Take Aways from Twenty Four Days

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. 

Missing Mezuzah, Ghetto Novissimo, Venice, Italy 

Missing Mezuzah, Ghetto Novissimo, Venice, Italy

Ghetto Novissimo, Venice, Italy. Tour by the most excellent Luisella Romeo.


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.  

Summer Work, Summer Play

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.