A rich and storied history

Beth Wenger, director of the Jewish Studies ProgramPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Beth S. Wenger, director of the Jewish Studies Program, calls her entry into the field an “evolution.”

She was a history major throughout college and found herself gravitating towards the study of Jewish history. If assigned a research paper, she would often write about a Jewish topic. Her interest piqued over the years, Jewish history became her passion and remains so today.

Before receiving her Ph.D. from Yale, Wenger received a master’s degree in American history from Columbia and a second master’s in Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Both schools are in New York City, and Wenger attended them simultaneously. She says she enjoyed “walking up the street from one institution to the other, being immersed in Jewish history in one place and in American history in the other.”

Wenger finds most fascinating the era of history during which Jews have had an array of choices about whether, and how, to be Jewish. “The modern period is characterized by the emergence of choice, and nowhere more dramatically than in the United States,” she says. “The openness of American society has produced, in my opinion, the most unique, innovative and diverse culture that Jews have ever known.”

Also an associate professor of history, Wenger is a nationally recognized expert on Jews in the United States. She is the author of “The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America,” a companion volume to the PBS documentary series of the same name, on which Wenger served as a historical consultant.

At Penn, the Jewish Studies Program encompasses the diverse dimensions of the Jewish experience, reaching from Moses to modern day. “We go from the Bible and ancient Jewish cultures, to medieval history, to modern Europe, and to Israeli and American culture,” Wenger says.

The Current recently sat down with Wenger to discuss the field of Jewish studies, how the Holocaust became the Holocaust, black-Jewish relations and the prospects for Middle East peace.

Q. Jews have been on Earth for more than 5,000 years. How do you break down such a rich and storied history into four years or eight semesters?
A.
Well, you can’t fully cover more than 5,000 years of Jewish history in four years of college. But our major in Jewish studies provides both chronological and disciplinary breadth so that students graduate with a strong grounding in the diverse expressions of Jewish culture in different times and places. Students who major in Jewish studies always study Jewish history in different periods—ancient, medieval and modern—and they take courses in Jewish literature from all those periods. When I say literature, I’m speaking broadly. In other words, we teach Bible and Talmud as Jewish literature, alongside medieval Hebrew poetry, modern Hebrew literature and American Jewish literature. Our students also have the chance to study Jewish culture in all its varieties—from Jewish mysticism to Jewish humor, from Jewish thought to Jewish languages to Jewish films. So while Jewish studies majors won’t know ‘everything’ from the Biblical period to the present, they will have broad exposure to Jewish history, literature, language, religion and culture.

Q. Is it possible to teach about the Jewish people and religion separately or are the religion and people so intertwined that they cannot be separated?
A.
Particularly in the modern period, the Jewish experience is characterized by strong secular movements such as Zionism, socialism and many other cultural expressions. But, that being said, even secular Jewish culture exists in a dialectical relationship with religious culture … they are part of an organic whole. Still, while I don’t think you can ever completely excise the religious aspects of Jewish culture, it is important to recognize that Jewish politics and culture cannot be confined solely to the realm of religion. At the same time, even the most ardently secular modern Jewish writers and political figures filled their rhetoric with Biblical references and religious allusions, so that the religious and the secular remain intertwined.

Q. Is it any easier, or is there any difference in teaching Jewish studies at a university where roughly 25 percent of the students are Jewish?
A.
There’s clearly some difference in the sense that there are many students who come from Jewish backgrounds and have some knowledge about Jewish history and culture. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that it completely alters the classroom experience, at least not in the sorts of subjects that I teach. You might have a student who graduated from a Jewish day school, but he or she may never have encountered the kinds of subjects we teach at Penn or the way we approach those subjects. For example, I often teach courses in Holocaust memory and American Jewish history, and these subjects are rarely taught in Jewish schools. So students who graduate from Jewish high schools do not necessarily have a greater advantage. My colleagues who teach in other areas would probably argue with me somewhat, since, for example, students who can read Hebrew have the opportunity to take courses in the original language. In my case, there are many terms from other languages that must be defined, but I always define them for everyone in the class. I would imagine the same is true for my colleagues who teach Chinese history. Almost every semester, somebody will come up to me and say, ‘I’m Jewish but I really don’t have much background’ or ‘I’m not Jewish and don’t know anything about Jewish history. Will I be comfortable here?’ They’re nervous about it, but if they take the class, they usually become much more than comfortable; they bring unique perspectives to the class. The bottom line is that because this is a university, we expect to have students from a variety of backgrounds, religions and nationalities in our classes, and that’s as it should be.

