Sunday, September 23, 2018

Power in Academia

I wrote a piece on power in academia for the Jewish Journal as a response to the Avital Ronell scandal (and the equally offensive defense of her actions by celebrity scholars like Judith Butler and others). The original piece was 800 words over the length limit, and I still was not finished saying what needed to be said. But brevity rules in the world of soundbite journalism. At any rate, you can read my piece here.

Coincidentally, my original draft contained personal anecdotes, including a story from 2008 about a film professor named Lance Duerfahrd. Just days after I published my piece at the Jewish Journal, I happened to read this story about a student from Purdue University who is suing him and accusing him of sexual assault. There were multiple complaints of this nature against this man (who was also, I should add, a very poor scholar with a heavily padded CV) as early as 2008, but the English Department chose not to treat them seriously. I wonder what they think of those complaints now? I hope those who were complicit in burying them will have to answer for what they have done.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Making Absence Visible: Remembering Claude Lanzmann

Upon hearing about his death, I wrote a piece about Claude Lanzmann. I didn't realize it was going to be called an obituary, but here it is. His film Shoah was one of the most important works with regard to my own thinking about what it means to talk about trauma in the most ethical and authentic way. I once taught a college freshman writing class in which I had the students watch all of the more than 8-hour film for the first two weeks of class. And then when we had finished, I said, "Okay, now write about something traumatic you experienced in your own lives. Or about something you witnessed."

I know, it sounds crazy. I had done so at the suggestion of my former dissertation advisor, Sandor Goodhart, whom I had called to complain about having to teach a freshman writing course. He suggested I turn it into something that fit my expertise. He said it would work, and he was right. It was one of the best and most real teaching experiences I ever had.

Philip Roth: Literary King of the Jews

My tribute to Philip Roth, Literary King, over at the Jewish Journal.

Friday, March 23, 2018

There Are Still Jews in Russia?

I recently read and reviewed Maxim Shrayer's new book, With or Without You: The Prospect for Jews in Today's Russia, for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. You can read it here. It's a really interesting study, particularly because ever since the success of the Free Soviet Jewry movement of the 1960-1980s, we have heard less and less about the situation of Jews remaining in Russia.

I think we sometimes forget that not everyone left.

I used to live in the Russian Jewish area of West Hollywood, and certainly living there made it feel like all of Russia's Jews had moved to LA at some point. And then there's all of the amazing new fiction being written by Russian Jews like Boris Fishman, Lara Vapnyar, Anya Ulinich, and David Bezmozgis (some of whose works are reproduced in part in a book I co-edited with two of my favorite colleagues). The works of these writers comprise some of the best and newest American/Canadian immigrant fiction, and we hear more of these stories than those of the ones who did not, for one reason or another, leave Russia for a so-called better place. At any rate, I really enjoyed Shrayer's study because it raises some questions I hadn't thought to ask, let alone answer.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Midrashic Impulse

The great news is that my book is out! You can see it here: The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma. The not so good news is that the book was printed with the the wrong content inside. Instead of a book about midrash and trauma it's a book (someone else's!) about the HBO series True Detective. Hilarious if it wasn't such a terrible printing error. So now we wait for the new copies...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Power of Story

Last week I attended the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium in Miami. It's one of my favorite conferences, and I've been attending since 2004. This year one of the keynote speakers was Jewish-Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon, whose work I hadn't yet read, but have since been devouring.  Here's my piece on him over at the Jewish Journal.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Speaking from the Margins: Me Too

I experienced a deluge of ambiguous emotions as my Facebook newsfeed was recently filled with women's #MeToo stories and accounts of victimization. I was deeply moved and astounded by so many of the stories. I felt an initial urge to be part of this mass movement of voices, but it was an impulse that quickly retreated back into my place of observation. Like many things, I wanted to be both inside and outside of this movement.

Truthfully, I have in my personal history so many repulsive #MeToo moments that I've forgotten most of them. The hand that reached into my blouse and grabbed my breast as I walked through a crowded bar in my early twenties; the man who slapped my rear end in a club before I pushed him down and kicked him over and over (I talk about this in my most recent column); and so many stories of forceful, pushy, and threatening behavior by colleagues over the years. The ones where no one actually touched me are, in many ways, more painful because the culprits were people from whom I expected more: academics, philosophers, intellectuals.

