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Yehuda Kurtzer Wins Bronfman Brandeis Competition

Brandeis University selected Harvard PhD student Yehuda Kurtzer as the winner of its competition for the Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation. Brandeis and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies were looking for the best proposal for a book that would transform the way Jews think about themselves and Judaism. As a result of his winning proposal, which you can read here, Kurtzer gets a 2-year visiting professorship at Brandeis and a book deal. The JTA describes Kurtzer’s idea as follows:

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 contest attracted 231 applicants, and five finalists presented their ideas last Sunday at Brandeis. The other finalists were Ariel Beery (who I was rooting for), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Anita Diamnant and Saul Singer.

It’s amazing what Brandeis has to do to get a Harvard PhD to teach there!

OK I was kidding! That was mean. I liked that Kurtzer began his proposal with a quote from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Everything is Illuminated. It talks about Jews having a sixth sense – that of history. Other than that, I don’t really understand what’s going on here. But that’s ok because I am dumb and I am cool with that. Please feel free to explain it to me.

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16 Comments

  1. aaron

    2/28/2008 at 10:08 pm

    Screw the book deal. Beery is going to write his memoirs anyways after he runs – and wins – the premiership of Israel in a couple of years.

    Some potential Beery campaign slogans:

    1. He’s not only good looking, but smarter than your dad. Both your dads.

    2. Beery to the Jews is what Hitler is to the Nazis. A inspiring hero, a dedicated fighter, and kind of fucking crazy.

    3. A vote for Beery is a vote for…Ariel Beery. Need we say more?

    4. If you care about Jews, then listen to Ariel Beery. You will anyways, at some point, in some random hotel in Israel, wishing you were out drinking somewhere. SO why not get it over with and vote for his genius ass.

    5. Vote for Beery. His dad is a fucking shaman.

    6. Think you know a lot about Zionism and the state of Israeli-Lebanese relations between 1981-1986? Oh. Really? Then I guess you’re in competition with Ariel Beery. In which case, good luck and we hope you lose the election. Because your campaign probably sucks.

    7. He wants to take over the Jewish world. He figured this would be a good place to start.

    ck you got any?

  2. Harry

    2/29/2008 at 12:42 am

    Can someone please translate all that pseudo-intellectual hogwash into people speak? Seems like all Kurtzer is going to do is confused the 10 Jews who will actually read his book.

  3. froylein

    2/29/2008 at 1:30 am

    Harry, there are many ways to interpret this:
    a) a Jewish popular history (e.g. like that by Heinrich Graetz),
    b) a book on Jewish religious teaching with historical footnotes,
    c) a book on Jewish history with theological footnotes.
    All over, I suppose, it’s meant to be a comprehensive approach to Jewish history combined with theology. (In Catholic theology, this branch is called “dogmatics”.)

  4. ck

    2/29/2008 at 1:37 am

    And uh… what froylein? Is this supposed to save the Jews? Heinrich Gratz?? Dogmatics??? I don’t get it. I’m just gonna write my silly little posts and have silly little fun with my silly little Jews and that’s that. And have festivals. Yeah.

    And Aaron? Thanks. Now I have to change my pants…

  5. themiddle

    2/29/2008 at 3:06 am

    My reading of his proposal:

    There is history – as in scientific and accurate review of facts.

    There is memory – as in a translation by the individual or the community of the history. Memory mythologizes the history, often with great inaccuracies.

    In History, you can’t prove that the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years after fleeing slavery in Egypt.

    In Memory, you create an entire series of rites, customs, beliefs and scholarship around this important event in Jewish folklore.

    Kurtzer seems to be claiming that the historian distances his reader from memory because facts get in the way of mythology. However, memory is an important component of how Jews see themselves and the reason they celebrate their Jewishness.

    He then points out (using Boston as his example), there are many active movements among younger Jews to relocate the “memories” of Jewish life even as they live in a scientific world. They go to work at an investment bank or as doctors during the day, but then they seek to bond with their “Jewishness” by studying old texts, by finding personally meaningful worship services, etc.

    In other words, history and memory can live side by side, and, he stresses, in being combined, may offer a key to maintaining Jewish life and community.

    He stresses that memory is crucial in maintaining Jewish identity and while he doesn’t explicitly say so, I think he also means in Jewish pride. In other words, you feel more comfortable identifying as a Jew and with your belonging to the Jewish people if you can keep the history but focus on and differentiate the memory.

    So far, so good.

    I think his proposal is to study this phenomenon more closely – that is, the groups and individuals who are combining history and memory in their Jewish lives – and in understanding why and how it’s happening, to offer some public programming ideas that will reach a wider Jewish audience.

    I’m assuming he intends to mean, even if he doesn’t say it, that if he’s right and these “new” movements are a solution to the evisceration of memory by the science of history because they find a way to balance the two, then he will be proposing a way for organizations and groups across the country to replicate this success and perhaps draw back to the community many Jews, particularly young ones.

  6. themiddle

    2/29/2008 at 3:18 am

    It’s a complicated proposal and while he’s clearly a very intelligent writer, you have to wonder if he’s the person to deliver this message. He seems to come from the world he’s describing but that’s a very different world of Jewish life than one encounters in most communities in the country. The critical mass of Jews that Boston offers isn’t replicated in too many other cities.

