/Yiddish cultures on fin-de-siecle and early twentieth-century Russia; Jewish relations to Pauline Christianity and chivalric models of masculinity; or more generally the relation between the development of Judaism and Christianity in the Biblical and Talmudic periods.
Our goal is not to produce a new synthesis or grand meta-narrative so much as to examine individual cases from a relational perspective. To this end, the Frankel Institute theme year will adopt micro-history as an organizing principle. "Microhistory" of course refers to the transformative 1970s and 1980s work of such historians as Natalie Zemon Davis, Carlo Ginzberg, and Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, which looked at some of the largest possible questions (the position of women in early modern culture; heresy and the salience of religious belief systems in everyday life) through the smallest possible lenses, experience on the level of the village or even the individual. The micro-historical method influenced the early work of the so-called New Historicists in literary criticism (e.g. Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher), and continues to do so even as New Historicism has waned: June Howard′s Publishing the Family, for example, adopts a micro-historical format by studying the ramifications of publishing, gender, and literary-institution created in the making of one novel.
As an organizing trope, microhistory holds special promise for matters Jewish and Judaic. First, it encourages a focus on the everyday, the contingent, the quotidian, which promises to lead in salutary places in the context of the study of Jewish history and imaginative experience. It would argue for developing a deeper appreciation of the valences of the interplay between Jews and non-Jews by considering such interpretive frames as: ritual murder accusations in medieval and modern Germany and the Ottoman empire; relations between Jews and Greeks in the ancient world; encounters between Jewish and African-American jazz musicians of the '40s or klezmer musicians in the 1990s; the polyphonic play of multilingual literary texts in 1930s between American English or Yiddish. Second, the point of microhistory in the broadest sense of the word is to see, through the particular fact, the interconnectedness of things; weighing in a comparative context the implications of this interconnectedness would have a powerful effect in moving beyond essentialist accounts of Jewish identity-formation on the one hand, and mainstream oriented accounts that have downplayed the influence of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in their host cultures on the other. Third, microhistory′s influence serves as an inter-disciplinary model for an ongoing conversation the Frankel Institute hopes to foster among historians, literary critics, political scientists, students of religion, and anthropologists. The combination of a broad theoretical frame and a privileging of the specific intends draw to the Institute scholars interested in emergent inter-disciplinary work in the history of the emotions or sexuality, and in critical race and ethnic studies as well as people who work on the level of philological or literary praxis. It would also be attractive to scholars who study social and cultural formations in a wide variety of historical moments.
More broadly, it honors the interdisciplinary quality of scholarship at the University of Michigan and of Jewish studies at its very best by bringing together as varied a crew as possible—historians of the U.S.; students of rabbinics and theological history; sociologists and political scientists; art historians and literary scholars—and seeing what, working together and relationally, we can all come up with.

The 2012-13 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on "Borders of Jewishness: Microhistories of Encounter".


Maya Barzilai
University of Michigan
"Monstrous Borders: The Golem Legend and The Creation of Popular Culture"

Lois Dubin
Smith College
"Rachele and Her Loves: Marriage and Divorce in a Revoluntionary Age"

Jonathan Freedman
University of Michigan
"Transformations of a Jewish Princess:  Salome and the Remaking of the Jewish Woman’s Body from Sarah Bernhardt Through Betty Boop"

Jennifer Glaser
University of Cincinnati
"Exceptional Differences: Race, Chosennes, and the Postwar Jewish American Literary Imagination"

Harvey Goldberg
Hebrew University
"Ethnographic and Historical Perspectives on Maghrib Border Processes"

Kathryn Lavezzo
University of Iowa
"Mapping Jews and Christians in Medieval and Renaiscance Literature: A Cultural Geography of English Antisemitism"

Tatjana Lichtenstein
University of Austin at Texas
"A Life at Odds- The Provate and Political World of Prague Zionist"

Jessica Marglin
Princeton University
"The Assarrafs go to Court: Jews in the Moroccan Legal System during the Nineteenth Century"

Isaac Oliver
University of Michigan
"Luke: Marginalized Jew in the Greco Roman Diaspora"

Ranen Omer-Sherman
University of Miami
"Jewish Levantine Identities in the Contemporary Memoir & Fiction"

Laurence Roth
Susquehanna University
"Unpacking my Father's Bookstore: Collection, Commerce, Literature"

Andrea Siegel
Pepperdine University
"An Experimental Foray: Calendar for Mother and Child and Mother and Child Yearbook"

Lisa Silverman
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
"Beyond Material Claims: Rhetorics of Restitution after the Holocaust"

Orian Zakai
University of Michigan
"Hebrew Women, Their Others, Their Nation"