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Sample Abstracts

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Session Proposals

Below are conference abstracts submitted by AJS members for past AJS Conferences.

Session Type: Roundtable
Title: Histories of Jewish Prostitution
Submitter: Mir Yarfitz, Wake Forest University / Anna Hájková, University of Warwick

Abstract: Over the past forty years, gender history has had a profound impact on Jewish studies. But while the history of prostitution has become an important branch of gender and women’s history, Jewish historians have paid relatively little attention to sex work. Due perhaps in part to fears of antisemitic backlash or of challenges to respectability narratives, the roles of Jews as sex workers and facilitators of sex work have been explored only in limited contexts. For example, studies of Jewish participation in transnational sex migration, and sex work as a resource for victims during the Nazi persecution, have generally remained peripheral to the field of Jewish studies. Our roundtable seeks to bring together new developments in interdisciplinary fields of study including prostitution, transnational migration, the Holocaust, and Yiddish culture. Participants’ expertise bridges Europe and the Americas, focusing on the late nineteenth- through mid-twentieth centuries and interpretive tools range from performance studies to demographic analysis and digital mapping. All of our work seeks to complicate questions of agency and consent, moving beyond victim-trafficker binaries into the complicated negotiations required for survival in such restricted life circumstances as those created by mass migration, ghettos, and concentration camps.

This roundtable will address questions such as:

What are the specific ethical considerations in writing about Jewish prostitution history? Is sex work inherently exploitative? Does it matter whether people selling sex only do so due to change and crisis? How can the history of prostitution help us connect Jewish history with the wider context of modern global history? How does the broader field of migration studies change our understanding of Jewish mobility and labor? How can we speak meaningfully of women’s (and men’s) agency in the context of coercive and limiting situations, such as in transnational migration or the Holocaust?


Session Type: Roundtable
Title: Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Jewish Languages
Submitter: Renee Perelmutter, University of Kansas

Abstract: This roundtable will consider issues surrounding Hebrew and Aramaic elements in Jewish languages such as Jewish English, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino, and others. In the field’s early debates on what defines a Jewish language variety, Hebrew and Aramaic elements were important variables, especially orthography (Weinreich 1980) and lexical elements (Fishman 1981). More recently, the concept of Hebreotropism (Masson 2003) considered the extent to which a particular Jewish language has been influenced by Hebrew, and a research agenda for comparative analysis of Jewish languages included several questions about Hebrew/Aramaic influences (Benor and Hary 2018). Using these theoretical foundations, this roundtable will begin conversations about how to further advance comparative scholarship on Jewish languages. Some questions we will consider include:

How do recent theoretical and empirical approaches (e.g., the shift from language to community; studies of contemporary speech communities, including those in Israel) nuance our understanding of the role of Hebrew/Aramaic elements in JLs? What can we learn from studying influences of Israeli Hebrew upon JLs which already incorporated Hebrew elements? How can considerations of variation in individual and communal linguistic repertoires vis-a-vis Hebrew/Aramaic lexicons nuance our understanding of Jewish language varieties? The roundtable will end with a theoretical and practical conversation about the prospect of a (relatively) comprehensive database of Hebrew/Aramaic words in Jewish languages: How would it be structured? What kinds of comparative analysis would it enable? What work needs to be done to make it a reality?


Session Type: Panel
Title: Jewish Refugees and the Imperial Order
Submitter: Pragya Kaul, University of Michigan

Abstract: The experiences of Jewish refugees have provided a fruitful avenue for scholars to study the transnational dimensions of the Holocaust. This research, however, has centered largely on refugees’ interactions with the nation-state, a focus which obscures the world of empires that refugees had knowledge of and encountered. These imperial underpinnings not only shaped how states administered refugees, but how they experienced their points of asylum as well. This panel looks to imperial approaches to understanding the refugee experience in order to re-think the nation-state paradigm in Holocaust scholarship more broadly. Highlighting the lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, British India, and Mauritius, the papers in this panel will demonstrate how imperial contexts shaped the experiences and administration of refugees, and consequently, our understandings of the global dimensions of Holocaust Jewish refugee migration. Refugees, these papers will show, not only participated in their classification by states, but also mediated between colonizer and colonized, situationally identified with different racial groups, and marked out their foreignness in colonized lands.


