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The Fraught Future of Jewish Studies

By Henry Srebrnik Between 1969, when the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) was founded by forty-seven scholars in Boston, and now, the field of Jewish studies has enjoyed a meteoric expansion. The association, as David Biale, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, has noted in the winter 2024 issue of the Jewish Review of Books (JRB), it has some 1,800 members, and programs or individual positions exist at virtually every major North American university.
Benefiting from the postwar diminishment of antisemitism and the assimilation of Jews to American society, the scholarly study of the Jews found homes in university departments such as history, religious studies, and comparative literature.
Could that golden age have come to an end on October 7, 2023? “The sudden explosion of anti-Israelism, with its close cousin, antisemitism, has rendered the position of Jewish studies precarious.” It is too soon to know for sure, he states, “but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that something fundamental shifted on that Black Sabbath and its aftermath, not only in Israel but here in America.”
Jewish Studies programs at American (and Canadian) universities, with seed money provided by Jewish philanthropists, sprang up after the 1967 Six-Day War. And at first its faculty were “pro-Israel.” But Jewish communities never had control of these programs. And as the initial cohort of academics retired, their replacements were different – because the hiring process was, of course, largely in the hands of non-Jewish faculty in the humanities. So the successful candidates were more in line with the new zeitgeist of “interrogating” the “Zionist narrative” and giving prominence to non- or anti-Zionist perspectives among American Jews.
This was inevitable. Even the AJS has moved in this direction. (I am a member and have given papers at AJS conferences.) These programs and departments are, in the final analysis, at best “neutral” and agnostic on the Middle East and Israel.
Daniel B. Schwartz is a professor of history and Judaic studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC. In that same issue of the JRB, he recounted that on Oct. 9, a statement from the Executive Committee of the AJS arrived in his inbox. The heading of the email read simply, “Statement from the AJS Executive Committee.”
The statement was about the events of the previous weekend, but the email’s content-free subject line turned out to be symptomatic of what followed. “The members of the AJS Executive Committee,” it said, “express deep sorrow for the loss of life and destruction caused by the horrific violence in Israel over the weekend. We send comfort to our members there and our members with families and friends in the region who are suffering.” In a statement by the AJS, why word “Jews” was nowhere to be found.
“That we have come to the point where the AJS has to resort to such anodyne language,” he asserted, “is truly mind-boggling to me, and frankly shameful.” Why did the half-dozen distinguished scholars who form the Executive Committee of the AJS “feel obligated to obfuscate about the terrible events to which they were ostensibly responding?”
No wonder then, as Mikhal Dekel, Professor of English and the director of the Rifkind Center for the Humanities and Arts at the City College of New York, remarked, “For some of my Jewish colleagues, Israel and Israelis have crossed a threshold to become objects of hatred and disgust that mountains of intellectualized and reasoned essays cannot conceal. These emotions were on display on the very day of October 7, even before a single Israeli soldier entered Gaza.” Decades of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and other anti-Israel activism “around me hadn’t prepared me for that.”
Certainly the place of Jewish and Israeli-related courses in the wider world of the humanities will decline dramatically, as “anti-Zionism” takes hold across higher education. For example, Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told us in the February issue of Fathom, a British publication, that “after nearly two decades of trying, the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting finally succeeded in putting this academic group on record opposing Israel.”
The MLA represents about twenty thousand North American literature and foreign language faculty and graduate students. “This time they were riding a wave of anti-Zionist hostility that has swept the academy since Hamas wantonly slaughtered over 1,200 Israelis and foreign visitors in the largest antisemitic murder spree since the Holocaust.”
Nelson reported that at one MLA meeting, “when a member from Haifa referenced Hamas’s sexual violence there was reportedly audible hissing among the anti-Zionist members attending. Was it unacceptable to impugn the character of Hamas terrorists? Were some MLA members on board with Hamas denials?”
A recent trend has seen Jewish academics in Jewish Studies programs at universities like Berkely, Brown, Dartmouth, Emory, Harvard and elsewhere publish widely noticed books that are, at best, “non-Zionist” and in fact sympathetic to the naqba narrative of Arab-Jewish relations during and after the formation of Israel. But why should we be surprised? They are embedded in institutions where the “woke” Diversity-Equity-Inclusion ideology now prevails.
The new book by historian Geoffrey Levin, assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta, “Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978,” is one such work. He writes sympathetically about an early, formative era before American Jewish institutions had unequivocally embraced Zionism.
“The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto” by Daniel Boyarin, the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, aims to drive a wedge between the “nation” and the “state,” and “recover a robust sense of nationalism that does not involve sovereignty.”
“The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance” by Shaul Magid, the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, calls for “recentering” Judaism over nationalism and “challenges us to consider the price of diminishing or even erasing the exilic character of Jewish life.”
Derek Penslar, an historian at Harvard, last year published “Zionism: An Emotional State,” which described the situation in the West Bank as apartheid, even though over 90 per cent of Palestinians there are governed not by Israel but by the Palestinian Authority. The point of calling Israel an apartheid regime is to suggest that it must go the way of white-led South Africa.
They are among a spate of books dealing with the history of Jewish dissent over Israel and Zionism, including “The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism” by Marjorie N. Feld, and “Unsettled: American Jews and the Movement for Justice in Palestine” by Oren Kroll-Zeldin.
A cold khamsim is blowing across Jewish Studies in academia.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, PEI.
 

