Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professor Anne Hoffman

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 Anne Hoffman, Professor of English and Modern Hebrew Literature at Fordham, a special member of the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and an accomplished painter.

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

My interests are somewhat eclectic, held together by a deep interest in narrative as a fundamental human practice. Over the years, I’ve written about modernist writers, S.Y. Agnon in particular, contemporary Israeli fiction, Freud and psychoanalysis. Fordham has been a welcoming intellectual environment, and being in New York has allowed me to advance more specialized interests through work with colleagues at neighboring institutions. I’ve collaborated with Jewish Studies colleagues at JTSA and NYU, and mentored graduate students in Hebrew literature at both institutions. (For years, I taught Hebrew literature in summer sessions at JTSA, just to keep my hand in.) At the same time, I hold research affiliations in psychoanalysis at the Columbia Institute and at Weill Cornell Medical College. These overlapping communities have fostered my career as a comparatist, allowing me to develop and share work that has addressed narrative constructions of gender and embodiment across a range of texts and fields.

Anne Hoffman in a class at Fordham

You are a scholar of late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, psychoanalytic studies, narratology, and gender studies.  You also write about modern Hebrew literature and gender in Israeli and European Jewish writings.  Have you always been interested in Jewish literature?

I stumbled upon modern Hebrew literature, Agnon in particular, as an undergraduate majoring in English with a strong interest in languages. I was trying to piece together a comparative literature focus for myself and happened into a seminar with David Patterson, founder of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, who was visiting faculty at Cornell at the time. Having learned Hebrew as a child in day school, I was immediately captivated by Agnon, a distinctively modernist writer whose work resonates with all the richness of Jewish traditions and classical texts. My first thought was that if I were to go to grad school, it would be to study Agnon and Kafka, and in fact that was the focus of my dissertation and early publications.

My interests in Hebrew literature and Jewish writing evolved from there. For example, after completing a monograph that approached Agnon from a comparative perspective, I went on to write a series of articles in the 1990’s on gender and contemporary Israeli fiction, examining representations of Jewish male feminization in the work of male novelists. It was fascinating to trace back the history of Jewish responses to longstanding antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish male feminization, including Max Nordau’s conception of the “muscle Jew,” a significant trope in Zionist thought, and to examine the ways in which contemporary writers such as A.B. Yehoshua and Yaakov Shabtai use narrative to challenge rigid gender binaries and undo an oppressive history of male stereotyping.

You have translated important works of Israeli literature, including stories by Shai Agnon, into English. What is it like to work as a translator?

I don’t consider myself to be a translator, even though I’ve translated some stories of Agnon. My approach as a translator was always to be faithful to the text as a scholar, not the best approach for literary translation.

When did you arrive at Fordham and what was Fordham like at the time?

Timely question: interesting to look back, as I approach retirement. I came to Fordham from Columbia in 1979, moving from a stratified environment to a more egalitarian setting in a young college. It was an exciting time at Fordham Lincoln Center, with an intergenerational student body and interdisciplinary divisions. As faculty we met in study groups and enjoyed opportunities to invite scholars from a range of fields to lead seminars with faculty and with students. During the eighties, College at Lincoln Center Dean George Shea led a Mellon-funded project to rethink core curriculum, convening faculty seminar-style to envision a liberal arts curriculum for the next century. Those were formative years for me intellectually and professionally.

In terms of Jewish Studies at Fordham, Byron Shafer, who taught Hebrew Bible, and John Entelis in Political Science, would invite me to offer the occasional course in Israeli literature and film, as part of the Program in Middle-East Studies they directed. In 1988, at Byron’s suggestion, I developed and led the annual colloquium in Middle-East Studies, devoting it to recent trends in Israeli literature. I was thrilled to host the writer Aharon Appelfeld as our main speaker, with talks by my close collaborators Alan Mintz (JTSA) and Yael Feldman (NYU).

