NEJS 135A: the Modern Jewish Experience

NEJS 135A: the Modern Jewish Experience

NEJS 135a: The Modern Jewish Experience

Prof. ChaeRan Y. Freeze

Office Hours: T: 2-3; F: 12:30-1:30; by appointment

What did it mean for Jews to “become modern?” This course will explore the remarkable transformation of Jewish society, culture, religion, and politics from 1750-1950 in transnational context: Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and the Americas. One major goal of this course is to read a wide variety of primary texts—to hear the voices of individuals about the issues that concerned them. We will engage with political treatises, letters, memoirs and autobiographies, art, music oral testimonies, belle-lettres, films, archival documents, newspaper articles, and more. Another goal is to integrate an analysis of gender throughout the course, not simply to add women and stir. Students will be asked to place themselves in the shoes of historical contemporaries and reflect upon the possibilities countenanced and challenges faced by Jews interacting with other cultures, peoples, religions, and empires.

Required Books

  1. The Jews: A History, Edited by Efron, Weitzman, Lehmann, and Holo 2nd Edition (Prentice Hall 2014) [JH]. Note that assignments for this item are drawn from the 2nd edition. Note that this textbook has a helpful glossary of terms that should be consulted while reading individual chapters.
  2. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, 3rd Edition, Edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz (Oxford U. Press, 2010) [JMW]. Please purchase the 3rd edition, which has many new documents.
  3. Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat (vol. 1). Pantheon, 2007.


John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present (Norton 3rd Edition, 2010)

Course Requirements and Grading

  • Class Participation – 20%: Students are expected to have read the texts for each class and participate actively in discussions. You should therefore plan to bring to class the documentary source reader, The Jew in the Modern World (JMW). You will also be asked to bring your own copies of selected primary texts that are posted on Latte for discussion.
  • Reading Journal of Primary Sources – 20% (Check dates: Jan 30; March 27, April 24)

Include author, date, audience, key ideas, your critical reaction to ONE source for each class.

  • Midterm – 20%
  • Final Exam – 20%
  • Semester Paper on an “Epic” Court Trial in Jewish History - 6-8 page paper - 20% (Due 25 April)

Select one of the “epic” court trials that not only put individual Jews on trial but exposed public opinions about Jews as a collective; you may also choose a trials of individuals accused of crimes against the Jews.

  • Use at least 3 primary sources
  • Analyze the larger issues at stake (i.e, religious prejudices, racial antisemitism, questions of Jewish political loyalty, etc.)
  • What kind of language did the prosecution or accuser use to describe the crime? What assumptions are inherent in the accusations? What arguments were made to support the case? How did the defendants respond?

Possible Cases:

  • Damascus Affair (Syria, 1840)
  • Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and Conversion (Italy, 1850s-1860s)
  • Alfred Dreyfus Affair for Treason (France, 1894-1906)
  • Ritual Murder Case in Koznitz (Germany, 1900)
  • Mendel Beilis Ritual Murder Case (Russia, 1913)
  • Leo Frank Ritual Murder Case and Lynching (America, 1913)
  • Adolf Eichmann Trial for his role in the “Final Solution” (Israel, 1961-62)
  • Trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (Soviet Union, 1952)
  • Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Treason Case (America, 1950-53)

Extra Credit Opportunities: Attend a Tauber Institute Colloquium or Lecture on campus on a Jewish history topic.

Academic Integrity: Academic integrity is expected of all students. All work turned in must be the work of the student whose name appears at the top of the paper, except where you have specifically requested and received permission for a collaborative effort. All students are expected to cite their sources fully (whether from texts, interviews, or online). If you have any questions on when or whether to cite, please do not hesitate to ask. You may not turn in work for this class which you have previously turned in for other classes. Plagiarism will be dealt with according to the Academic Honesty Policy; plagiarized work will result in a failure of the class and further sanctions, at the discretion of the Brandeis College Administrative Board, may result.

Four-Credit Course (with three hours of class-time per week):

Success in this 4 credit hour course is based on the expectation that students will spend a minimum of 9 hours of study time per week in preparation for class (readings, papers, discussion sections, preparation for exams, etc.). Please note that you may need to spend more than 9 hours of study time depending the varying amount of reading, writing, assignments, etc. per week.


