Sunday, March 09, 2008

Kosher style

There's an argument over at Jewlicious over whether it's wrong for an academic conference on Jewish themes to take place on a Friday, from 10am to 5pm. There's also an argument over whether it's wrong for a Jewish-studies conference not to offer up overtly political perspectives, but that's already been dealt with here, so, new topic. The conference in question was, according to its website, funded by the University of California, Irvine's Humanities Center and its Department of Spanish & Portuguese, along with the Teller Family Chair in Jewish Studies. In other words, it's not, from what I can tell from the phrasing and participants, primarily a Jewish-studies conference. So the conference is neither based in Jewish studies nor violates the Jewish Sabbath. It will have slightly inconvenience those who a) wished to attend the final talk, and b) wished to make an extended trip to the supermarket, but those are the breaks if one wants to be observant in a country in which Jews are a tiny majority, when a perfectly nice majority-Jewish country exists. There's a huge gap between forcing an observant Jewish Holocaust survivor to work on Shabbat and asking a potential conference audience to prepare for Friday on Thursday. As far as I'm concerned, end of story. What interests me is a) why it's assumed that a Jewish-studies conference will attract Jews, and b) why this assumption is correct.

The UCLA conference I attended on "Arab Jews" was held on a faith-neutral but not American-work-week neutral Sunday and Monday, and kosher food was provided. I remember thinking, when I received a form asking me if I wanted kosher food (I said I didn't care), and again when I got the list of nearby kosher restaurants, that this concern was thoughtful but surprising. The conference was, from what I could tell, for scholars of Jews, not necessarily Jewish scholars. Like a kosher-style restaurant, it was Jewish-themed, but expecting no actual observance. As it happened, barring one Norwegian, scholars of Jews turned out to be themselves Jewish, leading to all sorts of between-talk discussions of everything from Jewish summer camp to intermarriage. But, like an academic Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn't help but wonder, why is Jewish studies for Jews, but French studies for everyone? Granted I'd been wondering this for a while, but this reminded me.

It certainly helps, even when studying Jews from another country and century, to have grown up Jewish yourself. You know lots of the terminology, which is a big plus, but there's also a more intuitive familiarity with the Jewish experience that comes of having lived it. When I first read about fin-de-siecle French Jews wanting to keep silent during the Dreyfus Affair so as not to stir things up, I could immediately think of reference points both in interactions among my contemporaries and, of course, in things I already knew about European Jewish existence in the 1930s, things every sentient Jewish person today knows all about, with or without Sarkozy's intervention. Now, entering into any endeavor with a blank-slate take on the subject also has its advantages--say, not reading 1934 into 1894--but whether it's the kosher meals at conferences or the unavoidable presence of Hebrew terms, transliterated or otherwise, the non-Jewish world's fascination with Jews and Israel does not seem to make it as far as the academy.

Which leads to the question: how much should the fact that it's Jews doing Jewish studies be an open secret, and how much should it be embraced? Any normalizing of the status of Jews worldwide would make it no stranger for a non-Jew to study Jews than for a non-French person to study France. But at the same time, the global media are already obsessed beyond comprehension with Israel and the Jews, so perhaps academia is the one place where one can think about Jewish culture and history on a scale that more accurate corresponds to Jews' power and population worldwide.

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