In the early nineties, when Ed Bristow became Dean of the College, one of his initiatives involved finding a use for a fund established by a Jewish alumnus. Ed asked if I’d join the conversation and at my suggestion, invited Burt Visotzky, professor of Midrash at JTSA, to brainstorm with us. It was Burt’s idea to create a public forum devoted to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. That became the Nostra Aetate Dialogue, which went on for a number of years, an annual event bringing together a Jewish scholar and a Christian scholar to address questions such as the Jewishness of Jesus. Characterized by a genuinely fruitful exchange of perspectives, the Nostra Aetate Dialogue offered an illuminating model not just for Fordham, but for the broader community.

During the nineties we went through a turbulent time of restructuring at Fordham that led to the creation of bi-campus departments in a more unified arts and sciences structure. I was one of those who led the fight to preserve our interdisciplinary and intergenerational College at Lincoln Center. While we lost that battle, the years since have certainly seen many exciting interdisciplinary opportunities open up at the level of programs and departments, including in recent years the development of a thriving Center for Jewish Studies.  

Anne Hoffman receives the Bene Merenti Medal for 40 years of service to Fordham University

What inspired you to found the Jewish Texts Reading Group?

I didn’t create it! I was approached by Gerry Blaszczak, SJ, who was then Vice President for Mission, and Elsie Stern, who taught Hebrew Bible in the Theology Department. Together with Russ Pearce in the Law School, they invited me to join them in forming a faculty seminar devoted to the study of Jewish texts. After Gerry left Fordham, Pat Ryan, SJ, joined me in sustaining this wonderful project.

What was the very first text that you read in that group, and what texts have you studied together since? Is there a particular session or insight that stands out for you? 

We started with Aviva Zornberg’s book on Genesis in conjunction with study of the biblical text. Very quickly the group came to define itself through its interest in classical Jewish sources. Over the years that has ranged from the biblical to the Talmudic and Midrashic, with forays into modernity to read Emmanuel Levinas and Gershom Scholem, interspersed on rare occasion with an Agnon story. Most recently, we’ve made our way through Ketuvim, working with Robert Alter’s translations, as well as Ed Greenstein’s recent translation of Job. Following our discussion of the Book of Esther, we closed the fall with Elie Wiesel’s Trial of God, a play conceived as a very dark Purimshpil. What stands out for me over the history of this group is the range of interests people bring to our meetings, whether in the dramatic potential of narrative material, the cross-cultural folkloric parallels, the internal contradictions or conflicts that a text encompasses, or textual intersections with Christian and Islamic sources.

How has the group changed over the years?

The membership has changed, obviously, but there have always been several Bible scholars. I’m struck more by the continuities than the changes. It’s a group made up of people from diverse religious and disciplinary backgrounds and commitments, brought together by shared interest in close study of classical Jewish sources, qualities that make it distinctive and precious in my eyes.

In what ways has Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impacted the work that you do, in the classroom and in your research as well as in the Jewish Texts Reading Group?

I think of my late father-in-law’s comment when I got a first summer grant in the early eighties for travel to Israel to explore Agnon’s archive. An immigrant himself and a refugee from Nazi Europe, he observed that it truly is the “goldeneh medineh” when a Catholic university gives a Jewish girl money to go to Israel to work on Agnon. Even more than the material support, his remark captures something of the openness and generosity that have been my experience of this university, my academic home for over forty years. The Jesuit appreciation for diverse perspectives and fields of inquiry has provided me with extraordinary opportunities to develop my interests in Hebrew literature and Jewish Studies, and in other areas as well. I’ve been supported with the resources to advance my own training in psychoanalytic studies, and to develop interdisciplinary seminars and colloquia, including most recently a faculty seminar on W.E.B. Du Bois that grew out of an interdisciplinary course I developed with Jason Morris, a biologist and stalwart of the Jewish text group. It’s that kind of mix that characterizes our academic community and exemplifies the intellectual openness of the Jesuit tradition. The social justice values that are at the core of our mission have energized much of what I do in the classroom, in courses that have addressed disability studies and the history of mass incarceration, including a few years ago the chance to teach a course in a maximum security prison to which I traveled each week with a group of Fordham students.   

Any thoughts about Jewish Studies @Fordham as we celebrate its fifth anniversary?

I celebrate the creative leadership of the program and look forward with great pleasure to learning about new initiatives.

Thank you, Professor Hoffman, for sharing these memories and history with us!