Features

Brothers Arnie & Michael Usiskin’s Warkov-Safeer a throwback to days of long ago

Arnie (left) & Michael Usiskin

By MYRON LOVE Step into Warkov-Safeer on Hargrave in the Exchange District and you’ll feel like you’ve walked back in time to an earlier era. The shelves are crammed full of shoe-related accessories – soles, heels, laces, polish, threads, needles, dyes – and other leather-related needs. 
“There used to be a shoemaker on every corner,” says Michael Usiskin, whose family has operated the wholesaler for more than 50 years.  “People used to keep their shoes for years.  They might resole them ten times.  Now you might have five pairs in your closet – different shoes for different occasions, and buy a new pair every year or two.”
Usiskin adds that “there is no place else like us between Toronto and Vancouver.  When we moved here in the 1970s, this area was buzzing with garment workers and sewing machines. This was a hub of activity. It’s a lot quieter now.”
While the Usiskin Family has been connected with the company for 85 years, Michael Usiskin points out that the company – originally catering to the horse trade – was actually founded in 1930 in Winkler by the eponymous Warkov brothers – Jacob, Mendel and Morris – and their brother-in-law, Barney Safeer.  Larry Usiskin, father of Michael and his brother and partner, Arnie, went to work for the company in 1939, four years after the partners moved the business to Winnipeg (to a location at Selkirk and Main).
The late Larry Usiskin and his late wife, Roz, were leaders in Winnipeg’s secular Yiddishist community.  The Usiskin brothers received their elementary schooling at the secular Sholem Aleichem School at the corner of Pritchard and Salter in the old North End.
“Our dad was maybe 16 or 17 when he went to work for Warkov-Safeer in 1939,” Michael Usiskin notes.  “He would do deliveries on his bike to shoe repair shops.”
He never left.
Michael Usiskin relates that, during the war years, the company relocated to larger premises at King and Bannatyne to accommodate a growing demand for its expanding product lines.
Larry Usiskin bought the business in 1969 – with a partner – in 1969.  It was not a given that either Michael or Arnie would join the family endeavour.  Michael was the first of the brothers to come on board. That was in 1984.
Michael had been working for Videon Public Access TV for the previous seven years.  “I was a producer, editor and camera man,” he recalls. 
Among the programs he worked on were Noach Witman’s Jewish television hour and such classics as “Math with Marty”  and Natalie and Ronne Pollock’s show.
“Dad began talking about retirement,” Michael recounts.   “With budget cuts and lay-offs coming to Videon, it was a good time for me to get out and join Dad in business.”
Michael became Warkov-Safeer’s managing partner in 1995 on the senior Usiskin’s retirement.  Arnie joined his brother in partnership in 1998.
“I had been working for CBC for 17 years as a technician,” Arnie relates.  “A confluence of events presented me with the opportunity to go into the family business.”
Although Arnie bought out Michael’s previous partner,  he continued on at CBC for another four years before accepting a buyout. 
“I went from show business into shoe business,” he jokes.
Today, Warkov-Safeer has customers from Ontario to the West Coast. “Things have changed considerably over the years for our business,” Michael notes. “Our shoe market is now solely more expensive brands. And we also supply a lot of leather and leather-related products for hobbyists.”
He reports that a lot of their marketing has long been done by word of mouth.  “We used to go to a fair number of trade shows, but not so much anymore,” he adds.  “We now have a number of sales representatives throughout Western Canada and Ontario.”
“We’re not high tech,” Arnie points out.  “We have a niche market.  What we sell is a form of recycling – allowing people to look after and fix their shoes.  We see a trend developing in this area.”
While Arnie and Michael Usiskin have no plans to retire quite yet,  they do acknowledge though they are not getting any younger and would welcome someone younger to come into the business who might be willing one day to lead Warkov-Safeer into the future. 

