Glenn Dynner

BA, Brandeis University. MA, McGill University. PhD, Brandeis University. Scholar of East European Jewry, with a focus on the social history of Hasidism and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Author of Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society, which received a Koret Publication Award and was a National Jewish Book Awards finalist. Received textual training in several Israeli yeshivas and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Additional interests include Polish-Jewish relations, Jewish economic history, and popular religion. Recipient of the Fulbright Award. Member (2010-11), Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University. SLC, 2004–

Undergraduate Courses 2021-2022

Religion

Jewish Autobiography: Between History & Literature

Open, Seminar—Spring

Autobiography is among the most contentious literary/historical genres, compromised by the fallibility of memory and the human tendency toward self-fashioning yet unique in the insights it affords into the lived experience of history. This course employs personal narratives as windows onto the Jewish transition to modernity. We begin with narratives by “traditional” Jewish men and women. We then proceed to the wrenching accounts of early detractors from tradition and then to writings by Jewish leaders of modern political movements like Zionism, Jewish Socialism, Communism, Orthodoxy, and Ultra-Orthodoxy. We conclude with individual perspectives on The Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American Jewish feminist, queer, and transgender self-narratives.

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Jewish Life in Eastern Europe: A Diaspora Case Study

Open, Seminar—Fall

Nearly three-fourths of the world’s Jewish population once resided in Poland and Russia, producing a vibrant culture that has been celebrated in the paintings of Marc Chagall and plays like Fiddler on the Roof. Thanks to extensive self-government, economic niches like tavern-keeping, educational institutions like yeshivas, and spiritual subcultures like Hasidism, many Eastern European Jewish men and women enjoyed a stable, prosperous, and confident existence. The 19th and 20th centuries, however, witnessed a steady breakdown, manifested in interethnic tensions, violent pogroms, expulsions, and genocide. This course explores the ways in which East European Jews promoted their own self-empowering discourses about gender, law, spirituality, magic, the arts, and politics (e.g., radicalism, nationalism, orthodoxy), often in the face of cultural coercion, exclusion, or violence. At the end of the course, we follow the mass migration to America and then return to confront The Holocaust from the perspective of its four million Eastern European Jewish victims. Throughout, the sources of Eastern European Jewish history will be examined in light of foundational readings in postcolonial and diaspora theory.

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Modern Jewish Literature

Open, Seminar—Fall

As Jews were emancipated in Europe and freed from the “ghetto,” many began to grapple with modernity through literary genres. Writers like Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Primo Levi, S. Y. Agnon, and Sholem Aleichem (whose short stories formed the basis of the play, Fiddler on the Roof) achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer was rarely smooth. It usually entailed alienation, rebellion against tradition, bouts of nostalgia, longing, regret, and confrontations with increasingly virulent forms of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust. In new centers in America and Israel, the Jews’ improved and inverted power status yielded a different, but no less acute, sense of ambivalence, as witnessed in works by authors such as Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Amos Oz, and David Grossman. Despite the tension and anguish that runs through modern Jewish literature, we will discover works of beauty and poignancy by men and women whose outsider, “pariah” status gave them a unique perspective on the world.

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The Holocaust

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How was it that a policy of genocide could be initiated and carried out in one of the most advanced and sophisticated countries of Europe, a country that produced many of the greatest thinkers and artists the world has seen? In this course, we will attempt to explain how those events took place, beginning with the evolution of anti-Semitic ideology and violence. At the same time, we will look at how victims chose to live out their last years and respond to the impending catastrophe through art, diary writing, mysticism, physical resistance, hiding, and so on. Finally, we will attempt to come to grips with the crucial, but neglected, phenomenon of bystanders—those who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments; but those will be of value only if they are informed and based on a fuller understanding of people and perspectives in this dark chapter of European history. This course will be run as a lecture/seminar hybrid.

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Previous Courses

Religion

First-Year Studies: Judaism, From Religion to Radicalism

Open, FYS—Year

Judaism, since the biblical age, has defied easy categorization—oscillating between religion and ethnicity, law and spirituality, tradition and rupture. This dynamism is further complicated by the very nature of the diasporic experience, which has involved both resisting and appropriating aspects of the dominant culture (e.g., gender, magic, mysticism, and martyrdom). This course provides an introduction to Jewish spirituality and culture by looking at the interplay between its texts and contexts. We begin with formative works like the Bible, the Talmud, classics of Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah. We then engage with texts produced by modern movements that challenged, displaced, or reinforced normative Jewish practice, such as messianism, Hasidism, nationalism (e.g., Zionism), Freudian psychoanalysis, and revolutionary Marxism. The desired outcome is an awareness of how the Jews’ outsider status has helped produce bold, varied conceptions of the world that, in turn, challenge our own.

