Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professor Edward Bristow

This year, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies is celebrating its fifth anniversary.  But before the formal founding of the CJS, many professors, students, librarians, and others taught, studied, and cultivated the study of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history and culture at Fordham.  This blog series features interviews with some of these people and celebrates their lasting contributions to the university.  

This interview features Professor Edward Bristow, Professor of History at Fordham, previous Dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, and Founder of the Fordham-Alvin Ailey BFA Program in Dance as well as the Annual Nostra Aetate Dialogue on Catholic-Jewish Relations.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?

I came to the then “College at Lincoln Center” in 1986 as associate dean after training at Yale, teaching in England for a wonderful decade, and turning to administration. Back in New York, grantmaking at the New York Council for the Humanities was enjoyable and instructive, and working in the ambitious central administration at NYU prepared me for anything that might  follow in university life. My first books were in British political and social history. Later I found my way to academic subjects of Jewish interest, a focus that was encouraged by the post-Vatican 2 philosemitic culture of a Jesuit university.

You joined the Fordham faculty many years ago.  What was Fordham like at that time and how has it changed since then?

Fordham was a far less complex institution in the 1980’s. It was not nearly as heavily administered nor as multifunctional as it is now. It was not unusual for administrators to have little to do in summer. My two predecessors as dean disappeared for much of the summer, leaving me to run the college. When I became dean in 1991 the college remained intergenerational, with easy crossover between day and evening sessions, and without a residence hall. We housed residential students at The Hotel Lucerne on 79th Street, later devoted to the homeless, or at any other facility that we could turn up. McMahon Hall opened on my watch. The college was organized on a divisional rather than a departmental basis, which encouraged interdisciplinary teaching and colleagueship across fields. The dean had considerable autonomy and was responsible for a range of campus programs, including HEOP [Fordham’s Higher Education Opportunity Program], College at Sixty, and ESL [English as a Second Language], which we planned and initiated. For a time we ran evening admissions and struggled to stabilize the shrinking size of our nontraditional student intake. We went so far as to advertise on WFAN radio, not a popular move with the administration, though now Fordham advertises on New York Giants radio broadcasts.

Fordham was not yet focused on developing our arts curriculum. Theatre was in place but suffered as it still does from inadequate performance space. Music instruction barely existed. At the last minute I had to find money from discretionary funds for providing a critical window in a new arts studio which had somehow been left out of the architect’s plan. Otherwise there would have been no natural light for painting.  With no funds centrally available, we also paid for the portable banked seating in the auditorium which is still in use, as well as for the first white-box rehearsal space, built on the sly with the help of a sympathetic Lincoln Center administrator. Our primary initiative was the collaborative BFA dance program with the Ailey School, launched in 1998 following several years of planning.

In the 1990’s, the central administration decided to restructure undergraduate education, placing the day and evening sessions in separate schools, repurposing the new Fordham College at Lincoln Center as a largely residential day college for traditional students, and uniting the two college faculties in bi-campus departments. This enabled a range of important academic enhancements, and was necessary to permit us to compete successfully in the admissions marketplace.

Edward Bristow as Dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center

When you were Dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center in the 1990s, you initiated an annual interfaith dialogue, which eventually came to be published as a book titled No Religion Is An Island: The Nostra Aetate Dialogues.  What inspired you to begin Catholic-Jewish dialogue on campus, and what did you learn through that experience?  

I recall the moment when the Nostra Aetate Dialogues came to mind. It was at Elie Wiesel’s honorary Fordham degree ceremony at Rose Hill.  Wiesel observed that Fordham would never have invited his father to such an event, and that his father would never have accepted. His comment encapsulated how Nostra Aetate marked an unparalleled religious transformation. Times had changed, good interfaith relations were palpable, and interreligious dialogue was developing across the country. I approached the late president, Fr. Joseph A. O’Hare, who eagerly encouraged me to develop the program.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, Arnold Eisen (seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary), and Edward Bristow speak at the Nostra Aetate Dialogue in November 2009

Is there a particular conversation or moment from the dialogues you hosted that stands out in your memory?

Several moments from the dialogues are especially memorable. We promoted the programs widely and aggressively, always essential in New York with its broad public offerings. When we entered the Law School auditorium for the inaugural program in 1993 on “The Jewishness of Jesus,” there were scores of people sitting in aisles, with hundreds more unable to gain admission. This was far more pleasing than Cardinal O’Connor’s entrance to the Pope auditorium a few years later, where he could barely reach the stage and had to climb over scenery set up for a theatrical production.

​​Our dialogue in 2000 concerned the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, a controversy that was raging at the time. An international commission of six distinguished Catholic and Jewish scholars was studying the subject and was about to break up in recrimination.  We invited Fr. Gerald Fogarty SJ, who had been in my graduate-school class, and who was serving on that international commission. He told the audience that no smoking gun would be found when the wartime papers of Pius XII were finally opened. This turned out to be right.