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Features

Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni spreading her wings again after being grounded by Covid lockdown

By MYRON LOVE In the spring of 2020, Canadian-Israeli singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni was in the midst of a cross Canada tour. She had started in Vancouver, had a show in Edmonton and stepped off the train in Winnipeg just as the Covid  lockdowns were underway.  Shimoni was essentially stuck In our city, knowing virtually on one.
Four years later, she is still here, having found a supportive community and, while she has resumed touring, she has decided for now to make Winnipeg her home base.
“I really appreciate the artistic scene here,” she says.  “I plan on being away on tour a lot, but I have understanding and rent is affordable.”
Our community also benefits from having such a multi-talented individual such as Shimoni living among us.  Over the past 15 years, the former teacher – with a Masters degree in Theology, has toured worldwide as well as producing 12 albums of original works to date – the most recent being “Winnipeg”, a series of commentaries on her life experiences, wishes and dreams over the past couple of years – which was released last fall.
She has also produced an album of songs for Chanukah.
According to her website, Shimoni expounds on her “truths, her feelings and tells her stories” in venues that include bars, clubs and cafes, coffee houses and folkfests, theatres, back yards, living rooms, and trains.  Her music is described as a potpourri of “bold and raw, soft and tender, witty and humourous,” incorporating  empathy and condemnation, spirituality and whimsy,” and crosses different genres such as blues, folk and country and “speaks to the human condition, the human heart and the times  that we find ourselves in”.
She observes that the inspiration for her songs can come from anywhere, including conversations with others, nature, history, news and her own lived experiences.
In response to the ongoing situation in Israel today, she reports that she is trying to use her music to create positive energy in trying to foster a commonality between people.
In addition to adding to her musical corpus while in Winnipeg these past four years, Shimoni notes that she has used her enforced lockdown downtime to explore other ventures. One of those new areas that she has been focusing on is art.
“I have always had an interest in painting,” she says.  While she hasn’t had an exhibition of her painting yet, she has prints for sale and is available for commissions.
“My last two albums have my paintings as the cover art,” she points out.
Another area that the singer/songwriter has been developing over the past four years is writing and performing personalized songs for special occasions.  “I can bring to birthdays, weddings and memorials personalized songs to mark the occasion,” she notes.  “It is another way that I have diversified what I can offer.”
One project she completed last year – with support from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba – was “singing the songs of our elders” in which she interviewed several Jewish seniors – with the help of Gray Academy students – and told their stories in song. 
Among other performances she has given locally over the past year was a special appearance before a group of Holocaust survivors at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a self-written, one woman show – called “The Wandering Jew” at Tarbut in November and, most recently, a concert last month at Gordie’s Coffee House on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Another new area of exploration for Shimoni is animation.  In an interview with Roots Music Canada last fall, she embarked on an ambitious animation project based on her song “One Voice,” which she wrote a few years ago, and which perfectly reflects the anxiety that many people are feeling in these troubled times.
 Last October, she was back on tour – with renowned American songwriter Dan Bern  – after three years away from the road.  She did two weeks’ worth of concerts in American West Coast states and Colorado  – and. in late January, she began a month-long journey that started with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and stops throughout the Midwest as far as Texas.
She recently returned to Montreal for a show and is currently doing a series of concerts in Germany – with further stops in Belgium, Holland and England.
“It will be good to be back in Europe,” she says.  “I have developed a loyal following in Germany and elsewhere.”
A writer for one publication in Berlin described Shimoni as ‘one of the most interesting singer/songwriters I have met in a long time.”
Here at home, Winnipeg concert promoter Ian Mattey observes that “with each concert, her audience has grown – a testament to the wonderful balance of her lyrical genius, haunting voice and musical talent.”
The singer/songwriter feels grounded – in a good way – in our fair city – and we hope that she will be with us for some time to come.

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Features

A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

By ILANA KURSHAN
The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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