    I also wonder about the nature of mythology and self-awareness. Can you make up that stuff and have people accept it or do these things develop and evolve on their own and by definition cannot be driven forth by calculating forces. I guess if I look at the history of movements like Communism or Zionism, it is possible to convince people of a narrative or a world-view and have them act on the set of beliefs they acquire. However, these same people will eventually produce dissenters who demythologize the project and cause it to falter. Benny Morris has done this to Zionism to a certain degree and history has done it to Communism.

    I guess that if Brandeis and Bronfman wanted an academic work of some quality, Kurtzer will produce it. However, will they accomplish changing the face of Jewish life in North America with this project? I doubt it. Movements are hard to pre-plan and in this case the author is using as his “paradigm” a location and people who are, by definition, already far more connected to Jewish life and culture than the majority of Jews in North America. Those are the folks who need to be reached, not the ones who are already going to alternative morning minyans.

  7. avi p

    2/29/2008 at 5:00 am

    His proposal seems to be mostly an observation, shared by almost anyone who has been alive the past decade, of a cross-denominational acknowledgment that there is profound and relevant wisdom in our tradition. Lacking in his proposal is any discussion of how the Jewish people should take “advantage” of this current “return” to our classic sources. Seems like all he did was to feame phenomenon like Limmud in the context of that word that federation people have wet-dreams over-memory. Somehow, even learning a page of Talmud can be somehow construed into Holocaust education. Good shabbos

  8. Maya Norton

    2/29/2008 at 6:41 am

    Thanks for the link, CK.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Maya

    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  9. Tzemach

    2/29/2008 at 9:26 am

    ck, who are you? drop me an email.

  10. Tzemach

    2/29/2008 at 9:28 am

    one can read the proposal and think that Boston is different. Are you kidding me??? Its worse than in any other jewish town. This is an academic lingo that tries to hide the lack of ideas.

  11. froylein

    2/29/2008 at 10:33 am

    ck, Heinrich Graetz is one of the most important Jewish historians of all times, maybe even the most important Jewish historian. Among other works, he wrote a 13-volume history of the Jewish people as well as anthologies of Jewish folklore (= popular history). Save the Jews? Not sure about that, but proper histography is well-needed in order to “preserve” credibility, particularly as many lesser observant Jews conclude from the clashes between folklore and history that there might be something wrong with their religion while many more observant ones are inclined to forgo historical studies altogether for them not to interfere with folklore – a way of proceeding Islam, for instance, often harshly gets accused of. Kurtzer’s idea isn’t innovative in European terms as we’ve had a few outstanding religious Jewish historians and histographers such as Graetz or Julius H. Schoeps (likely the most important current Jewish historian), but that approach isn’t quite as widely spread across the Big Pond.
    I’m sorry for Beery though, but at least he was one of the finalists, which per se has earned him credentials others may only dream of. When there’s only one winner to be declared, coming in second is unfortunate. I’m confident though that he’ll make his way one way or another.

  12. WithLove

    2/29/2008 at 11:50 am

    I was extremely disappointed with the Brandeis/Bronfman choice. Does Kurtzer need this prize to write his book? He was going to write the book anyway. Did Diamant or Boteach need the prize either? Does anyone wonder what their ideas could be? Why not take someone with a revolutionary idea, something that would transform Judaism. A “Great Awakening” perhaps or a Baal Shem Tov for the next millenium.
    Instead we get some intellectual prattle. Ideas that seem tired, accepted and worn out. This whole project lacks vision and risk.

    Why not give steroids to Ball players or money to investment bankers?

    Wow, this will really change and transform the Jewish world.

  13. gweitz.ar

    2/29/2008 at 4:40 pm

    Thank you Aaron… funniest comment I’ve read this month…

  14. aaron

    2/29/2008 at 5:40 pm

    thank you! I don’t know why these comments are so serious.

    How are we going to get Ariel Beery elected to office? By commenting. We need action. I’m calling the shaman. I know he can help.

  15. Friar Yid

    2/29/2008 at 6:07 pm

    I was also bummed out at this news. The only ideas with any real substance to them seemed to be from Beery and Singer. Kurtzer’s proposal was poorly written (the intense amount of grad school speak was painful to read) and seems to contain little more than observations- and a willingness to make further observations- about the fact that “New Jewish Culture” isn’t that new, and that memory and authenticity can exist absent historical truth- which I’m not that convinced of, BTW. Wrapping it all up is the ever-popular “TEXT STUDY omg!” banner, which, while it may work for some, is also one of the most trite and repeated mantras in the community for the past several decades. I’m very happy that liberal Jews are getting something out of Talmud. But “text study” is not the “next big thing” in Judaism. Looking out your window and describing what you see (if not some things that have actually passed their zenith point) is not the same thing as coming up with a NEW way for Jews to think about themselves.

    And I think it’s a bit absurd that out of the five finalists, Brandeis decides to give the 2-year professorship/book deal to the Harvard Grad Student. Because clearly academia and book writing wasn’t in his future, right?

    And I for one found the Safran Foer quote excessively wanky. Not unlike the rest of his proposal.

  16. aaron

    3/12/2008 at 2:04 am

    Safran Foer is God. If anybody can hook me up and get me a sit down with the author I’ll marry your children. (So long as we’re not related. Because that would be gross. Kinda hot, but gross.)

    i love writing for this blog.

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