UPDATE: Huge congratulations are in order for Yehuda Kurtzer, who has been chosen as the winner of the Bronfman Brandeis contest. His biography and proposal are below.
This is the 10th entry in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.
About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora and their relationship to the rise of rabbinic piety. As part of this project, Yehuda focuses on transformations in Jewish identity in the changing ancient world.
An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowships and Bronfman Youth Fellowships, Yehuda has served as a teaching fellow at Harvard and for the past two years as an Instructor in History at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. Yehuda has worked as a Research Fellow for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum helping to bridge the worlds of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies, and as a consultant on rabbinic texts for Facing History and Ourselves.
He has lectured and taught widely in adult education settings, including The Curriculum Initiative, the Brandeis Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy, and NYU’s Center for Online Judaic Studies. Yehuda also helped co-found and continued to help lead Brookline’s Washington Square Minyan. He lives in Brookline, MA with his wife Stephanie Ives and their son Noah.
[Further links in body of text below.]
“The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory” by Yehuda Kurtzer
Jews Have Six Senses: Quoting Jonathan Safran Foer
“Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.
The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep while stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (p. 198.)
The next great step for the Jewish future will be the reclamation of the Jewish past. I believe that the most successful, interesting and engaging programs currently invigorating the Jewish world are seizing upon this idea, and implementing the gifts of the Jewish past in surprisingly progressive and fresh ways.
I feel part of this process through my various communal initiatives and both eager and equipped to study and articulate its roots and its implications. The innovation I propose to advance at Brandeis is not a limited program but a powerful programmatic and public policy statement on what authentic Jewish memory means, from where it derives, and how the Jewish community can reinforce its values both in theory and in practice.
Keep reading to learn more.
Yosef Yerushalmi on Jewish History & Jewish Memory
The intellectual history of this phenomenon lies in the dialectic between Jewish history and Jewish memory. In his now-classic Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Yerushalmi described the birth of Jewish interest in historiography as a distinctively recent and modern phenomenon, one divorced from the mechanics of memory.
He famously called Jewish historians the “pathologists” of the declining power of Jewish collective memory, unable to (and uninterested in) rehabilitating an exercise that stands in “radically different relation” to the past than their historiographical task.
In his final words Yerushalmi admitted to falling short of addressing the growing alienation between Jews and how they remember their history, and he placed the burden on himself – on the historian and his ilk – to “build the bridge to his people.”
So while using historiography and the scientific, myth-undermining power of history to sound a death knell for the life-giving force of Jewish memory, Yerushalmi wistfully hoped that the historian might seize the mantle of authority to reinvigorate a Jewish world challenged by the demise of its mythic past.
Assessing whether Yerushalmi was right or wrong is difficult. Certainly much of the history of the tension that he described in the earlier chapters is mesmerizing and unimpeachable. What’s more, Yerushalmi paradoxically showed that the historian building a bridge to the past was actually simultaneously destroying that bridge.
As much as a historian may show us from whence we came, that map to the past invariably includes a good deal of demythologizing that makes a return to the ethics and values of the past more treacherous and less appealing. Indeed, as scientific historiography is a product of the modern world, its impact is adjoined to progress much like other technological advances. Scientific history often rejects the models of the past, and challenges us to do better.
Rabbi David Wolpe on History versus Memory
And yet, neither Jewish thought on this issue nor Jewish practice has adhered to Yerushalmi’s vision. Some 20 years after the publication of Zachor, Rabbi David Wolpe argued the precisely opposite thesis in his synagogue on Passover.
The distinction between history and memory, Wolpe argued, was irrelevant to the future of Jewish practice. We may accept that the Exodus cannot be proven archaeologically, but that empirical discovery should have no ramifications for how the holiday is celebrated.
The irony of this affirmation coming from a student of the Positive-Historical school of Judaism notwithstanding, Wolpe powerfully reaffirmed the mantle of the memorialist: What we know shall not sever us from what we choose to remember.
If Yerushalmi-to-Wolpe symbolizes the intellectual trajectory of these ideas, the same tension and reaffirmation of a selective version of the Jewish past is playing out in much more dramatic and visible ways within the Jewish community today.
Jews en masse are reclaiming and prioritizing the work of the Jewish memorialists, producing a postmodern reclamation of an inspired and inspiring past. The Jewish claim on the history that we want to tell has moved from Yerushalmi to Wolpe, from the academy to the synagogue, from the historian of the Jews to the Jews themselves. Yerushalmi’s lament was premature, and his charge misdirected.
In the Jewish world, I see this new claim on memory deeply manifest in the proliferation of emergent and independent spiritual communities, and more importantly in the massive reclamation of traditional Jewish text as the key anchor to Jewish growth and affiliation.
It seems now that the most effective vehicles of progressive Jewish dynamic vision are those anchored in the framework of memory, in the quest for mythical nostalgia, in the desire for what I call “new authenticity.”
Photo sourced from The Official Website of Rabbi Jason Miller
Reconnecting with Judaism: Boston’s Young Jews as a Microcosm
The data around Boston alone is staggering. Hundreds of Jews seek out adult Jewish education classes premised on old-fashioned texts and old-fashioned methods. Talented and motivated young adults, most with minimal training in rabbinic Judaism, enroll to become rabbis in a program that prioritizes Talmud and textual fluency above all else.
