Leslie Morris (University of Minnesota)

Unsettling German Jewish Studies


In 1968, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the son of German Jewish refugees in Paris, was facing expulsion from France for his radical student political activity, his fellow student protesters rallied around him, chanting “we are all German Jews.” Over the past several years I’ve been reminded of this as the original source of expressions of solidarity in various moments of political upheaval and trauma (“We are Paris,” “We are Pittsburgh,” etc.). And yet the rallying cry of support for Cohn-Bendit, “we are all German Jews,” during the student revolts in Paris of 1968, is unimaginable today. To be a German Jew today—in fact, to be a Jew at all in the public sphere—is to be marked quite differently than even just several decades ago. 


I begin with Cohn-Bendit and “we are all German Jews” because it illustrates, I believe, how the terms “Jewish” and the “German Jewish” in particular have served different functions at different cultural moments. What I want to do today, for this conference devoted to a re-imagining of German studies, is not to talk about the historical place of Jewish studies within German studies, but rather to pose a series of questions about the role Jewish studies and German Jewish studies can play in today’s university.         


The first question I want to raise is how German studies can engage productively with Jewishness without resorting to the old and tired tropes of, on the one hand, Jewish persecution/German barbarism, and on the other, the embrace and celebration of exemplary (German) Jewish contributions to German culture—largely that of Weimar-era cultural production. Along with other “turns” in the ever-widening gyre of disciplinary vertigo—the linguistic turn, the spatial turn, the transnational turn, the Turkish turn, the environmental turn, etc.—if there ever was a so-called “Jewish turn” in German studies, I would date it to Sander Gilman’s 1989 article in a special issue of The German Quarterly devoted to the future of German studies, “Why and How I Study the German.”[i] And yet, whether we want to see there having been a “Jewish turn” or not, our field has long since acknowledged the many and complex ways in which German culture is always already Jewish. This is certainly a more nuanced and interesting variation on the so-called symbiosis of Jews and Germans, as it locates within both Germanness and Jewishness a fundamental sense of historical contingency and unsettledness.  


It is not within the scope of this talk today to parse what has at times been understood as “Jewish alterity”—the mark of difference throughout Christian Europe of the perennial “Other,” at times pariah (either Arendt’s “conscious pariah” or simply pariah), at other times assimilated into the mainstream either as “persecuted” or oppressor (made that much more complicated post-1948). Certainly, “Jewishness” has been figured, at various times, as the “radical force” within majoritarian cultures; this “radical force” understood as a kind of decentering that posits the “Jew as the exilic within” who is both a part of dominant white culture yet at the same time occupies a critical, “exilic” dimension within that culture.[ii] At other times, the radical decentering has been understood as part of Jewish multilingualism—itself understood as constitutive of Jewish writing. To this end, I note how scholar Yasemin Yildiz’s notion of postmonolingualism can be brought to bear on German Jewish writing to help us think past the binary of mono versus multilingualism, and to instead see how the two are in a productive tension with each other.[iii] Marc Shell and Werner Sollors’s Multilingual Anthology of American Literature (2000) suggests a similar rethinking of the relationship between multilingualism and place.[iv] For Shell and Sollors, the place where the writing is enacted is what determines its designation as American, not the language or ethnicity of the writer. Thus for Sollors and Shell, literature is American if it is produced in America, regardless of the language in which it is originally written. The implications of this for a rethinking of the boundaries and contours of German Jewish literature are exciting: in breaking apart the relationship between language and place, Shell and Sollors have created an opening for rethinking the structures that have defined national and ethnic literatures, decoupling language from place, and giving us a roadmap with which to unmoor literature from its linguistic or cultural origins. 


Yet despite the still prevalent (if romanticized) notion of the Jew as the embodiment of the critical minoritarian and multilingual voice on the margins, Jewish studies as a field exists in a kind of tension with critical ethnic studies (because of debates about Israel/Palestine and critiques of settler colonialism). While there are clear reasons for this, I want nonetheless to push at it a bit and pose the question of the proper place of Jewish studies/Jewish culture in some of the recent initiatives to “decolonize” German studies. What is and should be the historical and current place of Jewish studies scholarship in the project of resisting dominant modes of thought that keep disciplinary boundaries intact? As the editors of the inaugural issue of the journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society argued, the scholarly and academic approach of what constitutes the twin projects of “decolonization” and “indigeneity” are of necessity messy and contradictory—they are, in their words, the “tangible unknown”—a mode of thought and inquiry that is best seen as a process, one that is and can never be finished, one that takes place in everyday acts of decolonization.[v] To decolonize is, thus (and here it is hard not to translate this into the language of our field, with the words of Paul Celan as echo) to be perpetually en route. And yet how can German studies (leaving aside the question, if we can, of German Jewish studies) grapple with the idea of indigeneity? How can the work to decolonize German studies affirm indigeneity in the context of an always already Jewish German culture and history—one that valorizes diaspora and the exilic? How can Jewish studies, and German Jewish studies in particular, enter the debates in critical race studies, gender studies, and American studies of indigeneity and decolonization? How does a field that understands itself as occupying the historical center of Jewish studies, through the Wissenschaft des Judentums, unsettle its very foundations? Historians and scholars of Jewish studies have long established the complex ways in which Jewish culture is and has always been understood as contingent, not rooted, in a state of productive unsettledness of diaspora and the exilic.  How can German studies and German Jewish studies embrace a notion of indigeneity that is so central to this project? What would it mean for the field of German studies (not just German Jewish studies) to recognize that the concept of “indigeneity” holds the promise of reframing questions of place, space, movement, and belonging and that this does, indeed, touch on at least some of the particular issues faced by historians and critics of both German and Jewish culture?  