If you are a student with a documented disability on record at Brandeis University and wish to have accommodation made for you in this class, please see me immediately with your letter from the Accessible Education Office. All communications will be kept confidential.

I.Introduction: The Early Modern Background

Fri., 1/12 A View from Amsterdam

Overview: TJ 248-258 (skim for background)


  • “Exchange of Letters Between Isaac Nahar of Amsterdam and Jacob Sasportas of Hamburg” in Pawel Maciejko, Sabbatian Heresy , 16-22 (Latte)
  • JMW 62-65

II.The Age of Enlightenment and Emancipation

Tues., 1/16Enlightened Absolutism: Useful Subjects, Fellow Humans

Overview: TJ 269-72


  • JWM 42-45, 27-34, 34-36, 37-40. 40-41

Fri., 1/19The Berlin Enlightenment: A New Sociability

Overview: TJ 299-304

Article: Emily D. Bilski, et. al, Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation, selections (Latte)


  • Jew in the Modern World 65-66, 74-77, 91-93, 94-96

Tues, 1/23Emancipation of the Jews in France

Overview: TJ 272-275


  • JMW 123-125, 128-130, 152-156

II.Imperial Subjecthood in Pre-Reform Russia

Fri, 1/26 Internal Religious Life: Hasidim, Mitnagdim, Musar

Overview: TJ 288-98


  • “ Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev,” Tales of the Hasidim 204-05 (“In Transport”); 212 (“The Song of You”); 219-221 (“The Seder of the Ignorant Man” (Latte)
  • Yehoshua Heschel Levine, “The Ascents of Eliyahu,” Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia, 104-113 (Latte)
  • JMW 368-75
  • Optional: Ada Rapoport Albert, “On Women in Hasidism: S. A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition” in Jewish History (Latte) – will include in lecture

Tues, 1/30Integration into the Empire and Haskalah

Overview: TJ 281-285, 307-313


  • Moshe Leib Lilienblum, “Sins of My Youth” EJLIR, 353-367 (Latte)
  • Yehuda Leib Gordon, “The Tip of the Yud” (Latte)
  • Avraam Uri Kovner, “The Vil’na Rabbinical School,” EJLIR 412-414 (Latte)
  • “Observance of Judaism in the Russian Army” EJLIR 513-520 (Latte)

III. The Promise of Emancipation

Fri, 2/2 Modernizing Judaism in West-Central Europe– DEBATE

Overview: TJ 317-23

Documents: (Students will be divided into four groups: know your denomination’s position well and be familiar with the others)

  • Reform JMW 183-189, 203-206 (note other positions on Hebrew to be discussed in the next class), 207- 209-210, 211, 259-260
  • Ultraorthodoxy, JMW 189-192, 224-229
  • Neo-Orthodoxy JMW 220-224, 230-31
  • Positive-Historical (Conservative) JMW 217-219 (review Frankel’s position on 203-204

Tue., 2/6 Becoming Bourgeois and Modern Identities


  • Robin Judd, “ The Circumcision Questions in the German-Speaking Lands,” in Contested Ritual: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life, 113-123
  • Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (intro and chpt 1, Latte)


  • JMW, 805-808; 800
  • Eduard Silbermann in Jewish Life in Germany: Memoirs from Three Centuries, ed. Monika Richarz (Latte)

IV. Civilizing Missions in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire

Fri., 2/9 Promoting French Education and Language


  • Joshua Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria, chpt 4 (ebrary)


  • A Rabbi in Istanbul Condemns the Teaching of European Languages in Julia Cohen and Sarah Stein, Sephardi Lives 123-125
  • JMW 292-293, 455-468,

Tue., 2/13 Family, Religion, and Culture in North Africa


  • Joshua Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria, chpt 5 (ebrary)

Graphic Novel:

  • Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat


V. The Jews of Imperial Russia

Tue 2/27Selective Integration and Failed Promises

Overview: TJ 341-346


  • Kishinev Pogrom documents, EJLIR 536-555 (Latte)
  • JMW 389-391

Fri 3/2Radical Politics

Overview: TJ 346-351


  • EJLIR, 488-494, 477-482, 570-592, 589-594 (Latte)
  • JMW 405-407

VI. America, America

Tue 3/6 Marriage, Divorce, and American Jewish Family Life

Overview: TJ 359-364

Document: Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, selections (Latte)

Film: Hester Street (watch via library link)

Gitl and her son arrive on the Lower East side of New York in 1896 to join her husband Jake. While Jake, who has job in a sweatshop and an English-speaking girlfriend, has completely embraced America, Gitl clings to her old country ways. Jake is embarrassed to be seen with her as he struggles to assimilate by shedding his ethnic heritage. Gitl finds a way to become victor instead of victim.. By turns heartbreaking, comic, and sharply observed, this remarkable film won Carol Kane an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1975.

VII. Antisemitism and Jewish Responses

Fri 3/9Modern Antisemitism

Overview: TJ 329-341


  • JMW 302-308; 315-325; 332-328; 339-342

Fri 3/13 Socialism and Zionism

Overview TJ 346-350-358


  • Todd Samuel Presner, “Clear Heads, Solid Stomachs, and Hard Muscle: Max Nordau and the Aesthetics of Jewish Regeneration,” Modernism/Modernity 10:2 (2003).


  • JMW 599-607; 613; 616-623

VIII.WWI and Its Aftermath

Fri., 3/16 WWI and the Creation of New Nation States in Eastern Europe

Overview: TJ 368-370, 377-379


  • JMW, 415-20
  • Jeffrey Shandler, Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust, selections (Latte)

Tue 3/20 The Creation of Soviet Jewry

Overview: 374-377


  • Elissa Bemporad, “Behavior Unbecoming a Communist:

Jewish Religious Practice in Soviet Minsk” Jewish Social Studies 14:2 (2008): 1-31.


  • JMW, 412-415
  • Moyshe Kulback, The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga, 34-36

In Class: A “Red Seder” in class (with M. Altshuler’s Red Communist Haggadah)

Fri., 3/23 Zionism and Mandate Palestine

Overview: 390-401


  • Anat Helman, Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities, chpt.1 (ebrary)


  • JMW 681-692

Tues, 3/27Baghdad in the Interwar Years

Overview TJ 401-405


  • Orit Bashkin, The New Babylonians, 1-14 (Latte)


  • Sasson Somekh, Baghdad Yesterday, 1-69, 109-122 (Latte)

Passover break

Tue, 4/10 Modernist Culture, Gender, and Fashion in Weimar Germany

Overview: TJ 368-71


  • Nils Roemer, “Photographers, Jews, and the Fashioning of Women in Weimar Republic” in Fashioning Jews: Clothing, Culture, and Commerce 99-112
  • Kerry Wallach, “ Weimar Jewish Chic: Jewish Women and Fashion in 1920s Germany,” 113-136


  • Paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz (Latte)

IX. The Destruction of European Jewry

Fri., 4/13 Rise of the Nazis to Power

Overview: TJ 419-23

Documents: JMW 730-733; 735-741

Oral Testimonies:

  • Gerda Frieberg on the1936 Olympics in Berlin

  • Sigi Hart on Kristallnacht

Tues., 4/17 Voices of the Shoah

Overview: TJ 423-428, 432-43

Oral Testimonies:

  • 7 Interviews on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Erna Anolik at arriving at Auschwitz

  • Eva Kor on her experience with Josef Mengele

Fri., 4/20 The Holocaust on Soviet Soil and its Aftermath

Overview: TJ 428-432


  • The Black Book, Selections (Latte)
  • Select poetry on Babi Yar (Latte)
  • Veteran Roman Davidovich Yagel

X. Rebuilding Lives

Tue 4/24 Creation of the State of Israel and Jewish Refugees

Overview: TJ 444-448, 469-478


  • “Refugee Children Arrive in Palestine” Sephardi Lives 295-296
  • “Accusations of Discrimination Against Sephardim and Mizrahi Jews in Israel, Sephardi Lives 255-256
  • JMW, 497
  • Film clips: Sallah Shabati (analyze the stereotypes and critiques)

Final Exam