conferences photo
  conferences header

Sample Conference Abstracts

Below are conference abstracts submitted by AJS members for past AJS Conferences.

Individual Papers
Lightning Session
Jewish Studies and Digital Humanities

I. Individual Papers

Performance and Piety: Theaters and Synagogues in Later Rabbinic Culture
Loren R. Spielman (Portland State University)

This paper examines the Palestinian Amoraic response to the popular theatrical entertainments of the Later Roman Empire A new theme in Amoraic homiletics situated the moral difference between spectators and Torah scholars in spatial terms, stressing the essential incompatibility between theaters and circuses on the one hand, and synagogues and study-houses on the other. In this paper, I examine rabbinic efforts to distinguish the synagogue from the theater as a result of the same ambiguities and tensions that spawned similar rhetoric among the Fathers of the Church. Though much of their success in influencing the laity's beliefs about their religious obligations was rooted in performance and stagecraft, Christian orators demonized a whole range of values and practices by associating them with the theater. Though they saw the church as an analogous institution to the theater, the Church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries vigorously tried to distinguish between the two. In this paper, I suggest that Rabbinic rhetoric comparing the theater and the synagogue worked in a similar fashion to neutralize the problematic performative aspects of synagogue worship. Rabbinic criticism of the theater functioned not as a form cultural antagonism towards a specific practice, but as part of a program of moral invective, in which the theater came to represent anything opposed to Torah study and therefore inherently wicked.

Jewish Attitudes towards the Polish Uprising of 1830-1831: A Panoramic View
Glenn Dynner (Sarah Lawrence College)

This paper is an attempt to gauge the predominant Jewish attitude towards the Polish Uprising of 1830-1 against the Tsarist regime, a military fiasco which nevertheless served as a catalyst for Polish romantic nationalism. This topic has been treated by several Polish historians, including some of the pioneering historians of the early twentieth century. But the context of perceived Polish anti-Semitism has caused many such scholars to use the issue in for apologetic purposes, frequently by highlighting and sometimes exaggerating the participation by a small group of Polish Jewish assimilationists in the Uprising (often framed anachronistically as "patriotism") and thereby ignoring the more ambivalent attitudes of the vast majority of Polish Jews. This study considers the stances of Jews across the entire cultural spectrum, from acculturated Jews and Maskilim, to more tradition-oriented Mitnaggdim and Hasidism. The case of the latter group, Hasidim, is particularly compelling: among "zaddikim" there is actually evidence of a some support for insurgents and the Polish cause in general. An attempt will be made to place the active support of acculturated Jews in perspective, while treating the traditionalist majority's stance in greater depth.

Gentile Laws and Rabbinic Authority: A New Look at Gay Marriage in the Sifra
Beth A. Berkowitz (Jewish Theological Seminary)

Leviticus 18:3 does not specify the scope of its prohibition against following the practices of Egypt and Canaan: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt which you dwelled in, you should not practice, and like the practice of the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you, you should not practice, and in their laws you should not go." The local passage, verses 1-5, suggests that the scope is broad, but the chapter context of Leviticus 18 limits the prohibition to the list of sexual taboos that follow. The early rabbinic commentary within the Sifra exploits this ambiguity to generate a reading of the verse that simultaneously restricts the prohibition specifically to religious practices but also expands the prohibition beyond Leviticus 18's taboos. This paper examines this exegesis and considers what is ideologically at stake. Drawing on Daniel Boyarin's arguments in Border Lines, the paper argues that the Sifra's proscription of laws transmitted from gentile father to gentile father mirrors the rabbinic prescription of laws transmitted from rabbinic father to rabbinic father. The Sifra creates a gentile "diadoche" to reflect the Rabbis' own. Moreover, the paper explores how bodies, male and female, Jewish and gentile, are used to help construct this utopian rabbinic tradition. The gentile tradition, according to the Sifra, consists of gay marriage (and other marriage combinations). The paper asks why the Sifra imagines gentile tradition in this way, and suggests that its concern is to heighten the claims of rabbinic authority and, relatedly, to dramatize the problem of Jewish difference. The consequence of the Sifra's reading, concludes the paper, is that Jewish men can maximize their dominance as men and minimize their marginality as Jews.

top of page >>

II. Panel

Wartime Lodz: Varying Perspectives of Jewish Leadership in the Lodz Ghetto
Amy Simon (Indiana University), Session Organizer

This panel examines varying perspectives of Jewish leadership, especially that of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, in the Lodz ghetto during and after WWII. The four papers address different ways of understanding the complexities of this leadership. Though Rumkowski's behavior as head of the Jewish council in Lodz has received much attention in the postwar period, this panel offers several new insights by examining previously unused historical sources, asking new questions about perception, listening to formerly unheard voices, and combining historical with literary approaches.

