Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Emilie Amar-Zifkin

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 Emilie Amar-Zifkin, who graduated from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2013 and is now completing a doctorate in Medieval Judaism in the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. Next year, Emilie will join the Tanenbaum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, where she’ll be the Igor Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellow in Christian-Jewish Relations.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I graduated from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2013 with a double major in Theology and Theatre, and completed my MA in Jewish History at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2015. Currently, I’m a 7th year PhD candidate at Yale University, where I’m writing my dissertation while also teaching – this semester, elementary Biblical Hebrew to undergraduates in Yale College. 

Emilie, FCLC ’13

What brought you to Fordham?  

Like any doctoral candidate in religion, I originally came to Fordham to study… stage management! I grew up in Montreal, which historically was in a very Catholic province, and I had about a decade of intensive music lessons from nuns under my belt, so the idea of going off to a Jesuit school in New York City to major in theatre didn’t really strike me as all that strange. 

When you came to campus, you were interested in theater.  What inspired you to major in Theology?

I don’t know that such an about-face couldn’t be the result of a series of happy accidents. The first ever class I went to, my first class as a Fordham undergraduate, was Fr. Thomas Scirghi’s “Faith and Critical Reason,” into which I had been randomly assigned. I truly didn’t know what to expect – the idea of faith and critical reason playing nicely with one another wasn’t a familiar notion to my 18-year-old self, who was impatient to get down to the scene shop. But Fr. Scirghi was such an inspiring, kind, challenging lecturer, and all of a sudden I was reading Freud and then the Bible, and learning what a sacrament was, and looking up more theology courses for the next semester. I think I realized at the end of that first day of class, though I didn’t say it out loud until much later, that I wouldn’t be graduating as (only) a theatre major.

Is there a particular course or professor (or both) you still remember?

I met Prof. Karina Hogan in the second semester of my freshman year, when she allowed me to take her “Women in the Bible” course despite my lack of prerequisites and general… freshman-ness. It was life-changing, in the sense that Prof. Hogan literally changed my life. She encouraged me to continue taking Theology courses, especially those focused on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. Her mentorship during two Fordham undergraduate summer research grants allowed me to try my hand at academic research, which was key when applying to graduate schools – something that, somewhere along the line, had become my obvious, undeniable next step. Luckily, I knew some graduate students whom I could ask for advice: from my junior year onward, Prof. Hogan vouched for me so that I could take graduate-level Theology and Hebrew Bible courses at Rose Hill, along with a brilliant cohort of affable graduate students. One of the most memorable of these courses was the “Psalms in Hebrew” with Prof. Harry Nasuti, which prepared me well for the intense poetry-based work I would do in my first few years of graduate study. Prof. Hogan’s “Second Temple Judaism” seminar, which was my last class at Fordham, exposed me to texts that I didn’t know existed, and added bewildering nuance to the ones I thought I already knew. Being able to participate in classwork, discussions, and the original language reading group after class was indispensable preparation for graduate seminars. None of this would have been possible without Prof. Hogan, who had faith and saw a glimmer of critical reason in a confused freshman.

You studied Yiddish as a child.  Did you have an opportunity to incorporate Yiddish into your Fordham experience?

Amazingly, yes! The first of the undergraduate research grants was on the book of Esther as theatre and scripture, and one of the longest surviving traditions within Yiddish theatre is the Purimshpiel – a humorous, sometimes burlesque theatrical retelling of the Esther story where the heroes and villains of the present are cast and lampooned as the heroes and villains in the story. There’s one cycle of Purim poems by the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger written in 1936 that sets the story in contemporary Eastern Europe – I had worked on a production of it as part of a Yiddish theatre festival in Montreal the summer before I wrote the paper, so the history and imagery were still very fresh in my mind.

You are now completing a PhD in medieval Jewish-Christian interactions at Yale.  Can you tell us about your dissertation research?

My dissertation is called “Observing the Observers: Procession and Public Religion in Medieval Ashkenaz.” It brings sensory and performance studies into conversation with questions of urban space and identity formation, looking at Jewish-Christian interaction in public spaces. The project is divided into sections on space, seeing, and sound, and examines different instances of public Jewish-Christian relations, from huge royal and ecclesiastical processions to interactions between townspeople sharing space in the marketplace. The common thread, perhaps unsurprisingly, is fundamentally that of performance, that of the theatre of the everyday – I analyze the actors and the audience at the same time, recognizing that it’s not only seeing and hearing but also what was perceived to be seen and heard that is at the center of Jewish-Christian relations in Ashkenaz.

