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"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

The “Next New Idea?” Hardly.

Posted by FriarYid on March 6, 2008

“A study on why Jewish studies professors are so devastatingly attractive? Sounds perfect. You’ve got your funding!”

For a brief time, I considered becoming a Jewish academic. It seemed like a natural choice; I was good at academia, and I was interested in Jewish stuff. Jewish mysticism, Yiddish modernism, Hasidic and early Israeli history, etc… I had wide and varying taste (well, for an Ashkenazi male, anyway).

But there was one thing that bugged me about academia, and which ultimately prevented me from going in that direction for a career- at the end of the day, it seemed like so much of it was inwardly focused, and outwardly irrelevant. Jewish scholarship can be rich, fascinating, and incredibly useful. But a lot of it seems to have a very tough time seeing beyond the end of its own nose.

Case in point: the recent Brandeis/Bronfman “contest” for the “Next Big Jewish Idea.” Modeled on a 1929 contest that wound up catapulting Mordechai Kaplan to fame and glory, the concept was to encourage the best and brightest Jews to get off their butts and start brainstorming on what would “transform the way Jews think about themselves and Judaism.”

The results? There’s a whole lot of fanfare, but the results are actually pretty disappointing.

The winner, Yehuda Kurtzer, is a Harvard grad student finishing up his PhD in Jewish studies. There’s nothing wrong with that, though there’s nothing necessarily all that great about it either. Never having heard of Mr. Kurtzer, I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt until I read what his “big idea” was:

Kurtzer’s book would be a combined history, theological statement and prescription for programming that can help Jews access their history through text study to create meaningful Jewish experiences, Kurtzer said Sunday at a Brandeis symposium for the five finalists in the competition. The open competition garnered 231 applicants.

So, apparently, the “next big thing” is something we’ve been doing forever. Hmm.

Things only got more annoying as I read who the other finalists were. Out of the other four, two were long-established figures in the American Jewish scene who, frankly, don’t need the publicity or help from Brandeis/Bronfman to get their messages across. (To say nothing of the fact that their proposals didn’t seem terribly original or insightful.) Anita Diamant’s idea doesn’t make a lot of sense to me (whatever “American Minhagim” she could find and identify, I’m not sure how useful or instructive they would be for the future), and Shmuley Boteach’s proposal sounds like a re-submission of a book he already wrote. The fact that they made the top five already makes me suspicious of who was calling the shots over at Brandeis/Bronfman. There weren’t ANY better ideas from lesser-known Jewish thinkers? (You can listen to all the finalists’ presentations on their proposals here. Thanks to Ariel Beery for the link.)

Kurtzer’s thesis is basically that today’s Jews are “turning towards the past”- except it’s more complicated than that, because they’re also reinventing Jewish memory, both in terms of what and how they remember it, and what they decide Jewish memory means in the first place. Confused yet? You’re not alone.

Kurtzer describes Jewish memory as “deliberately constructed mythical nostalgia that binds one to a past even in radically reinterpreting that past.” While he sees an important role for Jewish texts and tradition in this process, he writes that a feeling of authenticity is more important than the views of historians. As an example, he wrote that “the knowledge that klezmer [music] may not be the most heroic artifact of the shtetl cannot compete with packed concerts and CD sales.” He followed by explaining that “new Jewish culture may not represent the Jewish past with historical accuracy, and its version of authenticity may be inauthentic to the past but the key to its success is in the channeling, constructing and transmitting that very authenticity.” “Such an attitude would lead to a more timeless Jewish memorialization as opposed to the finite nature of a historic treatment of the Jewish past,” he wrote.

…Yeah, what he said.

I don’t want to slam Kurtzer too hard (or at least, any harder than I already have), but his book idea seems a lot more retrospective than innovative, which was supposedly what this whole contest was about. Kurtzer seems more interested in talking about what’s been going on in the Jewish community over the past decade-plus than looking at where it’s headed, which seems to belie the entire purpose of why he was selected. After reading his entire proposal (and slogging through the grad-school-speak), I can’t say I’m any more impressed. Finally, the fact that the winner of the competition gets a book deal AND a 2-year-professorship makes the committee’s selection of a burgeoning career academic seems particularly myopic and bordering on the incestuous.

[Prof. Jonathan] Sarna described all five finalists as highly qualified for the position. Calling Kurtzer’s ideas “highly innovative,” he said that the committee was struck by the “combination of his scholarly background, and he was really the only scholar in the group, and his communal background.” Sarna praised Kurtzer’s ability to “use his rich and deep scholarly training to inform communal discourse.”

More from Dr. Sarna, handsome devil that he is:

Kurtzer “seeks to understand how and why we remember what we do, and how Jewish memory can be strengthened and renewed,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandies and director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, which will administer the chair, funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

A gift of more than $1.5 million from Bronfman Philanthropies will fund the first five years of the new chair, including an estimated $110,000 in salary, benefits and research assistance for each of the winning candidate’s first two years at Brandeis.

“Mr. Kurtzer’s project is particularly timely as we enter an era when the last Holocaust survivors are passing from the scene,” Sarna said. “With the preservation of Holocaust memory a renewed topic of concern in Jewish life, Mr. Kurtzer’s research promises to shed important light on this subject.”

Am I the only one wondering if the people on this committee just got bored and started voting for “books I personally would find interesting” as opposed to “the next big Jewish idea?” I mean honestly, exactly how cutting-edge is “Holocaust memory?”

Maybe this all says a lot more about the “great minds” at Brandeis/Bronfman than it does about any of the applicants. Oh well, maybe in another few years they’ll actually bother to invite someone into their ivory tower who isn’t already there.