The papers presented by Robert Moses Shapiro and Amy Simon both look at Jewish leadership through the lens of Jewish diarists writing in the ghetto. Shapiro uses the Polish language diary of Jakub Poznanski to examine a Polish Jewish industrialist's perception of the controversial Jewish leader with whom he had a tempestuous relationship. This paper gives insight into the relationships possible between Rumkowski and the factory workers in whom he ultimately placed the fate of the ghetto. In contrast, Simon's paper looks at a variety of ghetto diaries to determine how their authors' views of Rumkowski compared with their views of German perpetrators. In this way, she reexamines perceptions of persecution and perpetration in the Lodz ghetto. Elizabeth Strauss's paper uses a variety of sources to look at Rumkowski from a previously underrepresented viewpoint—that of the elderly in the Lodz ghetto. Strauss's paper explores the variety of experiences open to the elderly in the Lodz ghetto as well as their real and perceived interactions with Rumkowski and his associates. Finally, Eric Sundquist's paper offers a completely different perspective on the understanding of Chaim Rumkowski. His analysis of Leslie Epstein's novel, King of the Jews, explores what new depths a fictive and tragi-comic account of Rumkowski's leadership can bring to our historical reading of his behavior and moral quandary. Moving the panel past disciplinary boundaries, Sundquist's paper also moves us beyond historical restrictions to consider not only wartime perceptions of Rumkowski and his role in the ghetto, but also the ways in which postwar thinkers have considered and represented his record.

Curating the Modern Jewish Experience: Fragment, Evidence, Inventory
Jeffrey Shandler (Rutgers University), Session Organizer

The three presentations in this session examine curatorial practices—the collecting and assessing of archival and museum artifacts, the construction of narratives from diverse fragments (textual and otherwise), the creation of cultural works using the rubric of inventory--as part of modern Jewish life. These practices are examined both as cultural phenomena of interest in their own right and as points of entry into theorizing modern Jewish culture more broadly. Each scholar is interested in how analyzing curatorial practices challenges established understandings of how modern Jewish culture works, whether by problematizing notions of what constitutes evidence of the truth; how works of modern Jewish culture are authored and how they engage their audiences; how modern Jewish cultural works are to understood as authoritative and, at the same time, how they accommodate cultural play.

Curatorial practices, exemplified by museums but by no means limited to them, are key to understanding new ways that Jewish culture is made, disseminated, and discussed. The curatorial process of gathering, scrutinizing, selecting, and arranging informs many modern Jewish cultural practices, though this is seldom recognized as such. Attention to this process enables scholars of modern Jewish culture to consider new possibilities for understanding how it is constituted and moreover, how it is conceptualized, especially as notions of what is "Jewish" and who determines this have been challenged by historical events, new technologies, and a diversifying range of practitioners of and audiences for a broadening array of what is claimed as Jewish culture. These examinations strive to enhance our understanding of modernity as a term defining Jewish culture of the present and recent past, distinguishing it from what has come before (even as what is thought of as "premodern" Jewish culture continues), and relating them to general notions of the modern (and, at least implicitly, the postmodern).

top of page >>

III. Roundtable

Jewish Models of Conflict Resolution
Daniel Roth (Bar-Ilan University), Session Organizer