In what ways did Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impact your experience of studying Judaism at Fordham, and the path you are currently pursuing in your academic career?

It’s safe to say that had I ended up anywhere but Fordham for my undergraduate theatre degree, the thought of pursuing an academic career in Religious Studies wouldn’t have even entered my mind. I loved, and still love, the fact that every Fordham undergraduate takes a Theology class – that everyone, regardless of their academic or religious background, confronts religious texts that they might never have read before… or that they know by heart, but only by rote. Fordham’s Catholic mission cites the “complementary roles of faith and reason in the pursuit of wisdom and learning,” and truly, as a freshman, I’m not sure I had any wisdom and learning, let alone any faith or much reason. Fordham as both a Catholic and a Jesuit institution helped me grow in all of those ways. 

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

There’s a traditional Jewish blessing for birthdays and anniversaries that wishes life and good health on the recipient “til 120.” I’m thrilled but not at all surprised at the sustained and flourishing growth of Jewish Studies at Fordham in just the last five years, and as a proud alumna, I can’t wait to see what comes next. Biz hundert un tsvantsik!

Thank you, Emilie, for such a happy interview about your studies at Fordham and the life path they set you on!

Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professors Jason Morris and Karina Martin Hogan

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 Karina Martin Hogan, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism in Fordham’s Theology Department, in conversation with Jason Morris, Professor of Biology in Fordham’s Natural Sciences Department. 

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

Jason: My training and research to this point has been in the genetic regulation of development in worms and flies. In the past, I’ve worked on genes that control life span and life cycle decisions, egg production, and larval growth and behavior. I’m just starting to design a more student-centered approach where I will use my lab to help undergraduates develop their own research questions and help them learn the skills they need to begin their work on them.

Jason at work in his lab

Karina: My graduate training was primarily in the Bible, both Tanakh/Old Testament and New Testament, and only secondarily in the history of Judaism. Over the past 20 years, my research has shifted primarily to early Judaism, especially wisdom and apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period. With my new project on the book of Ruth, I’m returning to my original interest in the Bible, and in particular feminist interpretation of the Bible, which is an interest I have mostly developed during the years since graduate school. 

Karina (far left) with students from her “Religion in NYC” course on a trip to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Spring 2023

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

Jason: 2003. I loved Fordham right away. I really appreciate that it’s a place that tries to live its core values, especially a focus on a broad and deep undergraduate education in the arts and sciences and a respect for all faiths. My colleagues genuinely care about their students and their students’ learning, and I really appreciate that. And the students are a lot of fun to teach.

Jason Morris at a Fordham event to raise money for HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for Syrian refugees in a pie-in-the-face event. “Hillel put up the money for the supplies, so I wrote their name on my Fordham shirt next to the HIAS sticker,” Jason remembers.

Karina: 2005. I loved the students at Fordham right away too, but it took a couple of years before I felt at home in the community of colleagues at the Lincoln Center campus and at Fordham in general. My department, Theology, was much more Rose Hill-focused at the time, with only a handful of faculty members at Lincoln Center. I was the only scholar of Judaism in the department. I didn’t realize at first that there were colleagues in other departments who worked on Judaism; I eventually met some of them through the Jewish Texts Reading Group.

Karina on a trip to Costa Rica with Fordham’s Honors Global Outreach

Both of you participate in the Jewish Texts Reading Group. How has being a part of that community shaped your time at Fordham? 

Jason: Some of my best, closest Fordham relationships have come out of this group, including with Anne and Karina. It’s rejuvenating to read some of the greatest, most provocative texts ever written with colleagues from so many different fields and different religious backgrounds, especially because we read those texts with particular attention to their meanings within the Jewish tradition. There’s always the danger when Jewish texts are studied in non-Jewish settings that it can feel like the texts are read with an eye toward appropriation. That doesn’t happen in this group. I also think it’s indicative of Fordham’s respect for non-Christian perspectives that this group has gotten so much support from the administration. 