12 Responses to “The “Next New Idea?” Hardly.”

  1. elyakatz said

    Sounds to me like you might be more stimulated if you began exploring the Orthodox world. There’s were outward thinking reigns…

  2. Oyster said

    Orthodoxy? Outward thinking?

    Surely you jest, Elyakatz.

    Not the two things that I automagically associate with one another.

  3. FriarYid said

    Maybe our esteemed commenter is trying, ever-so-subtly, to point out that Orthodox institutions have the similar problem of circumscribed thinking, no less than their non-Ortho counterparts.

    Excellent point, Elyakatz. Personally, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it myself.

  4. kneidalach said

    you’re right, none of the topics are interesting or inspiring.
    But really, how many big bang ideas can come up in a religion that is about 5,000 years old, and is constantly being ‘updated’?

  5. Friar Yid said

    I thought Beery and Singer’s ideas were at least different. There’s no doubt that technology is changing the meaning of community (Beery) and Singer’s idea that Judaism should go from shunning converts to maybe even looking at pseudo-proselytizing (if I understood him right) is certainly provocative. I would say that’s probably one of the “newest” ideas I’ve heard in a long time (which is not to say that I’m entirely sold on it). They’re both a hell of a lot better than Shmuley’s, “Buy my old book, watch my show, and give me a 2-year-professorship so I can sell this Judaism thing to the masses” plan.

  6. Oyster said

    I personally was pulling for Ariel to win. I think in terms of innovation and having an actual action-plan, no one comes close to him. He’s put together a handful of non-profits, and organizes an annual fellowship in Jerusalem for people who want to creatively mix Zionism and technology to projects that benefit modern Jewish life.

    While the other candidates make a nice song & dance about the Jewish people’s past, or bring navel-gazing to a new level, Ariel is actualy *doing* something.

  7. Friar Yid said

    The fact that Beery and Kurtzer were the only finalists under 40 is also informative- and disappointing.

    (Incidentally, you can also read all the proposals here.)

  8. elyakatz said

    I wasn’t jesting, nor was I subtly suggesting anything. However, if one’s experience with true Torah Judaism is limited, and one only goes by the various “urban legends” out there in this regard, I guess the mind is easily shut. Too bad. I won’t trouble you anymore.

    If you want real conversation, you might consider losing the sarcasm.

  9. Friar Yid said


    My apologies for the sarcasm overload. My experience with Orthodoxy is indeed limited. However I am automatically skeptical of anyone claiming to have access to “true Judaism.” If you can point me somewhere for information, though, I’d be willing to check it out.

  10. elyakatz said

    Well, for starters, you’ve got the Aish link here. Aish HaTorah are wonderful folks, very warm and accepting. So are Breslovers. They come from different streams of Judaism. Breslovers lean heavily in the direction of Kabballah, Aish is a bit less, maybe leaning more towards a Rambamist view.

    There are different flavors of Torah Judaism for every Jew. There’s even Torah Judaism for non-Jews who don’t want to convert — B’nai Noach. Rabbi Chaim Richman has a heart for the B’nai Noach community, which is growing, especially in the South.

    You’ve got so many links, I’m surprised you couldn’t find something . I’m hardly the expert. Just an enthusiastic member of my own community. I like reading rabbi Lazer Brody. I have great respect for rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

    There are bad apples everywhere. If I’m in a community and find they’re not living up to the standards that our Sages of blessed memory have given us, such as vulgar talk, dishonesty, or lashon hara, then I would speak up, or leave. That’s how we keep each other on target. But it wouldn’t make me give up on religion.

  11. Friar Yid said

    Thanks for the info Elyakatz. I’m curious; how would you characterize your own community along the Orthodox spectrum? I liked Steinsaltz before he got involved with the new Sanhedrin. Lazer makes me alternately touched or aggravated depending on what he’s talking about (his ongoing threads on the Cherokee being a lost tribe and Abir Warrior Arts gave me blog fodder for months, which I do appreciate).

    I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on religion; the issue is where your starting point is. I come from a thoroughly secular background, the result of gradual generations of assimilation, a strong trend towards secular Yiddish socialism, and my grandfather’s BT experience with Chabad which went horribly wrong. As a committed non-halachic Jew (that is, I really don’t care about halacha as law; the Reconstructionist view of mitzvot as folk traditions is much more up my alley) who lights candles, says Kiddush, and goes to Friday night services between 2 and 3 times a month, I’m actually among the most religious in my family.

    My family’s experiences with (and my own research of, though not direct experience with) Orthodoxy, combined with my own fairly skeptical nature to begin with, make me suspect Orthodoxy isn’t for me. But considering where I started (having burritos for Passover and thinking the Messiah was something “those Christians” thought up) and where the rest of my family is, I think I’ve come a long way. It’s possible I may still go further. But I suspect it won’t be towards Orthodoxy.

  12. elyakatz said

    I would say my community is a 1/2 and 1/d modern Orthodox and hareidim, toss in a little chasidish thought, yet not allowing rationalism to be overrun by mysticism. The community has learned to rub along together in spite of some differences.

    I plan on returning to Israel however. Though I am extremely fond of this community, I’m looking for a fit in the Land for me and my family. I enjoy studying Kabballah, but I like the rational approach of the Rambam a lot too. My preference is to be with people who, while pursuing Torah observance per Orthodox halachah, are open to other streams of Orthodoxy, a community that frowns on frowning on others.

    Well, keep plugging away. It’s my opinion that if you gave an Orthodox community a shot at it (maybe not Chabad, considering your grandfather’s experience) you would be surprised at the warmth of most of these communities. There are all levels of observance in my community. Some folks drive in on Shabbos and no one wrinkles their eyebrows at them.

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