Session Type: Panel
Title: Jewish Converts and Conversion in Antiquity
Submitter: Yael Wilfand, Bar Ilan University

Abstract: This session considers the treatment of converts and conversion in Jewish sources, applying a diachronic analysis from Qumran to late rabbinic literature. Each presentation will focus on the standing of converts and their integration within Israel. By investigating texts from various origins, periods, and genres (rabbinic, sectarian, halakhic, midrashic, and others), we aim to trace change and continuity in Jewish perceptions of conversion over time as well as contrasting views regarding the acceptance of proselytes during a given period (sometimes appearing in the same source). The questions that we examine will include: What practices enable an individual to convert and when did such mechanisms become standardized for specific groups? How did the status of proselytes and long-standing Jews differ? Were the offspring of converts considered equal to other Jews? Where dissimilarities exist, were they influenced by the convert’s gender? Which models do these varied sources use to explain and regulate the position of converts within Israel? Given that conversion enables individuals to cross religious and ethnic boundaries, this query would offer an opportunity to further examine the self-reflection of the community which is accepting or rejecting these newcomers. Moreover, when determining proselytes’ status within Israel, these sources may expose the role of lineage in Jewish society. To assess the broader contexts for Jewish discourse on conversion, non-Jewish cultural influences will also be considered. While this session will mainly be dedicated to literary evidence, when possible, we will look at how these texts might inform our knowledge of practices and attitudes held by Jews – whether a certain group or more widely– in Antiquity and Late Antiquity.


Session Type: Seminar
Title: Present Pasts: New Approaches to Memory in Modern Jewish Literature and Art
Submitter: Simone Stirner, Vanderbilt University / Danny Luzon, University of Haifa

Abstract: This seminar explores “present pasts” in modern Jewish literature and art, focusing on the question of what role the past can play in envisioning cultural and linguistic futures. Against traditional notions of temporal linearity on the one hand, and figures of traumatic return on the other, this seminar considers the ways in which the past becomes a critical, political, and ethical resource to reshape the present. We want to use the collaborative space of a seminar to work through a variety of individual case studies of “present pasts”: From Grace Paley’s stories that turn to the Yiddish theater in order to break with a linear determinism of history and gender alike, to the way modern Hebrew authors engage with the tropes of memory and forgetfulness to formulate their ideas on the future of Diasporic Jewish languages. At the same time, we will also seek answers to broader theoretical and aesthetic questions: What shape do non-linear, anachronistic, or disruptive temporalities take in narrative, artistic, or poetic works? What non-traditional models of inheritance do texts and artifacts that are passed on between generations provide us with? How might Jewish ideas of non-linear temporality converse with Indigenous notions of time? And to what extent are modern literary entanglements of past and present indebted to Jewish culture and thought? Among the topics we address are figures of literary ancestors and elder kin, decolonial approaches to temporality, anachronistic and nonlinear forms of narration, queer temporalities, and--more generally--new approaches in memory studies.

Chair: Simone Stirner, Vanderbilt University

Danny Luzon, Haifa University
Danny Luzon’s paper, “Grace Paley’s Accent,” studies Paley’s dialogue with the Yiddish theater’s playful reworkings of Shakespeare, suggesting that Paley stubbornly lingers on a decayed theatrical tradition in her English writing, in order to resist assimilationist language hierarchies, as well as the linear determinism of orderly history.

Rafael Balling, Stanford University
Rafael Balling’s paper “The Body That Is. Embodiment, Perception, and Persistence in Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl der yeshive bokher“ (1963)” focuses on the short story’s engagement with the protagonist's non-normative gender. It argues that by privileging Anshl’s self-perception, the story can be reclaimed as what we today call a trans narrative, revealing the protagonist as a trans elder of sorts, that is, a figure of identification for the trans community.

Sheer Ganor, German Historical Institute West/University of Minnesota
Sheer Ganor’s paper “Objects of Remembrance: Artifacts of the German-Jewish Displacement” examines how objects that travelled with displaced persons transitioned from objects of the everyday to artifacts of historical significance. Tracing the path of these possessions from the home environment to the museum vitrine display, this paper probes the relationship between a culture rooted in lived reality and one rooted in memorialization.

Roni Henig, New York University
Roni Henig’s paper "Linguistic Horizons and National Temporality in Modern Hebrew Literature" examines texts by Ahad Ha'am and M.Y. Berdichevsky, which engage with memory and forgetfulness as creative mechanisms in their formulation of the future of Jewish languages, as well as in the way they imagine the future addressee of Hebrew literature.

Gilad Shiram, Stanford University
Gilad Shiram’s paper focuses on the etchings of Gisèle Celan Lestrange in the bibliophilic edition of Paul Celan’s cycle of poems “Breath-Crystal." Comparing the different temporalities that emerge from the poems and the etchings, it explores the tensions between poetry and other artforms as instruments of memory and testimony.

Anna Elena Torres, University of Chicago
Anna Torres’s paper examines decolonial approaches to temporality and conversations between Jewish Studies and Indigenous Studies through readings of Mark Rifkin's "Beyond Settler Time" and "Indigenizing Agamben.”

