It’s hard to pinpoint which exact book or article ‘changed my life’. When I was brainstorming for this post – going through the filing cabinets of articles (both those imaginary ones in my brain, and the physical one in my room), shelves of books, and asking friends whose work they remembered me talking about in those early days – there were a few pieces in particular that jumped out, reminding me of the excitement of discovering new ideas, new ways of thinking, new histories and new forms of knowledge: Ella Shohat’s ‘Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims’, Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin’s ‘Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,’ and Andrea Dworkin’s ‘The Unremembered: Searching for Women at the Holocaust Memorial Museum’. All of these pieces share those traits: they taught me something substantially new about topics that I had a long history of learning, and in the process upended what I thought I knew about Jewish identity and Jewish history.
My PhD after all – after having written an Honours thesis that looked at a settlement house in late 19th and early 20th century Boston – had turned out to be highly influenced by the confluence of my getting involved in feminist activism at uni and my high school Jewish Studies classes spent learning about histories of Jewishness and the Holocaust. My starting question – which changed and enlarged, as all such things do – was to wonder: How do high school teachers of the Holocaust at Jewish schools teach about Jewish women?
And it was only through a gendered analysis of European Jewishness and Zionism that I could come to find both the questions that I really wanted to answer and the broader contexts that would give me the tools to understand these histories. There were a couple of different pieces that did this work for me, and together they really did change my life.
Ronit Lentin’s article ‘A yiddishe mame desperately seeking a Mame Loshn: Toward a theory of the feminisation of stigma in the relations between Israelis and Holocaust Survivors’ and Daniel Boyarin’s book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man together opened me up to the potential of historicising Jewishness and gender together. In doing so, both pieces provided the bedrock for a critique of gendered Jewishnesses at the level of the personal and the national. They provided a vocabulary for understanding and explaining the work that Jewish nationalist movements have done to reform the Jewish body; to reject Eastern European Jewish genders, languages and practices; and to create the idea of the New Jew who would, through a commitment to assimilation, control their history and future. My thesis, as well as my relationship with the Jewish histories with which I identified, and which shaped my embodiment and structured my daily life, became determined through this new understanding of the histories of European Jewishness’s gendering. It opened my mind to new possibilities for writing histories, for creating alternative futures for Jewishness, and for the way we can use history to understand our place in the world. And perhaps most significantly, reading those two formative works – and finding ways to engage with Lentin and Boyarin – meant that I felt newly grounded in a community of scholars whose vital ideas I had never known existed (and it is that sense of writing, talking and thinking with a rich community which perhaps is the reason that I find it impossible to name just one text or author which changed my life!).
Jordy Silverstein is an ARC Postdoctoral Associate with the ARC Laureate Fellowship Project ‘Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism: 1920 to the Present’, led by Professor Joy Damousi. As part of this project, Jordana is investigating the history of Australian Government policy directed towards child refugees from 1970 to the present. Her previous research has focused on questions of belonging, nationalism, identity, historiography, sexuality and memory, which she has primarily investigated through the lens of Australian Jewish history. Her book, Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty First Century is published by Berghahn Books (2015), and she has also co-edited a volume entitled In the Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation (Vallentine Mitchell, 2016).