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Workshop Brighton October 2010

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Workshop at the University of Sussex, England 

Chaired by Cathy Gelbin, Raphael Gross, and Daniel Wildmann   


Report by Roy Ben-Shai 

WorkshopThe first workshop of the Leo Baeck Fellowship Programme for 2010–2011 took place in Brighton, on the 18th and19th of October. Before the start of the workshop each of the fellows submitted to the group a brief statement about their work. This gave everyone the chance to prepare in advance for the workshop sessions, as well as much food for personal conversations throughout the two days. The workshop itself consisted of four sessions. In each of these sessions two or three of the fellows gave a presentation, which either provided an overview of the project or elaborated on a specific stage or aspect of it. Each of the presentations was followed by a response prepared in advance by one of the fellows and concluded with an open discussion, enriched by the active and much appreciated participation of Prof. Raphael Gross, Dr. Cathy Gelbin, Dr. Daniel Wildmann, and Dr. Matthias Frenz. 

The most marked aspect of this intense series of exchanges was diversity. No two of us could claim to belong to precisely the same ‹discipline› or share in the same methodology. Approaches to the study of texts and sources ranged from literary analysis, political or gender-focused analysis, biographical analysis, historiographical analysis, and cultural analysis. The types of sources themselves (literary, philosophical, juridical, and more) and the time periods from which they stemmed were equally varied. In particular, the task of acting as formal respondents was felt by each and every one of us as a challenge almost too tough to meet. We needed to invest much effort in understanding the stakes of the work responded to, and in formulating our response in such a way that, while naturally grounded in our respective fields of scholarship and knowledge, would nonetheless meet our colleague’s work on its own terms and offer a constructive contribution. As great as this challenge was, so meeting with it proved fruitful and rewarding for all involved. 

The workshop closed with a fascinating reflection on this very theme of diversity. The field of «Jewish studies» is as open today as is the question of what it means to be Jewish. And so, the question was raised for example, as to what it is that actually brings us together, what it is that makes us a group. Even here perspectives differed, and not all agreed, but for me at least these discussions gave birth to the thought that perhaps Jewish studies are less of a discipline (even an «interdisciplinary» one) than a web, i.e. a dynamic set of interconnections, associations, and personalities that uncover and develop, rather than presuppose, the different facets of Jewish histories, societies, and identities. What makes the Leo Baeck Fellowship Programme so valuable in that respect is that, not determining specific topics and connections in advance, and not subscribing to an academic field or department, it gives rise to the best sort of setting for such a web to flourish and to be recognized as such. In the end, what all our projects had in common was the attempt to shed new and critical light on the sources we examine and on our respective fields – through revisiting history, politics, and religious law in light of gender roles; religion and memory in light of politics and culture; cultural history in light of regional divisions; philosophy in light of literature and history, and of course, each and all of these fields in light of Jewish studies. Therefore, it was our common interest that made us into an actual group rather than an assortment of individuals or a «field», and our efforts to meet on common ground, which made all of us think even farther outside of our respective «boxes». 

Finally, whatever challenges we may have posed to each other as scholars, as people we were simply friends. It was a memorable experience with much laughter, good food, wine, and conversation. I am sure I speak for all of us when I say I look forward to a no less exciting and enlightening reunion at the second workshop in Freudental this coming July.