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 the book 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–
Current undergraduate courses
Judaism since the biblical age has defied easy categorization, oscillating between religion and ethnicity. This course provides an introduction to Judaism with an eye toward gender, sexuality, and responses to Western values of heroism and chivalry. We begin with the Bible and ancient Israel and witness the emergence of “rabbis” and their formative texts (Talmud, Midrash, Medieval Bible commentaries). We then encounter movements that challenged Judaism, including Christianity, medieval philosophy, poetry, Kabbalah, false Messianism, and Hasidism. Next, we follow attempts to create a modern-Jewish synthesis through Enlightenment (Haskalah), Zionism, Jewish Socialism, modern literature, modern philosophy, and Jewish Feminism. We then explore attempts to transform Judaism into something more akin to strictly religion (Reform, Conservative) and attempts to resist modernity through the invention of Orthodoxy. Finally, we explore Jewish responses to the Holocaust and proceed to chart the course of Jewish religion and culture in America and Israel, examining assimilation and the roots of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Throughout, we will gauge the interplay between Jewish conceptions of law, chosenness, exile, sin, redemption, sexuality, death, etc. and grapple with challenges like anti-Semitism and secularization.
Related Cross-Discipline Paths
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 had produced many of the greatest thinkers and artists that the world has seen? In this course, we will attempt to explain how these events took place, beginning with the evolution of anti-Semitic ideology and violence. At the same time, we will look at how the Jews 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—non-Jews who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments. But these will be of value only if they are informed and based on a fuller understanding of the perspectives of the various actors in this dark chapter of European history.
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How did a Jewish civilization develop throughout the triumph of Christianity in the West? This course conceives of Judaism as a counterpoint to the dominant cultures of Europe. We begin with the arrival of Jews to the Roman Empire and proceed to the insular “Ashkenazic” Jewish communities of medieval France and Germany. Next, we trace the appearance of “Sephardic” Jews in Spain, including worldly poets and philsophers, other-worldly Kabbalists, and secret Judaizing “conversos” throughout the period of Inquisition. We then follow the exiles of Spain as they begin openly practicing Judaism again in the Land of Israel and other places; trace the growth of the popular movement around the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi; and witness the blossoming of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with its extensive self-rule, new economic niches, and world-renowned yeshivas. In the last part of the course, we examine the dissolution of the “ghetto” during the process of emancipation, the rise of more virulent forms of anti-Semitism, modern political responses like Zionism and Socialism, and the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Throughout, we will attempt to balance negative flashpoints like the Crusades, blood libels, Inquisition, pogroms, and genocide with more affirmative features of Jewish life such as economic vitality, self-government, and spiritual developments like Hasidism, Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and Reform and Orthodox Judaism.
Related Cross-Discipline Paths
This course examines a powerful, vibrant countertrend within Judaism known as mysticism. We begin with the ancient “Chariot Mysticism,” proceed to ascetic medieval German pietism, and dwell at length on the erotically-charged “kabbalah” that emerged in medieval Spain and Southern France—its unique conceptions of God, evil, demonology, sin, death, sexuality, and magic. We then follow the emergence of ambitious circles of mystics in 16th-century Safed (Land of Israel) that eventually sparked a mass messianic movement around the figure of Shabbetai Tzevi. In the second semester, we delve into the most popular and enduring Jewish mystical movement, Hasidism. Founded on the teachings the Ba’al Shem Tov (The Besht) in 18th-century Eastern Europe, Hasidism was forged into a mass movement by charismatic miracle workers called “tzaddikim” and spread by means of oral and written tales. We follow the emergence of Hasidic dynasties, gauge Hasidic responses to modern phenomena like Zionism and the Holocaust, and follow the movement’s continued flourishing today in tight-knit communities from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. Finally, we will examine the phenomenon of neo-kabbalah. Throughout, we strive to appreciate new manifestations of Jewish mysticism within changing historical contexts.
The Jewish relationship to fiction and autobiography has been highly unusual. On the one hand, the Bible itself may be said to contain some of the earliest forms of both genres. Yet, restricted Jewish access to Western centers of culture and learning, linguistic and religious barriers, and inner taboos often impeded the development of these literary modes. It was only with the process of emancipation and internal cultural reform that Jewish authors could begin to emerge from the Ghetto and grapple openly with the challenges of modernity through fiction and autobiography. Some writers managed to enrich their modern existence by drawing upon popular Jewish mysticism and life in the Jewish small town (shtetl), while others sought to push away that world by reflecting modern alienation, sexuality, and violence. Certain Jewish authors, like Solomon Maimon, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and Sholem Aleichem (whose short stories formed the basis of the play, Fiddler on the Roof), engaged modernity with such force and transparency that they achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer was often torturous, entailing a rebellion against the Jewish tradition and an embrace of revolutionary or Zionist movements, followed by nostalgia, longing, and regret. It did not help that exposure to European culture also meant exposure to newly virulent forms of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust. Throughout this course, we interweave modern works of fiction with autobiographies by Jewish men and women whose pariah status gave them a unique perspective on the world. Despite the deep tensions that run through their writings, we will discover works of great beauty, poignancy, and insight.