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Who and what counts as “Jewish” in America? Does stand-up comedy have a distinctly Jewish pedigree? What about neoconservatism? How is it possible to answer such questions without falling into what David Hollinger has called the “booster-bigot trap”? How is it possible, that is, to avoid answers that uncritically celebrate “Jewish contributions” or perniciously suggest “Jewish influence”? This course will explore the various meanings of Jewishness in American culture as expressed by artists, rabbis, activists, intellectuals, boosters, bigots and others. We will seek to avoid the booster-bigot trap by focusing vigilantly on what is at stake wherever Jewishness is invoked, defined or ascribed. We will draw methodological support from scholars like Hollinger, Jonathan Freedman, Laura Levitt, Yuri Slezkine, Shaul Magid, Andrea Most and others. Particular attention will be given to the appearance of Jewish themes and involvement in popular culture and political action, as well as to Jewish American communal institutions, the everyday lives of Jewish Americans, and Jewish variations on American religion. Coursework will involve some historical, sociological and ethnographic readings, but will focus primarily on close analysis of films, literary fiction, stand-up comedy, political magazines, theological texts, and television shows. We may, for instance, watch films like The Jazz Singer (1927 and 1980), Exodus and Annie Hall; read John Updike’s Bech: A Book, Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock or Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers; listen to the comedy of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Sarah Silverman; read from Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, the Menorah Journal or Commentary; study works by Rabbis Stephen Wise, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Meir Kahane; and watch episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie, Northern Exposure and Curb Your Enthusiasm. We will also study arguments about the role and meaning of Jewishness in American secularization, “therapeutic culture,” the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and feminism.
Grading: yes pass/fail option,
yes fifth course option
class participation, two short papers, a midterm take-home exam, and a final paper interpreting an example of Jewishness in America chosen by the student
Religion majors, Jewish Studies concentrators, and students who are interested in either of these options
This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
JWST Core Electives