Faculty

Jewish Autobiography

Open, Seminar—Spring

Autobiography is among the most contentious literary/historical genres, compromised by the fallibility of memory and the human tendency towards self-fashioning yet unique in its insights into history as a lived experience. This course employs personal narratives as windows onto the Jewish transition to modernity. We begin with narratives by “traditional” Jewish men and women, including the mystic Hayyim Vital and the successful businesswoman Gluckel of Hameln. We then proceed to the wrenching accounts of early detractors from tradition—like Solomon Maimon, Ezekiel Kotik, and Pauline Wengeroff—and writings by Jewish leaders of modern political movements such as Zionism, Jewish socialism, communism, orthodoxy, and ultra-orthodoxy. We conclude with individual perspectives on the Holocaust through the eyes of victims, bystanders, and perpetrators; insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from each side; and American Jewish feminist, queer, and transgender self-narratives.

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Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present

Open, Seminar—Spring

This course traces the path of Jewish mystical study, practice, and wisdom. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, we proceed through early Jewish mystical magic, divination, and ascents. We then delve into the erotically-charged Kabbalah, focusing on The Zohar (Book of Splendor) and proceeding to the 16th-century Safed (Tzefat) mystical schools and the mass messianic eruption around Shabbetai Tzvi. Next, we explore varied manifestations of East European Jewish popular Kabbalah, Golem literature, and Hasidism. We conclude with contemporary manifestations of Kabbalah and Hasidism in America and Israel. Throughout the course, we will reflect on issues like gender, sexuality, messianism, magic, and resistance rituals.

Faculty

Modern Jewish Literature

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

As Jews were emancipated in Europe, many began to grapple with the challenges of modernity through literary genres like poetry, autobiography, and fiction. Writers like Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Primo Levi, S. Y. Agnon, Sholem Aleichem (whose works formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof), Grace Paley, and Cynthia Ozick achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer nearly always entailed alienation, rebellion, nostalgia, and a need to grapple with increasingly virulent forms of anti-Semitism—culminating in the Holocaust. In new centers in America and Israel, the Jews’ improved status yielded new kinds of alienation, witnessed especially in works by authors like Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and David Grossman. Despite the tension and occasional anguish that runs through modern Jewish literature, we will discover works of beauty, poignancy, and illumination. The Jewish writer's “pariah” status seems to have offered a unique perspective on the world and profound insights into the modern condition.

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The Hasidic Movement

Open, Seminar—Fall

Hasidism, a popular mystical movement founded in Eastern Europe that continues to flourish in centers in both Israel and America, has been romanticized as revolution and reviled as reaction. This class begins with the transformative ideas of Hasidism’s founder, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-60), a kabbalistic healer who reconceived the entire Jewish mystical tradition in a way that sanctified daily life and revitalized ritual. We trace the crystallization of Hasidic wisdom in tales and mystical discourses, observe the rise of its charismatic leaders (rebbes), and analyze burgeoning dynasties like Lubavitch, Bratslav, Ruzhyn, Ger, and Satmar. Throughout the course, we confront the movement’s controversial stances toward gender, sexuality, humanism, and secular education; however, we also attempt to understand Hasidism’s emergence as a culture of joyful resistance in the face of “civilizing” initiatives of empires and nation-states, collective violence and genocide, and Zionist and American conformist agendas. We conclude with a look at the way Hasidic communities of today are responding to contemporary challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.

Faculty

The Holocaust

Open, Seminar—Spring

The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How could a policy of genocide be carried out by one of the most advanced and sophisticated countries of Europe? In this course, we will examine how these appalling events took place, beginning with anti-Semitic ideology and policy. At the same time, we will confront a surprisingly neglected perspective of the victims, whose perspective—how they chose to respond to the impending catastrophe (through art, diary-writing, mysticism, violence, hiding, etc.)—has not been integrated into an overall history of the Holocaust. Finally, we will attempt to come to grips with the crucial but neglected phenomenon of bystanders—non-Jews who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated, rescued Jews, or became perpetrators themselves. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments. But these will be of value if they are informed and based on a fuller understanding of the perspectives of the various actors in this dark chapter of European history.

Faculty

The Jews of Europe

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course conceives European Jewry as forming a dynamic counterpoint to dominant non-Jewish European societies down to today. First, we examine the Talmud-centered, insular “Ashkenazic” Jewish communities of medieval France and Germany. Then we proceed to the more worldly “Sephardic” Jews in Muslim and Christian Spain, encountering poets, philosophers, Kabbalists, and secret Judaizing “Conversos.” We follow the exiles of Spain as they return to open Jewish practice and examine the widespread embrace of a messianic pretender named Shabbetai Tzvi. We then turn to the blossoming Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with its extensive self-government, economic niches, world-renowned yeshivas, and popular mysticism (Hasidism). In the last part of the course, we examine the dissolution of the “ghetto” throughout Europe, the rise of religious innovations like Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy, the simultaneous rise of racial anti-Semitism, and Jewish political responses like Zionism, Socialism, and radicalism down to the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Throughout, we attempt to balance negative flashpoints like Crusades, blood libels, the Inquisition, pogroms, and genocide with European Jewry’s major economic, intellectual, and spiritual innovations.

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