In recent years, universities throughout North America have launched academic programs focusing on the relationship between religion and conflict resolution. These new programs, associated with either departments of conflict resolution or religion, involve the study of conflict resolution models as found in the world's major religions and often—though not always—include the study of Jewish models. The session aims to define this new field of research as pertains to Jewish models and to explore ways in which the field can be further explored. Questions for discussion include: What are Jewish models of conflict resolution? How should such models be studied? How can further research of these models contribute to the academic study of conflict resolution and to Judaic studies? To what extent can these Jewish models have an impact on the transformation, resolution, or management of conflicts involving Jewish societies today? Panelists are American and Israeli scholars in both Judaic studies and conflict resolution who are engaged in the study of Jewish models of conflict resolution. Marc Gopin, professor of religion, diplomacy, and conflict resolution at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, has published numerous works on Judaism and conflict resolution that serve as the cornerstone of any academic discussion on the topic. Similarly, Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, has published crucial articles currently studied in the framework of religion and peacebuilding courses. Robert Eisen, professor of religion and Judaic studies at George Washington University, recently published a groundbreaking book on peace and violence in Judaism. Peter Ochs, professor of modern Judaic studies at the University of Virginia and one of the founders of Scriptural Reasoning, has taught courses on religious conflict and resolution among the Abrahamic religions. Michael Berger, associate professor of religion at Emory University, has taught courses on rabbinic literature and violence as part of Emory University's Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Initiative. Daniel Roth, director of the Peace and Conflict track at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University's Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, is currently completing his dissertation on rabbinic models of reconciliation and pursuing peace. The expertise of all participants will enable the panel to fully explore the emerging field of Judaism and conflict resolution.

Modern Jewish Politics in the College Classroom
Jonathan Karp (American Jewish Historical Society), Session Organizer

Sponsored by the Pedagogy Working Group, this proposal addresses the challenges of teaching about contemporary Jewish political controversies, including fundamentalism, the ideologies of far right and left, and conflicts surrounding Zionism. The overarching question is how to open up the classroom to divergent viewpoints on current issues in the Jewish world while fostering an atmosphere of civility and respect. The roundtable focuses on three core questions, all addressed with reference to specific courses taught. First, given their potentially divisive and disruptive effects in the classroom, what is the substantive value of teaching about current political controversies? Second, what mechanisms can instructors employ to balance openness to divergent viewpoints with respect for individuals and groups? Third, how do campus and wider university politics impinge upon the Jewish Studies classroom and what is the appropriate response? To make the roundtable effective it must be comprised of scholars representing different approaches. The panel includes two historians of modern Jews (Nancy Sinkoff and Jonathan Karp); a scholar of modern European politics (Malachi Hacohen); a sociologist of religion (Samuel Heilman); and a literary scholar (Ruth Wisse); and is moderated an ethnic and women's studies scholar (Shelly Tenenbaum). Heilman will organize his responses around his course on "Comparative Fundamentalism," which employs the comparative model to prompt critical inquiry into the exclusive claims of any single faith. Sinkoff's course on "Jewish Power and Politics" situates current controversies within the broad history of Jewish politics, including premodern eras. In reference to his courses on modern Jewish politics, Hacohen will ask how definitions and accusations of antisemitism are often used as rhetorical weapons to discredit ideological opponents. Wisse will likewise address the phenomenon of antisemitism as it pertains to her experiences in the classroom and on various campuses. Karp offers his course on "Zionism and its Jewish Critics" as a model for how historical understanding can enable students to engage sympathetically with contradictory political positions while provisionally withholding final support from any. Moderator Tenenbaum, given her research on Jewish self-definition, will aim to focus the discussion on how the above issues impact specifically on the world of Jewish Studies pedagogy.

top of page >>

IV. Seminar

Intersectionalities in Jewish Thought
Yaniv Feller (University of Toronto), Session Organizer

Just like other minority thinking, Jewish philosophy has never been conducted in a vacuum. Yet despite the truism of the above statement, there seems to have been somewhat of a reluctance to challenge the prevalent view of modern Jewish thought by bringing it into a productive, if not always easy, conversation with postcolonialism, race, and queer theory. The proposed seminar brings together a group of scholars interesting in exploring the intersections between current debates outside of Jewish Studies and the ways in which Jewish philosophy can enrich and be enriched by thinking along, with, in divergence from, and in conversation with other theoretical frameworks.

A shared concern by many members of the seminar is the question of race in its intersections with Jewish thought. Elliot Ratzman (Temple University) in “Just and Unjust Jews: Jewish Anti-Racism and White Privilege after Ferguson”, and Yaniv Feller in (University of Toronto) in a paper on Cornel West and the rabbis reflect on a Jewish contribution to our understanding of recent events. A different venue for thinking about the intersection of race and Jewish thought is through the lens of Jewish inclusivity. This problem is addressed in Ido Harari’s (Ben-Gurion University) paper “’One of the blacks’: color discourse in the East-European Haredi thought-world’s contention with the Enlightenment” and in Yonit Naaman’s (Ben-Gurion University) paper on the “Shiksappeal”. Naaman’s paper incorporates gender theory in its relation to Jewish thought, a topic further discussed in Allison Schachter’s (Vanderbilt University) “Secularization, Conversion and the Politics of Gender”. Allyson Gonzalez (Brandeis University) continues this inquiry by examining the intersection of gender and education in the development of modern Sephardic subjectivities through a combination of methods available in gender theory and postcolonial theory.

