Ah, Spring! Mild weather returns to Chicago and our lecture halls overflow with fascinating guest speakers.
On May 6, I went to Spertus to hear Daniel Greene read from his 2011 book The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity. Greene is the Vice President for Research and Academic Programs at Newberry Library, and this book is based on his Ph.D. thesis (completed at the University of Chicago in 2004).
In 1906, a group of Jewish students at Harvard came together to found the Harvard Menorah Society, an organization which rapidly spread to other prestigious universities and flourished in the decade prior to America’s entry into World War I. However, even though its institutional life was brief, the HMS had a profound influence, morphing from an extracurricular “club” into what we now call the academic discipline of “Jewish Studies.”
The next week, I met with Greene for a follow-up discussion. Why, I asked, did HMS members defined themselves as “Hebraists”?
“They’re trying to get themselves to fit into a model,” Greene explained. “Protestant academics [at Harvard and the other Ivy League colleges] will recognize the model of ‘Hebraic versus Hellenic’ [best-known from Matthew Arnold’s famous series of essays published as Culture and Anarchy in 1869.] They don’t want Jewish culture to be limited to Judaism as religion, and they don’t want to be associated with Yiddish speakers (‘The Yidds’). They want to fit in.
How do you ‘integrate’ and not disappear? That’s their struggle, but they really think they can do it. They want ‘Jewish Humanities’ fifty years before the Association for Jewish Studies is founded. These guys are a vanguard, and that’s what originally drew me to them.”
Visiting Authors: Leora Batnitzky
On April 19, I headed up to Northwestern to hear Princeton Professor Leora Batnitzky speak on “Private Faith, Public Religion: Tensions in Modern Jewish Thought.” In contrast to Greene, Batnitzky’s focus is more European than American, and her questions are more philosophical than historical.
Beginning with the rise of nation states in the mid-18th Century, the locus of political power shifted from self-governing Jewish communities to individual Jewish citizens. “The fundamental question for modern Jewish thought in all its variations thus becomes the follow,” said Batnitzky. “What value is there to Judaism in an age in which Jews do not have to be defined as Jews, at least from the perspective of the modern nation-state?”
During the Q&A, Batnitzky was asked if she was advocating for Jewish law in the public sphere. “Political order requires religion to be in the private sphere,” she said. “But religious people (of many religions) now want religion to be part of the public sphere. I’m saying we need to find a better way to conceptualize this.”
Like Greene’s The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism, Batnitzky’s most recent book, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, is a great read, a stimulating synthesis filled with challenging assertions from a wide range of authors including Moses Mendelssohn, Abraham Geiger, Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Zvi Yehuda Kook, Theodor Herzl, and Mordecai Kaplan.
Visiting Authors: Mindy Weisel
Sunday April 22 found me at Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood for ORT’s annual “Lunch with a View.” This year’s special guest was Mindy Weisel, author of Touching Quiet: Reflections in Solitude, and editor of the collection Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss.
Weisel is an artist, and her presentation was more aesthetic than intellectual. She showed slides of various paintings in which her father’s concentration camp number (A3146) was clearly visible, and she explained why her canvases feature a specific shade of blue: “my mother’s favorite color, cobalt blue, which I use every time I paint.”
Weisel’s work can be found in many museums including Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and The Jewish Museum in New York. In Chicago, she is represented by the Jean Albano Gallery on Superior. For full color samples visit her website: www.MindyWeisel.com.
Daughters of Absence—a collection of short pieces all written by the daughters of Holocaust survivors—contains this passage by journalist Kim Masters which seems to me to say it all: “It isn’t easy to be happy if you’re a Jew. As you float along on your happiness, the fingertips of the six million brush you from beneath like kelp reaching up from the bottom of the sea. You can hear their whispers. Some say, ‘Remember!’ Others say, ‘Beware!’ But some, perhaps including my grandparents, say, ‘Go with God.’ And sometimes, I think, some might even say, ‘Thank you for living.’”