There is an early episode of The Simpsons in which Bart takes a job at a maﬁa hangout, the “Legitimate Businessmen’s Social Club.” One day while he tends bar there, Police Chief Wiggum visits the local mob boss, Fat Tony, to ask if he knows anything about a cigarette truck hijacked on route 401. “What’s a truck?” Fat Tony cagily replies (www.snpp.com/episodes/ 8F03.html). By the same token, when considering the contemporary study of Jewish literature, one must ﬁrst ask, “What is literature?” From a historical perspective, the study of literature as such begins with what was originally a Jewish text: the Hebrew Scriptures. As primarily (Christian) ecclesiastical institutions, the ﬁrst European universities were dedicated in part to the study of Biblical Hebrew, and pioneering American colleges such as Harvard and Yale replicated these requirements. The modern institutionalization of Jewish Studies as an academic inquiry began with the 1819 establishment of the Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft des Judentums (Society for Jewish Culture and Science) in Berlin. Though this was the ﬁrst organization dedicated to the study of Jewish culture with a historicist focus, rather than a Christian or rabbinic one, it replicated previous presumptions and preoccupations by focusing primarily on classical Jewish texts such as Talmud and Midrash, and medieval Jewish thinkers such as Rashi and Maimonides, to the deliberate exclusion of contemporary Jewish culture conducted in vernacular languages such as Yiddish or Ladino (or German), along with non-rational strains within Jewish thought such as mysticism, messianism, or heresy. In the American academy, the establishment of Jewish Studies departments and programs-
distinct from general, often implicitly Christian, “religious studies” departments-dates mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, and constitutes a response to the lifting of quotas restricting Jewish enrollment and hiring, as well as the growth of ethnic consciousness among American minority groups; this parallels an analogous growth in Latino and African American Studies. American academic divisions in Jewish Studies during the 1960s and 1970s nonetheless often extended the legacy of Wissenschaft des Judentums by focusing on Jewish religious culture rather than the practice of everyday life, political ideology, or modern literary forms. In Israel, by comparison, the study of modern literature in Jewish languages such as Hebrew or Yiddish was an integral component of academic culture from the very outset, and the study of literature in modern Hebrew was as constitutive an act in the creation of a national culture as any more concrete exercise in nation-building (or nation-imagining). The function of literary study as an extension, or construction, of national culture tended until the late 1960s to focus on the ideological
functions of literature, its purported usefulness to the national project, rather than the aesthetic criteria being institutionalized contemporaneously in the academic cultures of other national literatures. Whether in Israel or the US, therefore, for much of the twentieth century the study of Jewish texts often eﬀaced precisely their literariness. A representative, and excellent, document illustrating the major trends in American Jewish
Studies in this period is an anthology edited by Judah Goldin (1914-98), titled The Jewish Expression (Goldin 1970; 1976). As Goldin writes in a postscript to his own introduction for the volume, this collection began life as a course reader for a seminar he taught to ten undergraduate students at Yale University in the late 1960s, none of whom could read Hebrew. Elsewhere in the introduction he explains, “In the title of the volume and these introductory remarks I have used the word ‘expression’ as a kind of shorthand. It is intended to serve the purposes of what is generally called literature-in that event, we are discussing literary expression. … For the most part, it is true, the essays deal with aspects of literature (hence the direction taken also by the introductory comments); but not entirely” (Goldin 1970; 1976: xiii). What the collection consists of, in fact, are essays on historiography, halakha (ritual law), the Maccabean uprising, the concept of revelation among Jewish Hellenists, medieval liturgical poetry, classical Jewish mysticism, Spinoza’s critique of religion, Martin Buber’s reclamation of Hasidic thought and storytelling, and the culture of the Lithuanian yeshiva. The one contribution by a belletristic author, Sh. Y. Agnon (to date the only Hebrew writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature) is a two-page meditation on the Kaddish prayer in the (then) new context of the State of Israel. Clearly, what Goldin and most of his contributors-few, if any, of whom were directly involved in the preparation of the volume-meant by the term “literature” is far diﬀerent from the critical study of modern literary forms such as the novel, the autobiography, lyric poetry, or drama written in Jewish languages or from a professed Jewish perspective. To make this observation is not to condemn Goldin or his contemporaries, but merely to
identify them as products of their historical moment, when both the unlimited consideration of Jewish culture within the academy, and the unrestricted access of Jews to institutions of higher learning were still new and essentially untested. A number of events and trends have intervened since then that account for how the ﬁeld of Jewish literary studies has gone from an endeavor that could be eﬀectively summarized in a single well-chosen anthology to the current era of prolixity and perplexity.