Spatial research expands Jewish studies

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On April 14, Professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary Barbara Mann Fishman spoke at Vassar about her research in the field of spatial studies for Jewish culture. Photo by Eilis Donohue

On Thursday, April 14, the Jewish Studies Program invited Barbara Mann to lecture on the significance of space in Jewish culture. Mann is an Associate Professor of Jewish Lit­erature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and is currently working as a guest lecturer here at Vassar for this semester. She is the author of “Space and Place in Jewish Stud­ies,” “A Place in History: Modernism” and “The Creation of Jewish Urban Space,” among many other literary works.

Fishman’s work focuses on utilizing new research methods to delve deeper into spatial studies in order to expand the field of Jewish Studies. Her lecture, titled “Makom: The Place of Space in Jewish Cultures,” examined how spatial practices play a role in historical and contemporary Jewish culture and communi­ties. She expanded upon the common idea of the historical “placelessness” of Jews and how they have used their displacement and strong religious beliefs as a way to form community ties around the world. Mann also spoke about creating safe space. She commented, “[It’s] not so much physical geography but more about language and practice.” In her opinion, space can only be claimed to be important for a group of people if there exists specific ele­ments that have cultural significance.

In her book “Space and Place in Jewish Stud­ies,” Fishman explains that Jewish experiences can be lived through in a multitude of places. She writes, “What makes each of these plac­es potentially ‘Jewish’ is also what constitutes them as places–memory, history and ritual” (Fishman 2012).

She contends that spatial significance de­pends on subjective experiences and the impact of one particular space will change between individuals and over time. New ap­proaches to the concepts of space and place are allowing for a broader conceptualization of what it is to be Jewish. Henry Rosen ’17 cor­roborated in an emailed statement, “I think [Mann] was commenting on the ways in which various Jewish communities in disparate spac­es across time have—by way of ritual artifacts and practices, literature, and legal discourses— conceptualized and defined space and place.”

In her lecture Mann drew on specific exam­ples of places that Jewish people made their own in the past, connecting current experienc­es with the historical legacy of identifying with space. This idea contrasts with the common misconception that Jewish people are “place­less.” “[S]he discussed the mythology sur­rounding the Yiddish place name for contem­porary Poland, Poyln (in Hebrew Po Lin means ‘Rest here’). Her example illustrated one way in which Polish Jews marked space as place retro­actively by way of a pre-existing interpretive frame, namely the Rabbinic textual tradition,” explained Rosen. “By making myths that read significance into past encounters with space, Polish Jews (and according to Professor Mann, Jews in other times and spaces as well) defined for themselves a sense of place and rootedness, contrary to the idea that ‘placelessness’ histor­ically characterized Jews.”

He added, “As a Jewish studies major, I find Professor Mann’s work on theories of space interesting in that it provides frameworks rele­vant to a broad array of fields and topics, from diaspora to urbanism to visual arts. I came away thinking about Jewish participation in the reconceptualization of social space in the early Soviet Union and more broadly about how Jews historically, in various places, under­stood and approached social space.”

One Comment

  1. Why is half of an article on a lecture by a professor given over to a comment by a student?

    Is the idea that there’s a misconception about the placelessness of Jews Mann’s idea or Rosen’s? It’s not very accurate, and it’s hard to escape the thought that Rosen, who’s closely identified with the BDS movement at Vassar, is making a political point here that a Jewish state is unnecessary.

    In any case, there are a lot of ideas mixed together here. Of course, Jews in Poland looked at Poland as their home. There were 3,000,000 Jews in Poland before the Holocaust, many of whom ended up in Poland because they were expelled from the Germanic states at some point, which was how many Jews came to Przemysl, the Polish town that many of my ancestors are from.

    It’s also true that Jews, and particularly religious Jews, view the Diaspora as a form of exile from the Holy Land. The Passover Seder, which Jews around the world celebrate tomorrow night, ends by chanting “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

    If there’s a misconception that Jewish are placeless, it grows out of the frequent expulsions of Jews from European countries over the last millenium, not to mention the violence Jews faced as a religious minority, which often resulted in massacres of thousands of Jews at a time, culminating in the Shoah. Jews were, as Ari Shavit said a couple of weeks ago, the “Other” in Europe for a millenia-and-a-half. And that Polish Jewish community that 3,000,000 Jews called home was decimated between 1939 and 1945; 91% of the Polish Jewish community, more than 2.7 million people out of a population of 3 million, were murdered during the Holocaust.

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