They say that it only takes two things to be a writer: to write, and to call yourself a writer. But I can now tell you that there is an undeniable joy and pride that comes from seeing your work printed in a book. A book that two very senior scholars had the idea to write, and asked me if I would contribute a chapter to it. And when I said yes, they then read and carefully edited my words and tightened my argument, and then sent it to the UK where a person agreed it was worth publishing and spent a lot of time and energy laying it out in a fancy book-printing computer program, and then sent to a big book-making factory and had it bound up. And now it costs $53.70 on Amazon and is ranked #1,428,714 on the site's best seller list (but is boosted up to #1416 in books about African American history). 


I was working from my dining room table yesterday afternoon when my husband came home and brought in the mail. After weeks of waiting, the book had finally arrived--and I was in the middle of working and it had been a long, long day and I just threw up my hands and said "finally!" and went along with what I was doing. What was a little more waiting, at this point?

The chapter that I contributed to this book originated from a year-long seminar I participated in during the 2014-15 academic year. I began the research in the fall of 2015, completed a draft in August of 2016, and did three rounds of revision and submitted a final version by the end of that year. In the spring and summer of 2017 I made final edits and approved the page proofs. The book was finally released in December 2017, but a printing delay meant that my copy was not sent out until mid-March. And then it took three weeks to ship from the UK. If you had told me that I would not see the fruit of this labor for four years, I probably never would have done it. Yet that's fairly typical for academic publishing, and realistically it would have taken a fifth year if I had submitted it to a journal.

So I left the book sitting on the table while I finished working, ate dinner, and watched Sunday night's episode of Silicon Valley with Kevin (so good!). Before leaving to meet a friend to see Viet Than Nguyen speak, I scooped it up and threw it in my bag. We arrived early enough that I had time to show her before the event started. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and after she insisted on taking pictures of the book I began flipping through to find my chapter.  You might be surprised to know which page made me verklempt.


I created this chart and table in Excel and I am not being self-deprecating when I say that the originals are amateurish and lacking in aesthetic merit. So when I opened to this page in the book, and found that they looked professional and "like what a chart in a book should look like," it drove home the point that I had actually done something legit.

So my eyes watered a little bit, though I did not actually cry, and I spent a few seconds saying something dumb like "wow, huh, wow" before pulling it together and changing the subject. 

After the talk I came home and before I went to sleep I placed the book on the table next to my bed. When I got up this morning I put it in my bag and carried it around with me all day. This afternoon I brought it to show my therapist. But I think by tonight I'll be ready to find a nice home for it on a bookshelf. 

I never was a kid who really knew what she wanted to be when she grew up, but I was always writing--journal entries, awful short stories and poems, school papers, personal essays, letters to friends, and later blogs, and newsletters, and a dissertation. So this book does not quite represent my actualization into the person I dreamed I could be. Instead, it underscores what I already know: I've become a writer. 


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.  

The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective

Rarely do faculty members of the Carnegie Mellon history department come upstairs to visit the offices of their graduate students. With the exception of four professors who pass through because their offices ring our bullpen, the history grads are segregated and enclosed in a windowless room with yellow fluorescent light. It's just 30-something of us, four columns of cubicles, a mini-fridge, and Livy (our temperamental high capacity printer). So when Prof. Joe Trotter, one of my committee members, showed up on the top floor of Baker Hall last April it was already quite unusual. Then, when it turned out that he was looking for me, it was terrifying--the 20th grade version of being called to the Principal's office. What had I done wrong? Did he know about.... how could he? 

Instead of getting in trouble, I was offered an opportunity to become a pre-doctoral fellow and participate in the Department of History's A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series on "the ghetto." Prof. Trotter and Prof. Wendy Goldman applied for this unique grant two year ago after they became curious about the long history of the ghetto as a place, as an experience, and as a term to describe crowded and poor urban spaces. The A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Fellowship Program provides a university academic department with funding to intensively study a research question through a year-long discussion series. This seemed like the perfect way to explore the "concept, conditions, and connections" of the ghetto from its inception in 11th century Italy to the "making of the ghetto" in the twentieth century American city. Profs. Trotter and Goldman invited scholars to submit papers related to the seminar's four case studies: Jewish Ghettoes in Early Modern Europe; Ghettoes and the Colonial Project in Southern Africa; Nazi Ghettoes and the Holocaust; and the African American Ghetto in the United States. Seventeen were selected (plus  two bonus papers from post-docs) and these papers were circulated before each meeting for participants to read closely. We then gathered at each session and, after a twenty-minute presentation by the author, began asking questions about the specifics of their research and about the "big picture" questions of how the ghetto, as a place and as a term, has changed throughout history.  

Over the course of this academic year, I attended 18 seminars and spent in the range of 60 hours reading, thinking, discussing, and arguing about the definition of a ghetto, the role that the ghetto has continued to play in creating social hierarchies, and the enduring value and relevance of  the term (i.e. have historians overextended its usefulness by applying it to too many different kinds of spatial separation?). It was an incredibly valuable experience because it forced me to think more critically about a) the neighborhoods I study in my dissertation and b) the words I use to describe those neighborhoods. I will write more about our findings and its influence on my work in future posts, but for now it suffices to say that the Sawyer Seminar has had (and will continue to have) a big impact on how I theorize and approach my research.