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!