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Jewish Books: The Building Blocks of Jewish Life

Monday, June 06, 2011| Permalink

[Remarks by Deborah Lipstadt at the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature]

A number of years ago I agreed to teach a Jewish Studies course at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, a school which trains ministers for Methodist and AME churches.  The School tries to ensure that every student who graduates from the program will have the opportunity to take at least one course on a topic related to Jewish Studies before they graduate.

Generally the Jewish Studies faculty rotates the teaching of this class.  Each faculty member offers a course based on their own area of specialization: rabbinics, medieval history, modern history, theology, literature and so forth.

That year it was my turn to teach the course.   A few months before the course was to begin the Theology School’s registrar called and asked me to send over the course title and description.  I did.  Shortly thereafter I received a call from the office of the Dean of the school: “Deborah.  Are you sure this is the course you wish to teach?”  “Yes,” I answered. “Is there something wrong?”  “No, not at all.  It’s just not what we expected. We were just checking to make sure we got it right.”

The course I had proposed teaching was “Introduction to Judaism: The Beliefs and Practices of Judaism.”  It was to be a basic introduction to Judaism.  Why then the confusion?  Because I am a professor of Holocaust Studies.  That is the title of my chair and my area of expertise.  The school assumed that I would teach a course in that area.

When we uncovered why the confusion, I said to the Dean: “If your students, who are going to be Christian Ministers are going to take one course in Jewish Studies prior to their ordination it should be about Jew as subject, NOT Jew asobject.  It should be about what Jews do and NOT what was done to Jews.  It should address how Jews lived NOT how they died.  The dean agreed and I proceeded to teach a successful class.

I did not then and do not tonight, in any manner, shape, or form, intend to denigrate the importance of Holocaust studies or Holocaust courses.  I would not have devoted my entire career to the topic if I did not think it was of great scholarly and didactic importance.  I would not have invested years in fighting Holocaust deniers – both inside the courtroom and outside of it – if I did not think study of the topic was crucial.   Moreover, there is much left to be studied and researched.  The next generations of Holocaust survivors are doing exciting and important work.   I encourage young scholars to work in this field.

But tonight I come before you with a different message.  Even as we continue vigorous research and investigation of the Holocaust, we as a community must maintain our vigilance against the possibility of transmitting to younger generations of Jews the message that the thing which binds us, what is distinctive about our culture and our history, is what was done to us.

If the main thing the next generations know about Jewish history is that we were persecuted and suffered, they will lose sight of the tremendous heritage of Jewish culture, theology, and wisdom.  There is the danger that they will assume that what distinguishes us is the attempts by others, those who cannot abide our existence, to destroy us.

Long ago the revered scholar of Jewish history, Columbia Professor Salo W. Baron, who was the first person to occupy a chair in Jewish history at a distinguished American university, warned against succumbing to a lachrymose view of Jewish history.

Baron worried that people would glean the impression that the Jewish experience was naught but a string of persecutions, expulsion, pogroms, and other forms of devastations.  [There is contemporary and far less vigorous version of this theory.  It is entailed in the oft-repeated joke: “What is a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us. We survived.  Now let’s eat.”]

There were great devastations in Jewish history and Baron did not shy away from studying them.  But he wanted to shine a spotlight on the tremendous bursts of Jewish creativity: poetry, literature, learning, self-rule, and commentaries which marked our history.

So too, let us for just a moment shine a spotlight on contemporary bursts of Jewish creativity.  There is too little time to review all of them so let me just mention institutions and developments which have crossed my email transom in the past week: new Jewish music, Zamir Choral, contemporary Jewish art, the Center for Jewish History, the rejuvenation of Hillel on campus, the proliferation of Chabad houses, Limmud worldwide, and last, but far from least, the hundreds of thousands of students – Jews and non-Jews – who have taken course in Jewish studies on a myriad of different topics.

For these wonderful accomplishments to be overshadowed by the actions of anti-Semites would only compound the tragedy wrought by them. A creative, thoughtful, and accomplished people such as the Jewish people should be known by what they have done and not by what has been done to them.

Fifty years ago there was a vigorous debate in Israel about what should be done to Adolf Eichmann if he were to be found guilty.  Some people were adamant that he should be hung.  Others wanted his death sentence to be commuted. Yet others suggested that, irrespective of whether he was hung or forced to live the rest of his life in jail, he be taken on a sightseeing trip through the length and breadth of the State of Israel.  Let him have to see what we have built. Let him see our kibbutzim and moshavim and our cities built where none existed before.  Let him visit our coffee houses where vigorous debate and discussion goes on continuously.  But above all, take him to our libraries, universities, and theatres.  Take him to the Israeli Philharmonic.  Make him stand in the middle of the campus of the Hebrew University watching students rushing to their classes.  Let him visit the laboratories and the seminar rooms.  Do all this not to change his mind about Jews or to rid him of his anti-Semitism, nothing will do that.  Do it to demonstrate to him that: Mir Zaynen do, we, indeed, are here.  Despite your best efforts to destroy us we survived.  But we have done more than just that: WE THRIVE.

We thrive not, davka l’hachi’is, not just to show the anti-Semites that they cannot destroy us.  We thrive as a people and we thrive as a culture because that is in the Jewish communal DNA.  We create.  We innovate.  We take the old and make it new.  We take the new and infuse it with the best of the old.  That is what, I would argue, Jews mean when, upon returning the Torah to the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark, during services they say: “Hadesh yameynu kekedem. Renew our days as days of yore.”  Not return us to the past but take the best of the past and let it help shape the new.

And that is what we are doing here tonight.   We are here to celebrate Jewish creativity and culture in the form of the Jewish book.  And how appropriate it is that we do so on the eve ofShavuot, a Jewish holiday which celebrates the giving of THE Book.   It is that book that instructs us, even as we remember how others tried to destroy us, “Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek, Remember what Amalek did to you when you were leaving Egypt, how they attacked you on your way”, also reminds us u’vah’rta ba-chayim, to ultimately “choose life.”  It is that book that teaches us “v’samahta b’hagecha, v’hayita ach sameach.”  “You should rejoice on your holidays and you should be very happy.”

One of the ways in which we choose life, one of the ways in which we show our embrace of life  is by writing, publishing, reading, and celebrating Jewish books.

So tonight let us celebrate the authors who have written a new crop of Jewish books.

Let us celebrate the publishers who publish them.

And let us celebrate the readers, who buy them in print, download them electronically, take them out of the library, and, above all, read them.

Let us also celebrate a family that so treasures Jewish books that it has created this magnificent prize.

Though we are still one week from Shavuot, let us not just celebrate tonight but let us be ach sameach, very very happy indeed.

Thank you very much.

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, The Eichmann Trial is now available.

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