Michigan Welcomes a New Department

The Ivory Tower

By Josh Lambert

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.
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In the wide world of academia, $20 million isn’t all that much money. A check for that amount wouldn’t quite cover the down payment on a particle accelerator, after all, and universities tend to set their fund-raising targets in the billion-dollar range. Yet in the smaller academic niche of Jewish studies, $20 million is a colossal sum. It’s enough not only to reshape a department but also to transform the entire field, according to the scholars and administrators behind the University of Michigan’s Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, which celebrated its founding with a ceremony in Ann Arbor on November 9.

The university has called the $20 million donation it received in February from the Samuel and Jean Frankel Jewish Heritage Foundation “the largest dedicated to Judaic studies at any university.” Thanks to this gift, the Frankel Institute has the financial wherewithal to host major international conferences and to provide residencies each year to 14 leading scholars from around the world. These visiting academics will spend a year free from teaching and administrative responsibilities in Ann Arbor, during which they will research and write in the company of talented peers.

Though it resembles other postdoctoral fellowship programs, like the one hosted by the Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the Harry Starr Fellowship in Judaica at Harvard University, the Frankel Institute promises to be unique, and not only because its funding makes it the largest institution of its kind.

The institute’s founding leadership consists of two female scholars of modern Jewish history and culture: Anita Norich, associate director of the institute, and Deborah Dash Moore, who arrived in Ann Arbor recently to direct the university’s center for Judaic studies. Both are authorities in their fields, but neither specializes in the traditional subjects that have sometimes been deemed central to Jewish studies, such as biblical exegesis, archaeology, or ancient and medieval history.

“If it was Jewish, it had to be old, male, in distant languages,” Moore said, describing how Jewish scholarship has often been defined. The Frankel Institute, she said, “augurs a maturation of Jewish studies.”

Norich and Moore were trained at Columbia University in the 1970s as part of what Moore calls “the second generation” of Jewish studies, and both have edited groundbreaking volumes that integrate feminist or gender studies perspectives into Jewish scholarship. Norich, a professor of English and Judaic studies at Michigan since 1983, is a scholar of modern Yiddish and Jewish American literature, and her books include a study of the Yiddish fiction of Israel Joshua Singer and “Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature” (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1993) , for which she was a co-editor. Moore, a historian who came to Michigan from Vassar College, focuses on American Jews, and her most recent book (to be released in paperback in April 2006) is “GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation”(Belknap Press, 2004). She is also a co-editor of “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia” (Routledge, 1997). (Both women are also members of the Forward Association, which owns this newspaper.)

Does this leadership mean that the institute’s programs will be more likely to focus on contemporary issues, more on the rise of female rabbis or on Yiddish socialist theater, say, than on classic rabbinic literature or Semitic philology? Not necessarily, Norich said: “We’re hoping that the institute will reflect the interests of all the faculty at U.M.,” which includes noted scholars of Jewish mysticism, political theory, and anthropology, among other fields. Nonetheless, the institute’s first scheduled conference — to be held in the spring of 2007, and covering Yiddish culture after 1945 — suggests both the institute’s willingness to explore issues affecting contemporary Jewry and that its programs will be, as Norich said, emphatically “multidisciplinary and multilingual.”

Josh Lambert’s reviews have appeared recently in the Forward, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Globe and Mail.

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