Karina: I feel the same, that some of my closest friendships at Fordham grew out of the Jewish Texts group. That group provided the kind of intellectual community I was craving. I remember feeling a bit intimidated by the level of the conversation at first, so I was pretty quiet, but Anne and Jason drew me out. Eventually I realized that even though I wasn’t Jewish, I had credibility because I could read Hebrew and knew the Bible. And soon the group grew to include more people who weren’t Jewish but shared an appreciation for the Jewish tradition and for rigorous intellectual discussion, like Peggy and Peter Steinfels.

The two of you also learn together be-hevruta (as study partners).  How did you start doing so, and what have you learned together over the years?

Jason: I think we discovered we had a lot of interests in common right away, and we started reading together not too long after we met. Over the years, we’ve read some theology, some fiction, and even a bit of poetry, but mostly we’ve focused on Talmud. 

I realized very quickly that Karina is one of the most thoughtful and intellectually accomplished people I’ve met. In addition to her erudition and her skills in so many of the languages these texts are written in, Karina can hold these texts in great respect while also appreciating the humor of how bizarre (from a modern, American perspective) these texts can be. I come from a yeshiva background, and it’s really rare to find someone to study with who knows a lot about the theology and the history around these texts who also cares deeply about them, and who can also laugh when we encounter the student who hid under his teacher’s marital bed “to learn from him” or who has the same affection I do for Abbaye, who always quotes “mother” (his nurse) as a sage authority. 

Karina: Jason is my favorite person to talk to about whatever I’m reading, not only what we’re reading together. He reads more widely than anyone I know, and while I don’t even try to keep up with him, I always enjoy the books he recommends. And I loved listening to him talk about his novel as it was taking shape!

When we read Talmud or midrash together, apart from finding similar things humorous, we bring very different perspectives to the text. Jason is the least conventional thinker I know–he is constantly saying things that surprise me and open up meanings of the text that I hadn’t contemplated. And often these are theological points that I would never have thought of, despite being trained as a theologian! I actually think reading Talmud with a biologist has made me a better theologian.

Karina, you study Second Temple Judaism.  Can you tell us about your first book, on 4 Ezra, some of the themes you’ve explored in your research since then, and about your current project on the book of Ruth?

My first book, Theologies in Conflict in 4 Ezra, was only the beginning of my studies of 4 Ezra. I’m not finished with it yet, and probably never will be! I’m working on a commentary on the Latin version of 4 Ezra, which includes two Christian apocalyptic texts as bookends. I have also been working recently on a related apocalypse, 2 Baruch, and on the Wisdom of Solomon, a Hellenistic Jewish wisdom text with some apocalyptic features. My new project, as I mentioned earlier, is on feminist interpretations of the book of Ruth from around the world. I’m excited to be getting back to work on a book that is well known and loved by many Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible.

Jason, you teach in Biology in the Department of Natural Sciences (a department you even chaired), but you’ve also published a novel titled Thicker than Mud (2019), which explores themes related to Judaism and Jewish history. Can you share the premise of the work (without spoiling it for those who would like to read it!) and what inspired you to write this book?

Here’s the description from the back cover: 

Adam Drascher, a Jewish archaeology professor at a small Jesuit college in the Bronx, is at a standstill: Adam is in love with his former mentor, though he knows that relationship has no future, and though his tenure decision is approaching, Adam has little to show for his efforts studying the cult of the dead in ancient Israel. Everything changes for Adam when he discovers a tablet that sheds light on the Healers, shadowy underworld figures in Canaanite myth and in the Bible, on the same day that he loses his grandfather, the man who raised him. As Adam mourns for his grandfather and labors to interpret the text of the tablet, he unearths family secrets that test his loyalties and entangle him in the police investigation of an old family friend.

I worked on the book for many years, and so many threads came together to inspire me to write it. One of the most significant came out of my reflections on the burial of my grandfather. In the Jewish tradition, it is customary for the mourners literally to bury the dead, and I remember vividly my reluctance to hand the shovel over to the next person when I had taken my turn. I was very close to my grandfather and I really wanted to do that one last thing for him myself, to share that one last experience with him, in a way. I thought about what a person might be like who really wouldn’t be able to share that moment with other mourners, who really did claim that relationship all for himself. Another really significant thread came from my own Jewish studies in college. I took a couple of courses with Saul Olyan on the literature of the Babylonian Exile and on the Judean monarchy. One week, we discussed the Rephaim, the Healers from Canaanite mythology, and they captured my imagination. When I wanted a profession for Adam, I just knew that they would be the focus of his life’s work.