Intersections of thought help us thinking about temporal and spatial configurations. Larisa Reznik (University of Chicago) uses the retrievals of Rosenzweig’s “new thinking” as a forerunner to alterity-ethics as an occasion to reflect upon the whitewashing of imperialist impulses in modern Jewish thought. In “Zionislandology”, Adam Stern (Harvard University) utilizes recent scholarly research on ‘islandology’ to explore the intersectionality of medieval Christian theology, modern colonialism, and Zionism.

top of page >>

V. Lightning Session

The View across the Ocean: Contemporary research of American Jewry in Israel and of Israel by American Jews
David Barak-Gorodetsky (University of Haifa), Session Organizer

The research of Israel by American Jews, and of American Jewry by Israeli researchers, poses a myriad of scholarly challenges and opportunities that go beyond the apparent consideration of language and culture. Questions of center and periphery, legitimacy and domination have characterized Jewish and Zionist history throughout. The rise of the two leading centers in the fields of Jewish and Israel Studies in the post Holocaust era—the ones of the United States and Israel—open a vista into this complex web of relations. 

This panel seeks to address the topic from the vantage point of graduate students, who have been participating in an ongoing dialogue about Israel studies and American Jewry. The panel will shed new light on questions that touch on the scholarly agendas—and the partnership and competition—between the duopoly Jewish academia centers in Israel and the US. How, for example, do these two centers view each other? Does the elusive sense of cultural proximity between these communities of researchers still prevail, or are these two centers so far apart that this is just another case of cross-cultural research? How do young Israeli researchers approach the research of American Judaism? And how do upcoming American scholars address Israel within the context of their American-Jewish identity? The initial evaluation of this issue has been compounded by recent developments including the digitalization of archives that has made long-distance research more doable. 

The four papers in this panel will explore various historiographical aspects of this relationship against the backdrop of concrete research, conducted at present in the US and Israel.

top of page >>

VI. Jewish Studies and Digital Humanities

Communicating Memory: Maps, Discourse, and Jewish Studies
Murray Baumgarten (University of California, Santa Cruz), Session Organizer

The Venice Ghetto working group brings together young and senior scholars, whose work is invested in the site of the Venice Ghetto as a "memory-space that travels." Our work spans the globe, but uses the Venice Ghetto as a model paradigm and point of departure. In this way we hope to represent the two frameworks of Jewish community and experience: the ghetto and diaspora. The working group has developed digital platforms that bring together previous work of this research collaborative on modern Jewish Spaces, and looks to future work in the actual site of the Ghetto of Venice. These digital tools allow us to pursue this research both individually and as a collective. Our Medium Site hosts a virtual post-conference conversation from an event that took place in February, 2015 on the Santa Cruz campus entitled “Liminal Spaces and the Jewish Imagination.” This site allows us to engage a broader audience and to share our work without the constraints of more traditional forms of scholarly publications:

At the AJS workshop Amanda Sharick, Erica Smeltzer, and Katie Trostel will exhibit three individual digital mapping projects. These projects utilize the GIS platform StoryMaps to bring together research about Latin America, Central Europe, and Israel to produce maps with textual and visual depth. The StoryMaps medium applies spatial thinking to the textual and historical analysis central to the field of Jewish studies. Thus, using digital tools to explore the intersection of geographic data and literary analysis renders new insights into the ways Jewish literature defines space and memory. The different parts of this mapping project will be collated into a curated exhibit which we would showcase as a model for spatially inflect Jewish scholarship.

It is particularly timely to present our work at the 2015 AJS Annual Conference. These digital projects are in progress with the hope of being fully developed and integrated into a large culminating event to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Ghetto’s founding. We would benefit greatly from the feedback provided by the workshop and the experience of presenting our work publicly. You can view our prototypes here, although they are only fully interactive with a free online arcGIS account:;;

top of page >>