With the possible exception of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, the Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies are the most high-profile “Jewish” event in Seattle’s cultural calendar.
But I fear that, after a run of 34 years, they may be in trouble. The problem is neither a lack of qualified lecturers nor a lack of interest on the part of the community. No, the problem, really, is the growing abyss between the reality of Jewish Studies and the expectations of the Jewish communities that support its work.
Jewish Studies is no longer the Jewish Starship Enterprise, “going boldly where no Jew has gone before.” At the University of Washington, as in many other places, Jewish Studies has won its victory in the Academy, and is now recognized as an integral field of study routinely consulted across the various social scientific and humanistic disciplines.
One result of this success is that the primary audience for Jewish Studies is no longer the Jewish community, but academics in various fields hoping to illumine their own research questions with insights drawn from the study of the Jews.
But this victory in capturing the academic audience has come at the expense of another — the audience of the Jewish community, whose local support and sponsorship over many decades has enabled academic Jewish Studies to command the international academic platform it currently enjoys. Jewish communities invest in events such as the Stroum Lectures for a basic return: Intellectual stimulation, new perspectives into Jewish thought and history, and perhaps, above all, some insights into the evolving relationship of Jews to the world in which they must plan their personal and communal futures.
Too often, it seems, they leave disappointed.
This gap between reality and expectation resurfaced this past May in the Stroum Lectures offered by Prof. Yael Zerubavel, a prominent pioneer of “Israeli Cultural-Historical Studies,” who currently teaches at Rutgers. Her announced title, “Encounters with the Past: Remembering the ‘Bygone’ in Israeli culture,” drew an opening night crowd that packed Kane 220 to the rafters.
That evening’s lecture, “Bridges to Antiquity,” explored the ways pre-1948 Zionist settlers and post-1948 Israelis of the state’s first generation mined ancient Jewish history for values and cultural models to support the Zionist revolution that created and sustained the new Jewish State.
Ever wonder why Israelis are traditionally crazy about archeology? Well, Prof. Zerubavel had some surprising and provocative answers rooted in Israel’s need, as a “nation in formation,” for a “usable past.”
Despite her lecture’s excellence as an exposition of its topic, it was by most accounts a popular flop. Judging from comments offered to several faculty members, the problem was not what Prof. Zerubavel had to say.
The problem appears to have been her delivery — reading out a prepared text dotted with a few too many unexplained technical terms. This would have been a perfectly acceptable presentation at, say, an Association of Jewish Studies conference. But in the Stroum context, it came off to many as “boring” and “pitched too high.”
Naturally, the packed house of the first lecture dwindled, on the evening of the second, to a fraction of its former size. And the third lecture, victimized as well by an enormous traffic snafu that tied up the commute from Bellevue, drew an even smaller collection of witnesses.
Too bad! For Prof. Zerubavel’s second and third lectures were everything the first was not.
In rounds two and three, Prof. Zerubavel came out of her corner right at the bell. With her text firmly planted on the podium, she proceeded to charm the pitifully small crowds with witty, insightful, and mostly extemporaneous reflections on how the collective memory of contemporary Israeli society is built up of layered, nostalgia-tinged images of the distant past of the Jewish people in exile, and of the early decades of Israeli statehood.
The overall message? The important history we carry around in us is not necessarily what really happened; rather, it is the way we remember what happened. More importantly: The way Israelis remember their past today have enormous consequences for the future of all of klal Yisrael!
Prof. Zerubavel’s tours through the cultural memory of contemporary Israel included stops rarely available to American Jewish tourists. We are familiar, of course, with such stunning sites as Masada and the settlement at Qumran. But who knew, for example, of the plans to create an “authentic shtetl” theme park in, of all places, Rishon Letzion, where families can “return to the past to re-experience the intimate folk culture of the Pale of Settlement?”
What? Israeli popular culture is so over romantic Zionism that the shtetl is looking good? The professor didn’t disclose who’d play the role of the pogromchiks, but one can guess!
In short, those hardy souls who made it to lectures two and three were offered a wrenching entry into the contemporary Israeli heart and soul often ignored by friends and foes alike, whose interest in Israel is confined to her instrumental role in American foreign policy or shaped by formulas regarding Israel’s responsibility for peace-making in the Middle East.
So the real tragedy of this year’s lectures is that a remarkable contribution by a fine scholar will be lost to communal memory. When Prof. Zerubavel’s book-length version of the lectures comes out, it will be designed for the attention of scholars. But the Seattle Jewish community will not have benefited as all of us believe it should have.
Things are hardly too far gone to be turned around. But neither can they be neglected! My faculty colleagues and I promise to hold up our end, by stressing to our Stroum lecturers the importance of speaking to a popular audience; but we need all of you, the Jewish community of Seattle and beyond, to hold up yours, by favoring our guest scholars with every bit of your attention!