My first claim: the subfield of German Jewish studies has become so very settled, so entrenched institutionally, that it no longer has the same potential it once did for re-situating the figural Jew—the nomad, the wanderer, the perpetual Other. The Weimar era is certainly a formative one for understanding European modernity and its Jews, and it has a rich array of texts that point to both the precarity and settledness of Jews in German culture in the early decades of the twentieth century. Yet by invoking, again and again, the same pantheon of writers and artists whose Jewishness sometimes works in opposition to the dominant culture and at other times is inseparable from it, we run the risk of creating a notion of normative Jewish cultural production. (Of course, this institutionalization of German Jewish studies is perhaps one instance of a larger problem in the de(com)partmentalization of the humanities more generally.) Furthermore, to unsettle the field of German Jewish studies would be to continually probe the contours of Jewishness and Germanness to enable us to move beyond merely studying and teaching writers we categorize as “Jewish” to a mode of scholarly inquiry that not only, to come back to Jonathan Boyarin, enacts a “thinking in Jewish” but also, I want to suggest, a teaching in Jewish and a writing in Jewish and maybe even a “being in Jewish”—without necessarily being Jewish.[vi] And finally, the borders between our field and other fields need to be crossed more vigorously: we need to take a look at, for instance, Jewish studies scholarship in the fields of American literature, English, and French (to name the most obvious examples). To be sure, there is no recognized sub-field, say, of French Jewish studies, nor of English Jewish studies. American Jewish studies occupies its own somewhat uneasy place within a body of literature and scholarship that takes into account the shifting meanings of minority cultures and racial and ethnic difference more broadly. To this end, the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the US, formed in the early 1970s “in anger and defiance” to expand the canon of American literature to include African American literature and other minority writings, held a panel at the MLA ten years ago to explore how and if we can approach Jewish and “multiethnic literatures.” It strikes me that as German studies enters into the decolonization debates, this kind of dialogue might be productive.


In the intervening years since the early 1990s, when Mark Anderson published his provocative essay claiming that German studies had become “too” Jewish, setting off a storm of panels and special sessions at the GSA and the AJS, there has been an institutional flourishing of the subfield of German Jewish studies and of Holocaust studies. I will leave it to another forum to debate whether the genocide of Jews in the middle of the twentieth century and rising antisemitism properly fall under the domain of German Jewish studies; let me say for now that the Holocaust is not and should not be a topic solely for those of us in Jewish studies to examine, but rather must be approached as a phenomenon with global reach that should be of concern and interest to humanities scholars beyond the field of German Jewish studies. 


In part, my thoughts today are in response to the notion, still present in corners of our field, that to examine the vicissitudes of the Holocaust and German Jewish experience is to somehow “reduce,” or dilute, the entirety of German culture. While German Jewish studies is not and cannot solely be an investigation of the destruction of European Jews, German studies has, rightly, played a central role in shaping teaching and writing about the genocide. In the past weeks, I have found myself thinking about The 1619 Project by The New York Times Magazine for its rethinking of American history: is the entry of Jewish culture as respectable object of study analogous to the flashpoint 1619 but for German studies? In other words, was a renewed turn to thinking about how Jewishness has indelibly shaped, consciously and unconsciously, German culture for centuries the equivalent in our field to the 1619 project—a reframing and renarrativizing of American history that reclaims the date of 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in colonial Virginia, as the start of America? How can Jewish studies, and German Jewish studies in particular, enter the debates in critical race studies, gender studies, and other fields about indigeneity and decolonization? Can it? What is or should be the place of the Holocaust in German studies and in German Jewish studies? How might more recent work in the field of Holocaust studies, for instance, that takes into account not only the multidirectionality of Holocaust memory, but also its very foundations in structures of colonialism, help move us to a new way of doing German studies? And, finally, how does a field that understands itself as occupying the historical center of Jewish studies, through the legacy of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, unsettle its very foundations? What is it that a newly formulated and perhaps unsettled German Jewish studies can offer us at this particular moment, and what would the consequences of unsettling German Jewish studies be for Jewish studies more broadly? 


