Jewish Studies in Germany. A review by Alan Levenson

51K1OaPEEXL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Levenson on Lehnardt, ‘Judaistik im Wandel: Ein halbes Jahrhundert Forschung und Lehre über das Judentum in Deutschland’ [review]

by H-Net Reviews

Andreas Lehnardt, ed. Judaistik im Wandel: Ein halbes Jahrhundert Forschung und Lehre über das Judentum in Deutschland. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017. vi + 239 pp. $80.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-11-052103-0.

Reviewed by Alan T. Levenson (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Judaic (November, 2019) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

Printable Version:

This multi-authored volume, ably edited by Andreas Lehnardt (Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz) comprises the revised conference proceedings held at the Maimonides Institute of the University of Hamburg in 2015. The sixteen contributions chronicle the study of Judaic and Jewish studies in Germany over the past fifty years, exactly as the subtitle promises. (How I wish “Judaistik” were an English word, if only to end the scholastic debate between which term, “Judaic” or “Jewish,” is preferable.) This volume offers a bird’s-eye view of the current state of affairs, including essays on Yiddish, Kabbalah, music, sociology, and the Second Temple period, and occasionally offers deeper insights into the location of these studies in the wider world of scholarship.

Shmuel Feiner’s introduction, “Jüdische Studien heute: Eine Perspektive aus Israel 2015” (Jewish studies today: A perspective from Israel in 2015), provides a provocative typology of Jewish studies in Israel and in the United States, and in a more tentative vein, in Germany. Feiner presents American Jewish studies as ultimately a celebration of globalism and pluralism, optimistic and diasporic. Whereas Judaistik in Israel has largely freed itself from the Zionist dogmatism of the Jerusalem school, the scholarship remains bound up in conflicts, crisis, and culture wars of Israeli society—which Feiner nevertheless considers the place best situated to take the pulse of Jewish life. The tendency of German Judaistik seems less clear, although one may observe a fault line between Andreas Lehnardt, Rafael Arnold, Walter Homolka, and Elke Morlok, who offer sustained reflections on their scholarly relationship with the nineteenth-century founders of Wissenschaft des Judentums, and the many other essays that hit on this central vein only occasionally.

Rafael Arnold’s “Die Forschung zur sephardischen Sprache, Literatur und Kultur” (Research on Sephardic language, literature, and culture) makes the interesting point that in Spain itself, Judeo-Spanish was seen as a corrupt dialect (Abart), whereas German scholars, having direct contact with Judeo-Spanish speakers in Hamburg, Vienna, and the Balkans, had a greater appreciation for Judeo-Spanish. Arnold points to the irony of this appraisal with respect to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attitudes toward Yiddish. Arnold likewise presents a helpful thumbnail sketch of the research commenced before the Shoah by Meyer Kayserling, Max Leopold Wagner, Leo Spitzer, of course Fritz (Yitzhak) Baer, and others. Given the title of his essay, Arnold might have added a few lines on the differences between Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, and Judeo-Arabic in the Middle East and North Africa. He shares the generally upbeat assessment of Jewish studies as a flourishing enterprise in Germany, which provided partial motivation for this volume, and which I find convincing.

Nathaniel Riemer calls for more attention to material culture in his “Brauchen die Jüdischen Studien einen weiteren ‘turn?’” (Are Jewish studies in need of another “turn?”). Riemer’s discussion of seder plates, prayer books, and school rooms illuminates, but one may wonder if Riemer attacks a straw man as the study of material culture has been on the rise in Jewish and general studies for some time—in Germany and elsewhere. As has often been the case, Jewish studies has lagged behind methodologically. For this one may offer many reasons, but that gap seems to have closed.

