I was incredibly productive this week. In addition to being well rested from vacation, I had missed the satisfaction of making consistent daily progress on a project. On Wednesday, I began writing up the research I presented in Venice into a paper for possible publication. On Friday, I drafted a research proposal for a small fellowship. I also crafted a blog post for our Venice Working Group website with my reflections on the trip. On the domestic front, I laundered and prepared healthy meals and even cleaned the bathroom!
Nonetheless, being on vacation reminded me of the importance of not just taking time away from work, but of creating emotional space away from work. I'm very practiced at limiting the leaching of my work into the evenings or weekends, but over the course of my travels I realized that I have become a lazy defender of my emotional space. By that, I mean that I've thought of every activity I've done lately in terms of how it will affect my work later--assessing if the relaxation will have a positive return on investment when I resume writing. In effect, I have been instrumentalizing relaxation rather than, you know, relaxing.
So this weekend I've done things just for the sake of doing them, because they are things I enjoy. I've caught up with the ongoing season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I took a water bottle filled with wine to the park at sunset and devoured several chapters of The Story of a New Name. I went with friends to Picklesburgh, and ate something delicious called a Pickle Pizza Boat. Tonight, I think I will go get an ice cream cone.
My sister found this giant bullfrog on her porch Friday morning, an ultimate omen of TGIF. He is my new weekend mascot. Live like the bullfrog. That is, if the bullfrog ate Pickle Pizza Boats.
On Monday evening, I returned to Pittsburgh after 3.5 weeks of travel. My first stop was in Philadelphia, for the Advanced Summer School in Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. I joined 25 other graduate students from the U.S., Israel, and Europe to engage with readings and ideas around the topic of "Shaking Foundations." From there I flew on to Venice, Italy, for a summer workshop for early career scholars on "The Ghetto of Venice: The Future of Memory in the Digital Age." With eleven other colleagues from the U.S., Italy, and Israel, I toured the Venice ghetto, read extensively on its history and current attempts to celebrate its legacy, and presented original research. After two weeks of academic, intellectual immersion, I proceeded to vacation for 5 days on the beaches of Croatia.
From the Katz Center summer school and the Venice workshop, I came home with three new insights about my work:
1. At the Katz Center, a theme that we often returned to in our discussions was whether there is an essential Jewish identity or essential Jewish Studies. I realized that my dissertation very much argues against essentialist definitions of Judaism and Jewishness, as both personal and communal identities.
2. In one session at the Katz Center, Dr. Anne Oravetz Albert shared her work on communal authority amongst the Sephardi Jews of 17th century Amsterdam. Her scholarship complicates the notion of a singular Jewish "community," and I realized that my research on the JCC movement similarly demonstrates the contestation, conflict, and power struggles within the American Jewish "community" for who should make the decisions about what that "community" should look like and how it should operate.
3. At our final research presentations in Venice, a respondent to a colleague's paper asked the following question: "How do you make space Jewish outside of Israel?" This is, in essence, the matter that confounded the JCC movement in the postwar period. I have addressed this struggle at length in my dissertation, but this particular way of framing the question made me realize that my discussion has focused more on how leaders in the JCC movement dealt with this as an issue of personal identity--not of spacial identity--and that the characteristics of the built environment and the space of the JCC has been relegated to the background of my narrative. My mission is now to go back and revise in a way that foregrounds the spatial dimension of this struggle.
These two workshops came at just the right moment for me. I was bogged down in the minutiae of my dissertation, and these experiences felt like a hand reaching in to pull me up out of the quicksand so I could see the broader relevance of my work. I'm immensely thankful to all of my colleagues and faculty mentors, whose comments and conversations brought me this clarity and helped me develop this insight.
The spring semester wrapped up two short weeks ago, and it was a bittersweet ending. Teaching brought me a lot of fulfillment this year, and my enthusiasm for history seemed to transfer to my students--several told me they were surprised to enjoy a course about historical genocides. I'm nonetheless relieved to have a few months free of the distraction from grading, and it's allowed me to gain the necessary momentum to write my fourth chapter.
I spent most of January and February revising the second chapter of my dissertation. Whereas the experience of writing my first dissertation chapter was akin to being lost in the woods with no map and trying to find my home, I wrote chapter two in three quick months and the process was orderly and focused. When I finished, the product reminded me of that humorous test of abductive reasoning: "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." My draft had the average number of pages for a chapter, it had an argument like a chapter, it had evidence and citations like a chapter... it was a chapter! I didn't know if the argument or my analysis of the evidence was any good, but I was proud to have produced something that at least looked right.
When I read the comments and feedback from my advisors, however, I realized that I was still learning how to write a dissertation chapter. The essence of their recommendations was that I focused too closely on my documents, creating a laundry list of events and responses ("he-saids, then she-saids"). While this provided a clear accounting of events, I needed to do more to connect the narrative to the broader historical context. One of my advisors wrote, "I would like this chapter to be more conceptual." I may have written what looked like a chapter, an achievement of form, but inside it was not functioning as well as a chapter should function.
Thankfully, that same advisor gave me very specific recommendations about how to make the chapter more conceptual. My second chapter examines a debate that emerged between rabbis and JCCs in the early 1960s, when a group of rabbis accused JCCs of "secularizing" American Jews, and argued that the synagogue was where Jews should spend their free time. My advisor encouraged me to remove some sections that analyzed this debate in excruciating (and now, I can see, unnecessary) detail, and to replace these sections with a discussion of why Jews in the 1950s and early 1960s were so concerned about assimilation and secularism. After reading her comments, I felt confident that I could make the necessary changes quickly and easily.
It only took me a few days to realize that what I thought would be a simple revision was really going to be a "re-envision." Rather than a process of add-context-and-stir, I adjusted my thesis and many of the claims that I was making throughout the chapter. Over the next six weeks, I significantly rewrote almost every section to reflect this new argument. It was really, really hard. Not only was it difficult to remove so much writing that I had worked so hard on over the summer, but my new argument was more complex and I struggled to fully understand it myself, at times, and to articulate it clearly to the reader.
After I finished the "re-envisioning" process for chapter two, I revisited chapter three. Interestingly, that one was a straightforward revision that I completed quickly and easily--despite the fact that I struggled to write the first draft of chapter three. Perhaps I had finally gained a better understanding of how to make a chapter function. Maybe I made all the difficult decisions as I wrote the first draft, easing the revision process. Probably, it was a bit of both.
Although I'm very satisfied with what I produced these past two months, the exercise was intellectually and emotionally stressful. I now understand that revision is a completely different skill than writing a first draft. As I proceed through the dissertation, I will no longer assume that revision will come easily--and hopefully, by changing that expectation, my future revisions will feel less stressful!