When the storm over Pius XII was first raised in 1963 by Rolf Hochuth’s sensational and wildly tendentious  play, “The Deputy,” the Vatican enlisted Jesuit editors to publish what became a twelve-volume set of Pius’s carefully selected wartime correspondence. The later international commission asked that some obvious and important gaps in the published correspondence be filled in from the archives. It was the Vatican’s refusal to provide this documentation that caused the breakup of the commission. The pope’s wartime papers were finally opened in 2020, and we now have the initial findings, including a major work by David Kertzer. His virtual day-to-day narrative has not really turned up a smoking gun. What could that look like? Nor does Kertzer appear to fill in most of the gaps identified by the commission, for which documentation must not be extant. On the other hand, his account of the Pope’s wartime activities provides a shockingly awful record of moral and political failure.

Among your research interests is the study of comparative genocide, antisemitism, and the Jewish anti-slavery movement.  Can you tell us a bit about your work in these fields?

While researching an earlier book about social-purity movements in English history,  I encountered documents about the Jewish role in the international white-slave traffic from the late-nineteenth century to 1939. This development seemed so unusual that I resolved to explain how it could have emerged. The result was Prostitution and Prejudice (1982). Chillul Hashem? Jewish historians still comment about how difficult it is to acknowledge the disproportionate role of Jews on the revolutionary left, which did indeed fuel antisemitism. I proceeded with the book because we also understand that the danger is not generally what Jews did or do, but what they permanently represent in Western culture. Gaining access to Jewish archives was sometimes a problem. I later learned that some papers may have been kept from me at the Hebrew University archives. Officials at the Jewish Colonization Association in London, whose collection relating to Jewish settlement in Argentina was central to the subject, tried to convince me to abandon the project. In the end JCA settled for control of the book’s title, but compromised with my editor at Oxford University Press by settling for the subtitle accentuating Kiddush Hashem: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery.

You teach a course about the Holocaust.  When did you begin teaching this course and what are the themes you emphasize in this course?

A course about the Holocaust was a natural development at Fordham in the post-Nostra Aetate years, and I first offered it in 1988.  A thread within the course, if not an emphasis, is the Holocaust as a laboratory for human behavior in extreme situations, affecting everyone involved across the range of roles. For example, there is now sufficient work in social psychology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience for us to go beyond Christopher Browning’s use of the famous Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. Rescue remains a puzzle, defying general theorizing. In addition to the conventional emphases, I deal thoroughly with the role of the churches, especially the Catholic church. To address the difficult question of how we may effectively represent the Holocaust, I assign Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and short sections of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”. I leave time for the important aftermath, including the  development of international humanitarian law, retributive justice and its failures, and the long-term cultural transformation which uniquely produced German identification with their victims rather than with the perpetrators. The class visit by Mr. Martin Spett, a remarkable survivor, was always transformational. His recent death moves us closer to the day when there will be no survivors.   

Teaching the course at the Juilliard School in Fall 2022 afforded the opportunity to consider the odd tension between barbarism and high culture that characterized the Nazi regime. Martin Goldsmith visited the class. He is a writer and classical music presenter whose parents, until their last-minute escape in 1941, played in the Jewish orchestra that was organized by the heroic Kulturbund and permitted by the Nazis as a useful propaganda tool. Martin’s  grandfather and uncle sailed on the ill-fated SS St. Louis and perished at Auschwitz. His long quest to reconstruct this family saga and put to rest second-generation difficulties produced two family histories and a docudrama with the famous Bruno Ganz in his last role cast as Martin’s father (Ganz played Hitler in “Downfall”). The course concluded with a look at the denazification hearing of Wilhelm Furtwangler, one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century, and who played for Hitler. I hope to bring Martin to Fordham in Fall 2023. 

A course on Genocide was a natural outgrowth of the Holocaust course. I used to assign reading about whether the Holocaust was unique, a topic that thankfully is now largely ignored. This made me curious about other mass atrocities, which is what the Genocide course is about.  Carefully arranged comparative study enables us to understand individual cases more clearly, and the several weeks devoted to the Holocaust in the Genocide course usually produce further curiosity.

You also established the Fordham-Alvin Ailey BFA program in Dance.  What are some intersections between your research or teaching on topics related to Judaism, and the study and practice of dance?

The BFA Dance program is a consequence of our proximity with the Ailey School, and our mutual location at the center of the performing-arts world. The scores of professional dancers from City Ballet who studied at Fordham beginning in the 1980’s also encouraged us, since most of these performers were excellent students, knew how to learn, and were loved by faculty. Dance is not alien in the history of the Jesuits, who were actively involved with liturgical ballet in seventeenth-century Paris. From the beginning Jesuits engaged our dancers to perform a piece at Fordham’s annual Christmas concert. It surely helped that Fr O’Hare was a devoted fan of Judith Jamison, Alvin Ailey’s muse.

Edward Bristow with Melanie Person (Co-Director, The Ailey School) and Laura Auricchio (Dean, Fordham College at Lincoln Center) at a Fordham-Alvin Ailey BFA Benefit

I was surprised and interested when Robert Battle, Jamison’s successor as the Ailey Company’s artistic director, made a ballet about the Holocaust using a score by Erwin Schulhoff,  a Czech-Jewish composer who was killed during the war. Battle calls the ballet “No Longer Silent,” referring to the many talented interwar composers who perished. BFA alumni in the Ailey company have performed in this piece. Battle, who has an honorary Fordham degree, has commented sensibly that he could only approach the theme indirectly, not fully programmatically.

Thank you, Professor Bristow, for sharing this amazing personal and institutional history with us!