Sixth Biennial German Jewish Studies Workshop

Camden House Editorial Director, Jim Walker, shares his recent experience attending the Sixth Biennial Workshop in German Jewish Studies at the University of Notre Dame from the 24th – 26th February. The mission of the workshop is to produce and foster innovative research in German Jewish Studies and serve as a venue for introducing new directions in the field, analyzing the development and definition of the field itself, and considering the place of German Jewish Studies within the disciplines of both German Studies and Jewish Studies.

University of Notre Dame, Indiana

This was a small, extremely rich and intensive, yet friendly and welcoming gathering. The workshop is a creation of William C. Donahue of Notre Dame University and Martha B. Helfer of Rutgers University, and began at Duke University (then Donahue’s home institution) in 2009. Since 2017 it has been hosted by Notre Dame. It’s the only recurring scholarly gathering for and forum on German Jewish studies in North America. The sixth edition was convened by Professors Donahue and Helfer, hosted by Notre Dame, and organized by Professor Steffen Kaupp, also of Notre Dame.

I had the honor of being invited to attend by virtue of my role as editorial director of Camden House, which publishes Nexus: Studies in German Jewish Studies, the content of which arises in large part from the workshop, augmented by material submitted via other channels. This is the third iteration of the workshop I’ve attended, and each time I’ve been highly impressed.

By design, the workshop doesn’t follow the scheme of the usual scholarly conference, with standard 20-minute papers followed by minimal discussion if it can be fitted in. Instead, intensive dialogue and feedback is encouraged by a generous allowance of question-and-answer time following panels and also by two alternative presentation formats: one referred to as “Teaching the Book,” in which the author of a recently published monograph gives a short-form presentation on it and fields questions and reactions, and another called a “research briefing” on a project that’s underway but whose author seeks feedback to help determine its further direction. The latter format is extremely useful for early-career scholars, of whom there were a number present, but several tenured and even senior scholars also opted for it (the organizers make efforts to invite a mix of early, middle, and late-career scholars). This often results in a more helpful, more collaborative-feeling dialogue than is common in response to papers given at a traditional scholarly conference. The limitation of the attendance to roughly forty scholars also ensures a level of intimacy and interaction that is uncommon in my experience.

Another feature that sets this gathering apart is the offering of cultural events. This time they included a screening of the recently restored 1979 documentary film by David Perlov, Memories of the Eichmann Trial, and a presentation on the enormous number (hundreds of hours!) of outtakes, now available on the internet, from Claude Lanzmann’s making of his groundbreaking film Shoah (1985). The former was introduced by Brad Prager of the University of Missouri and Mimi Ash of The Visual Center at Yad Vashem, and the latter was introduced by Ash and conducted by Prager and Erin McGlothlin of Washington University St. Louis. Both of these presentations and the stimulating discussions afterwards were extremely thought provoking, whether one was a scholar of the Holocaust and/or of documentary film or an interested nonexpert like myself. Indeed the general public was invited to the screening of the Perlov film and a good number took advantage of the opportunity and even stayed through the discussion and commentary.

Meals were taken in common and provided another rich time for discussion and acquaintance. There were also keynote addresses both nights, the first by Leslie Morris of the University of Minnesota on what German Jewish studies is and has been and what its future possibilities are, and the second by Paul Reitter of Ohio State University on his recently completed translation of the autobiography of Salomon Maimon, the iconoclastic eighteenth-century Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher who wrote much of his output in German.

Despite a strong component of Holocaust studies at the workshop (as evidenced, for instance, by the two films I mentioned were presented), it is much broader than Holocaust studies, as is German Jewish studies itself. The breadth of the offerings might be illustrated by some examples: Dov Honick, a PhD student in the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame, held a talk on the historicity of different accounts of the Rheinland massacres of Jews by Christian armies on their way to the Crusades in the 11th century, while Lee Roberts of Purdue University Fort Wayne presented on the implications of the graphic novel and film A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (novel 2008; film 2010). In between those temporal extremes were presentations such as that by Laura Deiulio of Christopher Newport University on the utopian philosophy of the 18th-century writer, thinker, and salonniere Rahel Levin Varnhagen. Others extended across the spectrum of time, such as the presentation on the cultural history of German Jewish Bible translation by Abigail Gilman of Boston University.

It’s truly a pleasure and an inspiration to attend such a lively, intellectually high-level, and friendly and warm gathering. Thanks to the hosts and organizers, and we look forward to publishing some of the best content from the workshop in future volumes of Nexus.

Recent volumes of Nexus

Nexus 3

Essays in German Jewish Studies

Edited by William Collins Donahue and Martha B. Helfer

Nexus 3 features special forum sections on Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus. Renowned Heine scholar Jeffrey Sammons offers a magisterial critical retrospective on this towering “German Jewish” author, followed by a response from Ritchie Robertson, while the dean of Kraus scholarship, Edward Timms, reflects on the challenges and rewards of translating German Jewish dialect into English. Paul Reitter provides a thoughtful response.

Nexus 4

Essays in German Jewish Studies

Edited by William Collins Donahue and Martha B. Helfer

Nexus 4 features a special section on the Hungarian German Jewish writer and theater director George Tabori; edited by Martin Kagel, this section includes both new documentary material and a number of trenchant scholarly articles. Additionally, the volume includes a Forum section (edited by Brad Prager) on the 2016 documentary film A German Life, an exploration of Kafka and childhood (Ritchie Robertson), and a provocative reassessment of Schindler’s List (Eva Revesz).

Camden House editorial director, writing from South Bend, Indiana

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