Meyer Weinshel, University of Minnesota
Meyer Weinshel’s paper “Selective Memory: Postwar Yiddish Anthologies from 'Another Germany’” addresses the continuing role postwar Yiddish anthologies play (as fragmentary assemblages of texts) in (un)shaping German/Jewish memory today.

Sara Stoll, LMU Munich
Sarah Stoll’s paper on Paul Celan examines his poetic strategy of “occupiability,” an abstract-linguistic mode of pulling the past into the present in form of entangled reenactments, asking in particular how the anachronistic appearances of temporalities change Celan’s reader’s perception of time and history.


Session Type: Seminar
Title: Reading the Talmud as Ethical Prompt
Submitter: Deborah Barer, Towson University

Abstract: This seminar bring together scholars who use a range of contemporary and critical lenses to explore Talmudic passages with an eye towards thinking with those passages about modern moral issues. Each participant will offer a reading of the one sugya that they find most essential to cultivating heightened moral sensitivities in students today, and that they think contributes a distinctive way of thinking about ethical issues from a rabbinic perspective. Each presentation will include a discussion of the sugya (highlighting key points, structural elements, and exegetical moments) as well as broader reflections about why this sugya is significant and the ethical work it does (or might be able to do).

Aryeh Cohen's paper will explore the figure of R. Akiva and an etiology of non-violent resistance in b. Berakhot 61b.

Beth Berkowitz's paper will explore a series of questions about gender, animality, and authority raised in b. Hullin 109b-100b.

Jonathan Schofer's paper will examine how b. Megillah 30b-32a generates ethical significance from the mishnah that establishes the Pentateuchal verses to be read on named days or events, such as Hanukkah, Purim, New Moons, fasts, and more.

Rebecca Epstein-Levi's paper will examine a series of stories in b. Berakhot 30b-32a, focusing on how the structure and grouping of these narratives highlights specific moral considerations.

Alex Weisberg's paper will explore the implications of trees having affect and emotion in p. Shevi'it 4:4, 35b.

Elisha Ancselovits' paper will propose a way of reading the stamma as a phronetic guide that teaches the wisdom required of local judges.

Charlotte Fonrobert's paper will discuss the narrative about Yalta's wrath in b. Berakhot 51b in light of its placement at the end of the talmudic chapter on the institutional intersection of domestic space and talmudic learning (the table fellowship in the domestic context) and will consider anger as a virtue.

Chaya Halberstam's paper will draw on feminist and new materialist theory to explore the story of the negligent porters in b. Bava Metzia 83a and its implications for interpersonal relationships, social institutions and the (co)construction of the subject.


Session Type: Lightning Session
Title: Yiddish Texts and/within the Digital Commons
Submitter: Eitan Kensky, Stanford University

Abstract: This panel critically introduces several recent or forthcoming digital Yiddish projects. Panelists will describe and analyze recent or emerging projects, but with the conceptual emphasis placed on the question - What comes next? With documents, books, posters, and other textual artifacts scattered across institutions, what kinds of collaborations must be imagined in order to build frictionless spaces for scholarship? In looking prospectively, the panelists will engage with the politics of knowledge production, and debate the conceptual framework GLAM - Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums. Can the edges of this relationship be meaningfully exploited, or is its primary utility clarifying that the study of cultural heritage is distributed? If so, how does it stand in relation to “scholarship” as traditionally conceived?

Two papers evaluate formal archival collections. Lyudmila Sholokhova offers an appraisal of the digitization of materials from An-Sky’s and Beregovsky’s expeditions in Ukraine. The presentation will discuss the nature and structure of the collection, digitization, and ongoing questions of access. By contrast, Eitan Kensky interrogates a modern, born-digital collection. In “Tsili: Or Field Notes from the Archive of Post-Vernacular Yiddish Filmmaking,” Kensky introduces Amos Gitai’s 2014 film Tsili, its complex archival legacy, and the broader politics of “The Amos Gitai Archive.” This emerging project, and ongoing international collaboration, he argues, raises critical questions of cultural heritage and transmission.

The second set of papers discuss “new” technological approaches to Yiddish texts. In 2019, The Yiddish Book Center publicly released Full-Text Search. The Yiddish Book Center partnered with Assaf Urielli on an OCR application that uses machine learning to improve its analysis over time. The presentation will discuss the challenges encountered in the process, as well as share unexpected discoveries. Finally, in “Linked Open Data: A Yiddish Trial,” Heidi Lerner explains how a discrete collection of 85-90 Israeli Yiddish theater posters afforded an opportunity to experiment with semantic web technologies. Describing the individual posters using Linked Open Data will theoretically help researchers and institutions understand and visualize the relationships nested within the posters, the data of actors, authors, theaters, singers and other stage personnel; and more broadly the history of Yiddish theater.