Even academia is not immune to the behavior people are wrongly calling a Hollywood thing. And it isn't always about traditional forms of sexual harassment. For instance, what about the professor at Purdue University who, upon learning I had won a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, said to me, "Who did you have to sleep with to get that?" He said it with a smirk that told me he hated me for refusing his request to take me to lunch a few weeks back.

Is it sexual harassment? No, not really, I guess. But what he did was to minimize my intellectual potential and suggest instead that my value is only in my appearance and sexuality. A less confident woman may have been broken by that. I was just angry.

But here's the kicker: this same professor was recently let go from Purdue University because of sexual harassment--this time an undergraduate student. So maybe it's all part of the same thing.

But I wasn't compelled to tell any of these stories. As a way to work through why I felt this way, I wrote this piece for The Jewish Journal--it's my newest column. The title is regrettable, and it's not mine. I feel it pits one experience against another, which really is the opposite of what I was doing in the piece. But so it goes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

On Not Forgetting About What We Don't Know: Thoughts on Las Vegas

A couple of weeks ago in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, I started thinking about how quick we are to string a few "facts" together in an effort to create a story. I get it--we need to do this because we have a deep need to understand why and how things happen. But it also occurred to me that sometimes focusing entirely on a few so-called facts allow us to ignore what we don't yet know. I wanted to work through these ideas so I devoted my first column at The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles to this topic. You can read it here. The title, however, is not mine. But I can live with it.

The Complex Polarity of THE LAST RABBI

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of William Kolbrener's book The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition at The Jewish Journal. I enjoyed the book immensely, not least because it brought some of my favorite topics together: literature, midrash, trauma, and Judaism. I ended up writing a piece that was hundreds of words too long, so it had to be condensed. But here is the final version.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Interview with Israeli Writer Etgar Keret

I interviewed Israeli fiction writer (and scriptwriter!) Etgar Keret last week as part of the cover story package for this week's issue of the Jewish Journal. I'm a big fan of Keret's work and I've also taught it at Pepperdine University and UCLA, so it was super cool to get a chance to chat with him. I thought he was going to be a diva, but he was the opposite--kind, thoughtful, and generous with his time.

You can read the Jewish Journal version here.

In the interview he said he enjoys collaborating with his wife, actress and writer Shira Geffen, and I was reminded of how much I like the film Jellyfish, which they did together. I even blogged on it nearly ten years ago!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Last Laugh: Looking to Comedy as a Salve and Savior

The Last Laugh is a new film that deals with the question of whether one can or should laugh at jokes about the Holocaust. It's a fantastic film, and as part of this piece I wrote for the Jewish Journal, I got to sit down with our friend and comic Jeffrey Ross to get his thoughts on all things comedy and tragedy. Read it here!

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Modern Language Association's Proposed Boycott Against Israeli Institutions

I am, sadly, not at the MLA conference this year, but have submitted this comment to be distributed at the Town Hall Forum today where the issue will be discussed:

I am deeply saddened that we, those who love literature and all its complexities and nuances, are considering/debating an academic boycott of any kind. These kinds of boycotts hurt individuals, though they purport not to. They also cause considerable damage to the standard of scholarship and responsibility that should characterize the MLA. I want to be part of an organization that encourages, rather than forecloses, dialogue with all scholars from all countries. I want us to come together and find ways to speak across the political/cultural/geographical borders rather than excise some from our community because we don't like their government.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The People and the Books

I wrote a review of Adam Kirsch's The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature for The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. It's really a fantastic book, and Adam Kirsch is an excellent critic.

*I grudgingly removed all of my Oxford commas (I guess it's a thing at this publication). I hope it's still readable!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Elijah Dilemma

My essay on hating my neighbors and loving the refugees is on the cover of the Jewish Journal's next issue. You can read it here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Against Academic Boycotts

In January, at the MLA conference in Austin, I spoke on a panel discussing the proposed academic boycott of Israel. The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a version of this talk. They chopped a few of my paragraphs off for length (including my line about Levinas!), but the spirit of the piece is intact. It's one of the most important, and polarizing, subjects I've written about. I've had a number of colleagues write to tell me they agree and to thank me for writing the piece, but many of these same colleagues also express reticence to articulate their feelings publicly. It seems that the impulse of BDS and academic boycott supporters is to demonize anyone who expresses a contrary (or more nuanced) view. It is starting to feel like bullying. I was told by more than a couple senior scholars that giving this talk publicly would mean there are many academic jobs I won't be able to get. It turns out that academia cannot always sustain the freedom of thought and respect for nuance that it has traditionally championed. Bullying, indeed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Considering Son of Saul

I finally watched Son of Saul. My husband received the screener a number of weeks back, but we had been reluctant to watch it. For nearly fifteen years now I've been a scholar of the Holocaust, which means I've seen more Holocaust films than most can imagine. When I first started watching them, it was painful, but the more films I watched, the easier it became. I stopped crying at a certain point. My watching become mechanical, as I consistently assessed whether each film was an ethical or transgressive representation of the un-representable.