We all have unexpected professional experiences – for example, Jason, a biologist by training, ended up writing a novel about a Jewish archaeologist.  Karina, can you share an unexpected experience that you’ve had as a professor of ancient Judaism and what you learned from it? 

Karina: The most unexpected and funny experience I’ve ever had was when someone in Media Relations at Fordham recommended me to a producer who was making an episode about angels for a Catholic TV series called “Mysteries of the Church.” He wanted someone who could speak to the role of angels in the Bible, and I thought, sure, that should be easy. But I ended up having to meet the film crew at Woodlawn Cemetery, where there were many mortuary sculptures of angels on the graves of wealthy people from the 19th century. It was the middle of winter and I gave the whole interview inside a mausoleum, bundled up in my winter coat, scarf and gloves! I didn’t hear back from the producer after that so I assumed the series never got picked up, or my interview was cut. But then years later, a woman from my church told me she had seen me on TV and I found the episode online. I was very embarrassed to realize what a hokey, sensationalist series it was that I had agreed to give an interview for!

This past fall, both of you helped organize Fordham’s first Interfaith Prayer Service during Orientation Week.  Can you share more about that experience?

Jason: I thought it was a really moving service. I was really impressed that President Tetlow wanted to sing a traditional Jewish prayer (and that she has a repertoire of traditional Jewish prayers)! President Tetlow sang Osei Shalom, a song she was familiar with from her days singing at Jewish high holiday services. I said the shehechayanu blessing, which seemed fitting at the start of a new academic year where we welcomed a new president. Probably the facet of the program that most riveted me was the dance in praise of Shiva. I’d never seen anything like it, and I found it very powerful. 

Karina: I was also very happy with the way the service turned out, and with the creativity and commitment of everyone who contributed to it. Figuring out what it should look like took all summer, and some parts of it didn’t fall into place until right near the end. But I found the end result very cohesive, even though it represented so many different religious traditions. My part was an opening prayer based on an Anishinaabe water ritual taught to me by my father. I felt very blessed to have the opportunity to share that part of my heritage with the Fordham community.

Karina offering the opening prayer at the Fall 2022 Interfaith Prayer Service at Lincoln Center

In what ways has Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impacted the work that you do, in the classroom and in your research?

Jason: This is an institution that encourages us to cultivate so many aspects of our humanity and our students’ humanity in all aspects of our work, whether in student advising and mentoring, or in the classroom, or in training students how to do independent research. It’s also a place that encourages everyone in the community to take ethics seriously and to engage in reflection about our values and our practices. All of that is deeply informed by the Jesuit and Catholic mission, though it resonates very strongly with my Jewish values. 

Karina: My understanding of Fordham’s Jesuit mission has deepened over the years, partly through study groups focused on the mission, but mostly through observing my colleagues living the mission. I agree with Jason that it’s about cultivating the full personhood of every member of the Fordham community. If we don’t allow our own humanity to flourish in all of its dimensions, how can we care for our students as full persons? One of the ways I have found to live the mission is by employing the pedagogy of community-engaged learning. This year I’m working with a committee to create a new cohort program, similar to an Honors program, that centers social justice and community engagement.

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

Jason: I’m very proud of Fordham’s Jewish scholarship and Fordham’s community around Jewish studies. I don’t think too many faith-based institutions would prioritize the understanding and appreciation of another faith in this way. I can’t think of another university, including Jewish universities, that would have helped me to grow in my own Judaism as Fordham has.

Karina: I am thrilled to be a member of the Jewish Studies faculty at Fordham. It has been wonderful to see the Center grow so quickly and to see the incredible diversity of programming that it offers. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that we now reach so many people with our virtual and hybrid programming. My own intellectual life has been greatly enriched by the contact with other Jewish Studies scholars that the Center has facilitated. 

Thank you, Jason and Karina, for such a wide-ranging and moving peak into your research and relationship!

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!

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!