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.”