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Danish and Coffee

Among the more exciting sessions at last month’s Association for Jewish Studies conference in San Diego was one devoted to the furor in the Muslim world over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. The panel’s most memorable moment, however, had little to do with the cartoons — indeed, little to do with scholarship at all.

The session began at 8:30 a.m. — too early for the first of the panel’s speakers, Vassar College anthropologist Judith Goldstein, to have had her morning coffee. She half-apologetically said as much after having labored through her paper’s first few lines.

Considering the early hour, the panel was attended well; the crowd even included a number of the field’s leading lights. Along the center aisle sat Deborah Dash Moore of the University of Michigan. Emory’s Deborah Lipstadt, who had delivered a paper about the Holocaust in the court room the previous day, sat toward the front. And near the back, by the door, was Berkeley’s Judith Butler, author of groundbreaking 1990 study “Gender Trouble” and one of the most influential feminist theorists on the scene today.

At academic conferences like the AJS, it is quite common for the door to open and close. People arrive late, leave early, come to hear one speaker and leave before the next, and so the assembled thought little of it when Butler slipped out door.

The surprise, however, came some 15 minutes later when, tray in hand, she chivalrously (if such a word can be used to describe a feminist pioneer) reappeared with coffee and a separate container of cream for the caffeine-deprived — and soon immensely grateful — speaker.

Even weeks after the conference, Rutgers University’s Jeffrey Shander, who delivered the paper immediately after Goldstein’s, recalled with delight the image of the thinker’s kind gesture.

“I told Judith Goldstein, ‘You can dine out on this one for the rest of your career,’” he said. “I’m dining out on it, and I wasn’t even the one who got the coffee.”

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