Tal Ilan’s account of her projected feminist commentary to the Babylonian Talmud fascinates: who outside the field of Talmud knew that a ninety-one volume series of this sort was projected and that twenty-nine tractates have already been assigned or published? One can only admire a scholar who sees this as a desideratum in Jewish studies. Commenced in 2005, this project stuns in its ambition, although Ilan regrets that the project has lost momentum: in her view, due to the absence of Jewish gender studies in Germany. Given that a feminist commentary is unlikely to win many readers in the yeshiva world, one may wonder if the number of readers could have far exceeded the number of authors had this project succeeded. Ilan offers in this essay, as usual, more than she promises, and includes excellent discussions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Grace Aguilar, and Judith Plaskow as champions of scriptural learning from a women’s perspective. That Ilan and several others in this volume received their training in Israel or the United States seems worth mentioning; this scholarship takes place in Germany but not in a vacuum.

Noam Zadoff’s essay on Israel studies strikes the right note between realism and aspiration: “Any analysis of Israel Studies in Germany must take into account that at the moment this field is almost non-existent in this country. On the one hand this means that the field has all its future ahead and there are reasons to be optimistic.” Zadoff briefly describes the emergence of Israel studies since the 1980s, and in greater detail, the genesis of the five positions as Israel studies in Germany. His sanguine view is grounded in the sound observation that “Israel Studies is probably the most rapidly growing and most dynamic part among the branches of Jewish Studies worldwide” (p. 81). Zadoff further explains the historiographical trends, the organizational dimensions, and the politics—for good and bad. Borrowing Assaf Likhovski’s language, he makes the case that we now have a “post-post-Zionist historiography” (p. 85). One may hope that we can someday approach regular historiography regarding Israel, rather than requiring a third postal prefix.

We have here an insightful and reliable guide to what is going on in the world of German and German–speaking scholarship, right down to places and persons, as in Marion Aptroot’s “Jiddisch an deutschen Universitäten” (Yiddish at German universities). Most German Judaicists have studied and/or lectured in Israel and/or America and acknowledge their debt to the predominantly Jewish founders of the field, the master workers, as S. Y. Agnon put it. Both factors play a positive role, requiring more explicit discussion than the format of this volume permits. Structurally, the essays in the section titled “Perspektiven und Plädoyers” (Perspectives and pleas) could as easily be found in the section titled “Impulse” and vice versa. The sole chapter on Bible studies arrives as the penultimate entry, Giuseppe Veltri’s essay on skepticism needs more context for the non-expert, and missing altogether is a chapter on medieval Jewry, a lacuna given the prominence of that topic in German scholarship, traditionally and today.

Useful as a reference book or a who’s who, Judaistik im Wandel presents the written record of what was probably an exciting conference. But the whole is the sum of its parts.

Alan T. Levenson holds the Schusterman/Josey Chair in Judaic history at the University of Oklahoma.

Citation: Alan T. Levenson. Review of Lehnardt, Andreas, ed., Judaistik im Wandel: Ein halbes Jahrhundert Forschung und Lehre über das Judentum in Deutschland. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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About “Writing from a Place of Survival”

By Abigail Gillman

In the brutal nights we used to dream
Dense violent dreams,
Dreamed with soul and body:
To return; to eat; to tell the story.
Until the dawn command
Sounded brief, low
And the heart cracked in the breast.

From: Primo Levi, “Reveille”

These lines, which comprise the first stanza of Primo Levi’s poem “Reveille,” lay at the center of the second Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture of 2019.  The poet recalls the prisoners’ dreams of returning home, eating, and telling the stories, interrupted each dawn by the Polish command.  But the three repetitions of the word “dream,” argues Sharon Portnoff, also allude to three dreams in Dante’s Purgatorio: dreams which enable the pilgrim to ascend to paradise.  In Dante, the dream represents the power to imagine, to tell the story of hell, in a way that preserves dignity and redeems suffering.

How did Dante help Levi to survive, and to write about the hell of Auschwitz? In Portnoff’s words, “Levi’s poem – as almost all of his writings do – draws on the texts of the Western canon to invite us to literally engage the fact of Auschwitz against the backdrop of our higher aspirations, to spend our time reading and studying his many allusions.  We do this not to find out what the human being really is in the midst of his suffering, but to enact what the human being might be.”