Q. What kind of information do you discuss in your class ‘Rereading the Holocaust?’ How was it codified into a distinct episode in history?
A.
On the first day of class, I tell students that this course is about how the Holocaust became the Holocaust. In 1945, immediately after the war, the term ‘Holocaust’ had not yet been associated with the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews. Like any other event in history, the Holocaust became understood as a discreet historical event only as it was narrated, written about and interpreted. So while today most people have a basic understanding of what the term ‘Holocaust’ means, this wasn’t the case in the beginning.
In this course, we begin immediately after the war, at a time when those Jews who had survived were living in displaced-persons camps. We read memorial books, the first responses to the Holocaust, written in Yiddish by survivors. We read them in translation. We then proceed chronologically—from the Nuremberg Trials, to key and unexpectedly complicated texts such as ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night,’ to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, all the way through contemporary Holocaust monuments, to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, [D.C.], to present day reflections on Holocaust memory. We also focus on the ways that the Holocaust has been understood differently in various national contexts, because the Holocaust means something different in Germany, in Poland and in Israel, than it does in the United States. Students get a sense of the ways that the Holocaust has taken shape over the relatively brief period since 1945. This is a seminar so there’s a lot of discussion and debate because we treat Holocaust memory as a complex issue, not given to simple explanations.

Q. The PBS documentary ‘The Jewish Americans’ touched on the breakdown in black-Jewish relations over the past half-century. What do you think are the causes of the downslide and can the relationship be restored?
A.
Newer scholarship has actually pointed to the fact that the black-Jewish alliance was always more tenuous than it has been portrayed. There was a mutual interest and concern, but this so-called alliance may have been more precarious from the outset, which helps to understand the so-called breakdown as something not quite so unexpected.
The fact is that Jews passionately fought for civil rights in the United States. Jews gained opportunity in this country because of the expansion of rights and the gradual diminution of discrimination. They fought against a host of legal barriers—job discriminations that allowed employers to advertise positions for ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Gentiles Only,’ and housing discrimination, and educational quotas that frankly excluded both Jews and blacks. But the barriers for Jews fell much more quickly than for African Americans, as Jews gradually became defined as ‘Caucasian’ and found a greater degree of acceptance.
Jews were involved in the founding of the NAACP and displayed a serious, passionate, dedicated commitment to fighting for civil rights. Jews championed the universal goal of equal rights, but they may have been naïve in not recognizing the pervasive power of race in American society. I think that Jews genuinely believed that the doors that they knocked down for themselves could be knocked down for blacks in this country. But we know that racism is the original sin of this nation and racial equality proved to be far more difficult to achieve. It was, in fact, not the same battle that Jews had fought for their own rights. Still, it is worth noting that Jews were indeed disproportionately represented in the Civil Rights Movement. There is a reason why so many young Jews took part in the Freedom Summer and marched at Selma [Ala.]. All those Jewish organizations that committed their energies to the struggle did so largely because they believed that the campaign for civil rights was a Jewish issue.
Also, it’s important to recognize what was happening within the African-American community. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, more and more African Americans wanted to direct their movement by themselves, and not with whites—in the case of the Black Power Movement in particular, but even in other strands of the movement. That sentiment likely weakened the so-called black-Jewish alliance. At the same time, events in Israel also played a role because as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became more contentious, issues abroad also factored into domestic relationships between blacks and Jews. This is a very complicated story with more than one simple explanation.

Q. In an ideal world, how would you like to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue resolved? Do you think it is resolvable?
A.
I like to think that every problem has some solution and believe that we can find one here. I hope so. Admittedly, the current prospects seem bleaker today than they did a few years ago. When I teach about the creation of Israel in my survey of modern Jewish history, I always include those who advocated a bi-national state. When the state was being founded, some prominent Jewish leaders argued for bi-nationalism, but the idea never gained widespread support. Still, at the moment of Israel’s creation, there were some Zionists who actually advocated not a two-state solution but a single, bi-national state. I always look at that as one example of a road not taken. My own belief is that [a bi-national state], at this moment in history, could not work. I do think a two-state solution could succeed if committed leaders on both sides of the conflict would be willing to work for a lasting peace. That’s my hope.

Q. Do you have any outside hobbies that are non-academic?
A.
I spent much of my high school and college years playing guitar with friends, though musical pursuits have taken a back seat to other things these days. My students are often surprised to learn that I am an avid sports fan and can speak almost as knowledgeably about sports as I can about Jewish history.

Originally published on January 7, 2010