The Modern Jew

Course Overview

“The Modern Jew” is the core course for a series of  courses on secular Judaism offered in conjunction with a grant from the Center for Cultural Judaism (Posen Foundation). This course offers an inter-disciplinary approach to the study of the modern Jewish experience, an experience rich in revolutionary changes, social, political, and cultural transformations, geographic displacement and burgeoning opportunity to which Jews responded in a variety of ways, informed by the rich and variegated backgrounds of Jewish culture, but also in critical engagement with tradition. The “modern Jew” is not a single type but a plurality of types, ranging from the religious to the atheistic and from the proudly affirmative to the self-hating Jew, described by Theodor Lessing. Of particular interest to us are modern secular forms of Jewish self-formation and expression.

Guiding Questions and Approach

We begin our course by a look at the current moments, by way of a survey of periodicals and online sources that report on Jewish life from a wide variety of perspectives.  What key issues define Jewish life today? How is the present different from the past? What are the most pressing issues now facing the Jewish communities in the US, in Israel, and in Europe?

Keeping this picture in mind, we will proceed to examine the conditions of modern Jewish life from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries by way of historical documents and testimonies, literary and philosophical texts, films, and secondary sources.  Units II and III examine the central issues in twentieth-century America and Israel. Units IV and V go back in time to the age of Enlightenment and emancipation in order trace the Jewish quest to become full-fledged citizens of European society.  Units VI and VII return to the present to examine two aspects of modern culture where Jews have played a key role: the domains of learning and scholarship, and the entertainment industry.

Our inquiry is not primarily historicist in nature, but rather, it is designed to help us to understand how the past shapes the present.  Are the responses and initiatives of modern Jewish history—cultural, religious, educational, political, social—still viable options today? Lastly, can the modern Jewish experience be used as a paradigm for other groups struggling with questions of secularism, gender, integration (minority status), and post-colonialism?

Additionally, through creative assignments, co-curricular events, and interviews (qualitative research), students will have an opportunity to relate to the subject matter in an immediate and personal way.