It was a few years back when I realized this--that I had stopped crying. I know that it was likely a kind of internal defense mechanism. Can the spirit handle so much without being crushed? But I felt ashamed of the stoic intellectualism that moderated my viewing of each film. I've since learned that many scholars who deal constantly with collective tragedies--the Holocaust, other genocides, 9/11, slavery, etc.--experience similar reactions after a time. It's necessary, I suppose. But, still.

But then I had a baby in December 2012. A few months later as I prepared a lecture on Babi Yar, I felt my chest tighten. It was happening again, and I couldn't control it, no matter how I steeled myself. It was one photo that did it, that re-opened everything. This photo:

His name was Gregory, and in 1941 he was taken, with many others, to a ravine outside of Kiev and murdered. I just cracked wide open when I saw this photo. I covered my face and just sobbed in a way I just don't...ever. Was it that I saw my little boy in Gregory's face? Was it the fear that one day it could be my little boy whose face a professor pastes into a powerpoint presentation? I'm not sure.

Not long after my breakdown, I was invited to a screening of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey Film (I know, it's not the greatest title, but I think giving it a creative title would be inappropriate, since it's no artistic project). It's a film comprised entirely of footage from concentration camps that has not been seen by many people until recently (though many years ago Alfred Hitchcock did try to turn some of the footage into a film). Given my long history of viewing Holocaust films and documentaries, I thought I had seen the worst of the worst. I mean, who can watch Night and Fog and wake up the same person the next day? But this film was more gruesome than anything I'd ever seen. The way naked corpses were dragged and thrown around--those images have become part of my DNA I think. And the footage of German citizens, including children, being marched through the concentration camps after liberation, ostensibly to bear witness to what had happened in their own backyard, was excruciating. I hadn't realized that was done. And yes, certainly they should have to face what they had become an accomplice to, but there was something truly terrible about watching them bear witness--something I can't quite name. I walked home from the Museum of Tolerance (yes, of course I would live in walking distance to the MOT) after the viewing, my face wet and my chest heaving.

And after this experience of something un-nameable, I stopped watching Holocaust films, and read as little as possible. I finished teaching my Holocaust Film and Literature course and admitted to myself that I might not ever be able to teach it again--that it was time for someone else to take it from me. I know that there is a direct correlation between my hyper-empathetic response and giving birth to a child. Others, including Claire Katz, have written beautifully about the role of the feminine and the maternal in the context of ethical responsibility. And it makes sense that creating one life would deepen one's value of all lives. But in reality my emotional response troubled me, as I weighed my newly charged sense of compassion for the other--my deepened sense of responsibility, as it were--against my responsibility to keep telling the stories of survivors so that they won't die.

What was for years a scholarly obsession had become something I avoided at all costs for a couple of years. But then all this talk about Son of Saul, and so many people wanting to know if I had seen it. I felt like I was ready again and so we watched it.

I don't regret it. It's a brilliant film in many ways. But I regret the existence of such an event that would inspire this film. Of course. It was terrible to watch. I was angry within minutes of the film beginning. And I was confused. In many instances I felt disoriented and didn't quite understand what was happening. I was barely with it, hardly hanging on. The dialogue is sparse, and the constant close-up shots eliminate the possibility of gathering detail from context in many moments. All one sees, really, is the face--the face of the other. Everything else is obscured. And this is how it must have been to be there, in the place that we cannot recreate or represent. The confusion and lack of clarity, the pushing and shoving, intensity and urgency, the inability to tell with certainty who it is who is speaking or screaming. It could only have been chaos, maddening chaos. And this is how the film brings us in to a deeper understanding of the camps. That Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando who makes it his mission to bury the body of a boy he takes as his symbolic son is a paradox of sorts. It makes no sense. And yet here it is--ethical responsibility materializing in a place where the ethical has come to die, ushered in by a man who is forced to burn corpses rather than bury them.

I don't know if or when I'll teach another Holocaust class. But if I do, this will be the film that I show. Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And so we have to think of such things.