Washington, D.C. — Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had just begun hitting the shores in 1883 when a small group of American professors founded the Modern Language Association to advocate tongues other than ancient Greek and Latin. But they probably weren’t thinking of Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino.
Flash forward to the MLA’s annual conference late last month. Over 9,000 tenured professors in tweed, graduate students in suits, and independent scholars in jeans swarmed the nation’s capital for the massive four-day confab and a panoramic window on the state of the humanities in American colleges and universities. Famous for jargony panels about pop culture and sexuality, the MLA has drawn criticism, if not outright ridicule, from cynical journalists for ushering the trivial or subversive into the hallowed halls of academe. But this dismantling of intellectual boundaries has also opened the association’s doors to women and minorities, as well as scholars of so-called minor literatures.
An affection for non-traditional interdisciplinary work has led to the integration of Jewish studies. Though drawing nowhere near the crowds of Italian or Spanish, interest in Jewish literature and culture easily surpassed that of Japanese and Norwegian. A dozen panels with Jewish topics, like “What Is ‘Post’ in Post-Zionism: Hebrew Literature Meets Post-Colonial Theory” and “In, Outside, and Around the Shtetl: Mapping Yiddish Literature” made almost a conference within a conference. Nesting comfortably amid the MLA’s emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons, Jewish scholars looked far beyond Jewish culture to examine the primary questions of memory and identity.
“The presence of Jewish studies [at the MLA] has been consistent, but the questions people ask have changed,” says Bowling Green State University American Studies professor Michael Staub, who has attended the MLA conference since he went job hunting there in 1986 while working toward his doctorate at Brown. On the vanguard is what is loosely referred to as “Jewish cultural studies,” which Staub says “questions the essential basis of what Jewishness is.”
With a job market, book fair and over 800 panel discussions, meetings and cultural events sprawling across three hotels, the 116th annual MLA convention was far too large and diverse to adhere to a single theme. Jewish Cultural Studies is one of dozens of small discussion groups, like Disability Studies, that organize like-minded scholars and nurture nascent academic trends. The tightly scheduled 1 hour and 15 minute sessions, running at half-hour intervals from 8:30 in the morning to 10 in the evening, are often the one time a year that far-flung academics can share ideas.
Like most of the smaller sessions, “Jewish Cultural Studies and the Question of Religion,” hosted by the Jewish Cultural Studies discussion group, crowded about twenty people into a converted hotel room. Unlike the more staid American Association of Professors of Yiddish, which convened two panels of senior faculty members reading papers about familiar topics like “Schindler’s List” and “Angels in America,” this dinnertime session attracted a notably younger and hipper audience, chatting amiably about job interviews and recent appointments.
“I find these panels so nurturing, to use such a corny word,” said Maria Damon, associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Damon, along with the evening’s presenters Daniel Itzkowitz and Ann Pelligrini, contributed to Daniel Boyarin’s 1996 groundbreaking anthology “Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies,” a key publication of the next wave of Jewish scholarship, which built on the groundbreaking early 1990s work by Sander Gilman.
And not only Jews were eagerly scuffling with the complexity of Jewish identity. Elegantly attired in a three-piece suit and turban, Amardeep Singh, a doctoral candidate in English at Duke, talked of his excitement to share the dais with Boyarin, the innovative Talmudic scholar at the University of California at Berkeley who is one of the founders of Jewish cultural studies. Deconstructing excerpts from two Benjamin Disraeli speeches in the House of Commons that articulated a modern, neutral concept of “religious belief,” Singh used Disraeli as a case study of Jewish secularism.
Sitting in the audience that evening, Michael Staub seemed excited about what he observed as “shaking up the certitude” of Jewish identity and demonstrating that definitions of being Jewish “are always in flux, always in transition to something else.” Citing Boyarin’s complex presentation that used queer theory to disentangle Jewish and Christian religious identity in first-century Judea, Staub says, “a paper like that would not have existed ten years ago.”
For the next day’s panel “Ambiguous Radicalisms: Refiguring the 1960s,” Staub himself delivered a fascinating history of the radical activism of Jews for Urban Justice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which outed Washington, D.C. Jewish community leaders who thrived on racist business practices.
The Jewish sessions that attracted the greatest attention were the two successive panels “The Second Generation: The Holocaust in National Memory,” held on the first day of the conference. Eight panelists critiqued recent literature from Holland, Germany, Poland, Israel and the United States to assess how children of Holocaust survivors personalize events and traumas that occurred before their birth.
“Work on memory in particular has been a factor in modern languages right now, and for the last five years or so,” says session coordinator Marianne Hirsch, professor of French and Italian at Dartmouth. “Holocaust studies is at the forefront of that.”
Hirsch said there was a “fabulous” response to her open call for papers. “You organize these things to see what people are working on, what’s out there, and to start a dialogue,” she says. “The other remarkable thing was looking at who showed up in the audience” of about 100 people. Major scholars like Geoffrey Hartman told Hirsch they enjoyed the panels because “they like to hear new voices. The sessions at the MLA, especially those with an open call for papers, are not just the same group of people talking to each other.”
Harvard professor Susan Suleiman provocatively titled her talk “The 1.5 Generation.” In typical MLA style, she undermined the panel’s assumptions by questioning the existence of “generational consciousness.” The health of Holocaust studies, and thus Jewish memory in general, depends upon a wide range of accounts by individuals of “fine distinctions and thick descriptions” of age, gender, class and nationality, Suleiman’s conclusion resonates with the new fascination with Jewish diversity.
With Holocaust memorials proliferating across America, Matthew Calihman, a doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke about how they speak to a diverse U.S. population. His paper “Black American Intellectuals and Holocaust Memory” was the last of the two sessions, and addressed how blacks have critiqued fascism since the 1930s (ignited by Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia) and analogized elements of the Holocaust, from concentration camps to the Nuremberg Laws, to their own experience in America. In the end, Calihman affirmed Suleiman’s call for particularity by concluding that the comparison denies the particularity of both experiences.
What makes the MLA conference unique, says Nechama Kramer-Hellinx, is its encouragement for intellectuals to experiment. The MLA rarely publishes the papers, so the panelists feel more free to present new ideas and works-in-progress.
An adjunct at York College and junior high Spanish teacher and MLA member since 1993, Kramer-Hellinx organized the Sephardic discussion group’s panel “Sephardim as Traders.” Caught between the larger divisions of Jewish studies and Spanish and Portuguese studies, Sephardic studies has had a difficult time establishing a firm presence in the MLA, Kramer-Hellinx says. The MLA monitors attendance to gauge whether there’s sufficient interest to merit its status as an official discussion group, so she feels as if Sephardic Studies is “on probation.”
A MLA member for nearly 30 years, Hirsch says that while the overall presence of Jewish studies has increased over the years at the MLA, in the last three to five years, “the advent of the Jewish cultural studies discussion group was a turning point. It was an effort to bring people together” to incorporate “contemporary theory and make Jewish studies more cutting edge.”
A prominent sign of the trend of integration of Jewish studies goes far beyond “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Seinfeld” meriting papers at the MLA. In the Jewish American Literature discussion group’s “Millennial Thinking, Jewish Time,” Alan Rosen of Bar-Ilan University delivered a superior paper comparing “The Pawnbroker” to the process of Jewish mourning during the month of Av. And at “Mapping Yiddish Literature,” Sarah Braun of the University of Michigan discussed Abraham Cahan’s inventive, selective memory of his shtetl origins. Arriving in New York in 1882, just before the birth of the MLA, the socialist writer and activist would have felt at home in the contemporary MLA, both simultaneously obsessed and perplexed by the past.