Dante’s Hell, and Levi’s hell: as Dante is inscribed throughout Primo Levi’s oeuvre, Levi’s writings, his poetry, his two memoirs, become a commentary or education about Dante.  Levi’s turn to Dante recalls the approach of another child survivor, Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, who referred to Franz Kafka as his redeemer, and who copied from the Hebrew Bible in his quest to become a writer.  

When a great writer translates or interacts with another great literary work, there is a magic or alchemy which is hard to put into words.  Portnoff owned this challenge, teaching us various approaches one might take and inviting us in to her own process of interpretation.  

In doing so, she continued the narrative begun by Rabbi Joseph Polak in the first lecture back in September. Polak spoke about memory, and unexpectedly, about shame.  Though he has authored an award-winning memoir, Polak taught us that he continues to think about how to tell his story, and is still retrieving, or receiving, new memories from the war, which he survived as a very young child.  The sound of counting aloud in German, heard on a recent trip to Germany, evoked a visceral reaction, an aural memory of the Appelplatz, the prisoners’ roll call, which, according to his mother, he attended daily as a young boy, sitting on the shoulders of a Nazi soldier.

Rabbi Polak also spoke, provocatively, about shame as the most damaging, lasting injury the Nazis perpetrated on their victims. By implication, those of us who were not there need to ask whether we continue the shaming by not being fully present to survivors.

In these lectures, we learn not only about the survivor, but about the power and limits of language for the survivors of genocide, and for those of us who engage with their writings.  The speakers challenge us to hear those stories in new ways; to wake up, as Levi’s poem implores; and to become more human in the process.

Abigail Gillman is Professor of Hebrew and German in the Department of World Languages and Literatures and a core member of the faculty of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies where she teaches courses in modern Jewish and Hebrew literature. She served as interim director of the Center in 2016-17 and directed the university-wide Day of Learning and Commemoration for Elie Wiesel in September 2017. Her most recent book is A History of German Jewish Bible Translation (University of Chicago Press, 2018).




Remembering the Cambodian Genocide, 40 Years Later

By Jennifer Cazenave

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of a four-year brutal regime led by Pol Pot. In an attempt to transform the country into an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge displaced millions of Cambodians to forced labor camps in the countryside. By January 6, 1979, an estimated 1.7 million people had perished from famine, forced labor, torture, disease, and execution; they were buried in mass graves known as killing fields.

The decade-long civil war following the end of the Khmer Rouge regime delayed recognition of the genocide, both locally and globally. The memory of the genocide began to emerge in the 1990s and 2000s, notably through the testimonies of survivors included in documentary films or published as memoirs. Transnational war crimes tribunals were also established in Cambodia in 2003, marking the beginning of a lengthy judicial process to investigate the atrocities and prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders.

Loung Ung was born in Phnom Penh in 1970. Along with her family, she was forced to evacuate the capital in April 1975. She survived the genocide as a child, before escaping Cambodia in 1979 and coming to the United States a year later. In 2000, she told her story of survival in a memoir published in English, which she titled First They Killed My Father. Her book was adapted into an eponymous film directed by Angelina Jolie in 2017.

On Monday, November 18, 2019, forty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, we will welcome Loung Ung to BU. Her talk will conclude our fall series “Writing from a Place of Survival” and allow us to commemorate the genocide in Boston—a city situated an hour away from Lowell, which is home to the second largest Cambodian community in the United States.

Tsai Performance Center, 7:30-9pm.

The event is free and open to the public but pre-registration is strongly recommended. To register, follow this link. (Alumni status NOT required.)

Jennifer Cazenave is Assistant Professor of French. Her first book, An Archive of the Catastrophe: The Unused Footage of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (SUNY Press, 2019), undertakes a comprehensive examination of the 220 hours of filmic material Claude Lanzmann excluded from his 1985 Holocaust opus. Professor Cazenave is currently at work on a second book project that examines the centrality of the earth as a medium for the writing of the Cambodian genocide in the cinema of Rithy Panh. Her article titled “Earth as Archive: Reframing Memory and Mourning in The Missing Picture,” which examines Panh’s autobiographical representation of the catastrophe, recently appeared in Cinema Journal.