In a piece I wrote for the PMLA entitled “Placing and Displacing Jewish studies” nearly ten years ago, I tried to engage in a thought experiment, or rather, a Jonathan Boyarin “thinking in Jewish” experiment designed to take up Boyarin’s plea for a critical Jewish studies. My idea was to envision Jewish studies as the Venice of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: always implicit, present in its absence, the sign that keeps returning, the place of the perennially homeless, where none of us could be “housed” in a discipline or department and would instead be wandering (metaphoric) Jews through fields we sometimes might have no idea how to plow.[vii] In this ideal university, there would be no such thing as a German (or French or Spanish) department; national literatures would lie not in ruin but in some newly configured space of textual studies, dispersed from discrete language-based departments to do the more important work of mediating among the complex network of texts—historical, sociological, philosophical, literary—that constitute our teaching and scholarship. 


My invisible university of the future (written, admittedly, 10 years ago) also tried to imagine Jewish studies taken from its parochial and Germanic perch in the long aftermath of the Wissenschaft des Judentums to occupy a transdisciplinary position within the Humanities and, more particularly, within literary studies. I certainly do not want to create a Jewish “Lebensraum” on the frontier of the humanities; however, as Jewish studies has moved from a more traditional encounter with Jewish source and text to encompass some of the central issues in the humanities (nationhood; memory; identity; plurilingualism; mediality; textuality), it needs to reassess both its place within, and its potential for displacing, other modes of inquiry in the humanities and arts. It needs, in other words, as I argued in the PMLA, to become Calvino’s Venice.


Yet now, nearly ten years later, my question is a slightly different one: how can Jewish studies, and German Jewish studies in particular, expand the frame of Jewish text and German Jewish culture? How might it challenge national literary historiography in order to redraw the maps by which transnational Jewish culture and identity can (and must) be read, and thus reimagine the borders of literary Jewish cultures? I’ve tried to move beyond the boundaries of the German Jewish as it has been understood—opening and ventilating the borders of what David Roskies has described as a “a cultural space of extraordinary density” to a flow of voices we might want to consider (through a kind of textual counter-baptism) as “Jewish.” Turning to texts that invite exploration of the multidirectional and polylingual spaces of German and Jewish culture, I tried in my recent book to expand and “translate” the matrix of Jewish history, Jewish memory, and Jewish culture and to reimagine German Jewish culture outside the margins and reimagine the transnational potential for German Jewish culture in the twenty-first century. 


But let me return for a moment to my admittedly rose-colored reverie about Calvino’s Venice, and suggest that in order to reimagine the humanities, we need to develop even further a critical Jewish studies that demands not only the inclusion of new texts for study but, perhaps just as urgently, new forms of critical writing, i.e., creatively engaged scholarship capable of moving between modes of writing and experimenting with writing, breaking down the fault lines not only between different national literatures but also between modes of critical writing and literary texts and film. Not only do we need to rethink the place of Jewish, Afro-German, Turkish, and queer writers and artists in German culture, but even more so, we need new critical paradigms and new forms of writing that can ventilate existing institutional structures that prevent us from seeing these as part of a syncretic whole. 


As part of the project of “unsettling” German Jewish studies—a project that can and should not have an endpoint, but should be perpetually en route— I want to suggest, in closing, that we embrace experimental poet Caroline Bergvall’s plea for creating critical and poetic projects as a kind of “transformative meddling,” that takes place across and between languages. My call is for German Jewish studies (and with it, German studies) to become a “site for meddling” that would be unsettled and transformative, enabling us to approach the German Jewish not as a bounded site of historical experience, with a set of codified texts that belong to its domain, but rather as one node in a larger network, as part of our shared project of transforming German studies. 


[i] Gilman, Sander. “Why and How I Study the German.” The German Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2, 1989, pp. 192-204. 

[ii] Hochberg, Gil, and Shir Alon. “Decolonizing Judaism: Barbarism and the Return to Nativism.” Boundary 2, vol. 44, no. 4,  2017, pp. 179-194.

[iii] Yildiz, Yasemin. Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition. Fordham University Press, 2011. 

[iv] Shell, Marc and Werner Sollors, editors. The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature. NYU Press, 2000. 

[v] Sium, Aman, Chandni Desai, and Eric Ritskes. “Towards the ‘tangible unknown’: Decolonization and the Indigenous Future.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. I-XIII.

[vi] Boyarin, Jonathan. Thinking in Jewish. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[vii] Morris, Leslie. “Placing and Displacing Jewish Studies: Notes on the Future of a Field.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 3, 2010, pp. 764-773.