Young Jews in their 20s and 30s – everyone’s most desired demographic – seek out independent prayer communities precisely because they don’t simplify the service or elaborate too much on a basic paradigm. American Jewish leadership is being transformed by institutions like Pardes in Israel, wherein traditional Jewish learning is cast as an invigorating means to seize authenticity, to enable Jews to stake a claim to and own their tradition.
What is most striking about all these institutions is that none entails a rejection of progressivism or radicalism. Many of them, by design or by accident, are extremely hip and cutting-edge. But somehow egalitarianism, progressivism, and transformation now take root using the old tools of yeshiva study, halakhic language, and minyanim that fancy themselves as “shtibls.”
This is again a powerful paradox: Rather than employing the language of newness and dissociation from antiquated old models, those models are being rehabilitated to convey that newness – that renaissance – much more effectively.
The New Progressive Jewish Reality: “New Jewish Culture”
The history of ideas then is overlapping with the new progressive Jewish reality. As these successful organizations and programs succeed at their work, a new and more correct definition of Jewish memory emerges: Jewish memory is positive and proactive, a progressive execution of the components of the past in the work of the present.
The phenomenon of the “New Jewish Culture” that has received significant media attention has been mistakenly characterized as “new.” What is most significant about this phenomenon is its deep reclamation of particularism and its reformulation of that particularism in innovative art forms.
I once heard Professor Jeffrey Shandler lecture about the irony of the popularity of klezmer music, that the old shtetl world would be horrified to know that their greatest living legacy is the clown in the corner playing a musical instrument. But the knowledge that klezmer may not be the most heroic artifact of the shtetl cannot compete with packed concerts and CD sales.
New Jewish culture may not represent the Jewish past with historical accuracy, and its version of authenticity may be inauthentic to the past; but the key to its success is in the channeling, constructing and transmitting that very authenticity.
The Allusion of Tradition
In other contexts, young Jews are drawn in by allusion to, rather than illusion of, tradition. The Havurah on the Hill, which is part of the reclamation project of Boston’s Vilna Shul, characterizes its programs as informed by a “nice hint of tradition.”
Never mind that the structure and often content of its programs are decidedly new; the reincorporation of familiar paradigms is critical to the appeal (even as they are extremely new to many Jews in their own processes of ‘return.’)
What is Jewish Memory?
What is Jewish memory, after all, but deliberately constructed mythical nostalgia that binds one to a past even in radically reinterpreting that past?
Jewish memory scoffs at the definition of memory as a first-order photographic capture of experience lived. Instead, Jewish tradition ironically celebrates temporal distance from the actual event being remembered, translating the event into ritual, nostalgia, and myth.
Jewish memory is not made more correct by its historical accuracy. This translation of event to practice bridges the chasm of past and future, and renders a specific historical event into an ongoing event of significance.
Understanding Memory Through Jewish Ritual
In a research project that I undertook several years ago at the US Holocaust Museum, I argued that this understanding of memory can be demonstrated consistently through Jewish history, ritual, culture, and theology. I also offered some thoughts as to how Jews must use this approach proactively to ‘remember’ the Holocaust, rather than fixating on the historicity of the Holocaust.
Jewish historicity is finite, but memorialization is timeless. Those limited conclusions can be widened dramatically in the interest of Jewish public policy. A new direction for the Jewish communal establishment will be to democratize, popularize and make accessible programs and institutions that are forming contemporary Jewish cultural memory, thus enabling Jews to stake a meaningful claim to their heritage.
I can imagine developing a national program facilitating access to institutions of Jewish learning, or working on helping these creative initiatives bridge their chasm to the institutionally-based Jewish community.
Pursuing an Understanding of Jewish Memory at Brandeis
This project feels particularly appropriate to me at this juncture in my professional life. I am currently completing my doctorate in Jewish history at Harvard, and eager to embark on my next intellectual project.
I have also found myself in constant tension as to the role of the academic in the world of Jewish leadership, especially as I have served in positions of Jewish leadership in the past several years that sometimes overlap and sometimes depart from my academic commitments.
My teaching at Hebrew College has prepared the way for this project, as I have been working with rabbinical students on refining their understanding of the relationship between ancient Jewish history and how rabbinic Judaism has elected to remember that history.
In my communal life I co-founded the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline, a start-up congregation attracting many young Jews and generating a buzz in Boston for its unconventional presentation of some extremely traditional conventions.
All this, combined with my earlier research at the Holocaust Museum and my ongoing partnership with Facing History and Ourselves in Brookline, incline me to believe that my next project is precisely this job: An opportunity to write a great book and simultaneously help chart the course for the Jewish future.
My project will revisit the binary of memory and history and how the times in which we live affirm a new paradigm that I hope to articulate.
In a work of history, theology, and ultimately programmatic public policy, I will seek to explain why the tide is shifting in the advancement of the Jewish past; what this shift means for the Jewish future; and how this moment in time must be leveraged.
Comments on this blog should be posted with the purpose of forwarding healthy conversation. If you have criticism of the proposal, please express it as constructively and respectfully as possible. Thank you in advance.
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