December 15, 2017

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

Meet the Students of HBI

By Violet Fearon

This year, HBI is thrilled to have a number of students working in various positions to help the Institute’s core mission of promoting research on the intersection between Jews and gender.

Menachem Bandel is a senior triple-majoring in economics, political science, and international and global studies. Menachem was born in Miami, FL and raised in Venezuela; he now resides in Miami. He is passionate about the issues facing Venezuelans—his experience of both Latin American and US culture has opened his eyes to the importance of giving back to those less fortunate. Menachem is especially interested in his Latin American Jewish heritage; as a segment of the Jewish community that is not frequently discussed, he is eager to use his knowledge to spread awareness of the diverse cultures that Judaism encompasses.

Menachem enjoys spending time with his friends, studying Latin American and Middle Eastern politics, and baseball. He is also a teaching assistant for the undergraduate business program and works for Brandeis Escort and Safety Services. Menachem works for Dalia Wassner, HBI Research Associate and the director of the Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies.

Violet Fearon is a freshman at Brandeis from Pleasantville, NY who writes for HBI’s Fresh Ideas blog. While she has not yet declared a major, Violet is interested in creative writing, film, and literature; she is also a member of Brandeis’s Humanities Fellowship Program. Outside of classes, Violet enjoys writing short stories and screenplays.

 

Yael Jaffe is an undergraduate at Brandeis, triple-majoring in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; Near Eastern and Judaic studies; and sociology. After Brandeis, she plans to attend graduate school to continue studying the intersections of Judaism and gender, and ultimately hopes to work in academia. She also hopes to continue her involvement in Jewish study and community leadership. In Yael’s sophomore year, her advisor, Professor ChaeRan Freeze, introduced her to HBI. Last year, Yael helped to found the Jewish Feminist Association of Brandeis, and immediately reached out to HBI to establish a relationship between the organizations. Since then, she’s served as a liaison between JFAB and HBI. In her free time, Yael enjoys cooking, studying in the Beit Midrash, rewatching The Office, and singing with her a capella group, Company B.

 

Sarah Kirchick is an undergraduate at Brandeis considering either becoming an independent interdisciplinary major or majoring in psychology. Raised in Boston and California, Sarah hopes to someday work in a hospital setting as a psychologist; she is especially interested in working with developmentally delayed children, as well as patients with personality disorders, depression, and anxiety. As such, she is especially interested in the work at HBI from a psychological standpoint. Sarah enjoys art, playing with children and animals, learning new things, and tabletop games. She is a student research partner for Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, an HBI Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence.

 

Reid Kurtz is a graduate student from Anchorage, AK, helping HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe to update the syllabus for a spring semester course entitled “Gender, Multiculturalism and the Law in the Liberal Tradition.” Reid is a dual-degree student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where she is getting a Masters degree in sustainable international development; she is also getting a JD from Northeastern University School of Law. Reid hopes to work as a lawyer in international development and human rights law, with a specific focus on the problems faced by immigrants and displaced persons.  In her free time, Reid enjoys reading, traveling, rewatching Parks and Rec, and spending time outside with her dog, Chela.

 

Rachel Snyderman is a sophomore and a prospective major in psychology with a minor in Hispanic studies. She hails from Washington, D.C. and loves to sing, bake, draw, and pet dogs. As a Jewish woman, Rachel was initially drawn to HBI because of their focus on topics impacting Jews and gender. In addition to her work for HBI, Rachel is a Peer Advocate at the Brandeis Rape Crisis Center and a member of Rather Be Giraffes A Capella and the Brandeis Reform Chavurah. She is HBI’s student office assistant.

 

Amaranth Weiss is a Master’s student in anthropology from Charlotte, NC. She’s currently working on a study of religious divorce in Boston as part of the Agunah Task Force Project, funded by a grant from the Brandeis Provost’s Innovative Inquiry Fund and the Miriam Fund of Combined Jewish Philanthropy.  After Brandeis, Amaranth is considering pursuit of a Ph.D., and ultimately hopes to teach. She enjoys swimming and singing, and is involved with multiple choral groups.

 

Violet Fearon, a freshman and Humanities Fellow, is the HBI student blogger.

 

In Sara Levy’s Salon

By Rebecca Cypess

When, in 1798, the Jewish writer Wolf Davidson published his treatise On the Civic Improvement of the Jews, he joined an ongoing discussion among both Jewish and Christian thinkers of the Enlightenment concerning the merits of Jewish emancipation in Prussia and the participation of Jews in civic and cultural life. By way of justifying his agenda of emancipation, tolerance, and citizenship for Jewish residents of the kingdom, Davidson cited a long list of Jews, from philosophers and educators to practitioners of the mechanical arts, who were already making significant contributions to Prussian society. Among these, Davidson mentioned a handful of musical “Dilettanten”— amateurs for whom music was an essential component of the moral and cultural edifying process known as Bildung. One such dilettante who, Davidson noted, had acquired a reputation as a “prodigious keyboardist here in Berlin,” was a certain Madame Sara Levy.

Sara Levy, née Itzig (1761–1854), was a Jewish woman, salon hostess, musical collector, patron, and performing musician whose long life spanned a dramatic and tumultuous period in German history, and her distinctive persona and historical profile offer a vista onto these historical circumstances that has remained closed until now. Through both research and performance, my work attempts to open this vista, and to understand Levy as a complete and complex individual—a Jew, a musician, a woman, a modern individual.

With the help of two research awards from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I have recently brought one portion of my work on Levy to completion: a CD entitled In Sara Levy’s Salon, released in June 2017 on the Acis Productions label, which proudly bears the logo of the HBI. The second phase of the project is a collaboration with Nancy Sinkoff, my colleague in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers. Nancy and I co-organized a conference entitled “Sara Levy’s World” in 2014, and we have expanded that project into a book of essays with perspectives from musicology, Jewish studies, history, philosophy, and related disciplines. This volume is due to be published in the spring of 2018 by the University of Rochester Press. At the same time, I have undertaken a single-author book entitled Resounding Enlightenment: Music as an Instrument of Tolerance in the World of Sara Levy, which is in progress. My goal is to retell the story of Levy’s world by placing her at the center of the narrative.

Born into one of the few wealthy and privileged Jewish families in eighteenth-century Berlin, Sara and her siblings received the finest educations available—appropriate, of course, to their sex—including unrivaled musical training. The only known student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784), eldest son of the famed baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Sara was performing as a harpsichordist for family guests by the time she was a teenager, and around the time of her marriage she began hosting a salon with musical performance at its center. Like other salons, that of the Levy home brought together family and friends, artists and intellectuals, philosophers and socialites, Jews and Christians. And she went still further, appearing in public performances as a concerto soloist at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a bourgeois amateur musical society with both Jewish and Christian membership, in an age when few aristocratic women would expose themselves to a public audience. By citing Levy’s musical skill as evidence of the contribution of Jews to society at large, Wolf Davidson asserted the power of music to act as an instrument of Enlightenment—as a bridge between diverse individuals within a tolerant society.

For some, like Davidson, Levy’s activities as a performer, patron, and collector of music fulfilled this idealistic promise. Yet for many of her contemporaries, Jewish participation in music was unthinkable: Jews, these detractors claimed, were inherently unmusical, and this unmusicality was both evidence for and a result of their immorality and errant ways. Levy’s connection to the Bach family highlights this tension: the legacy of J. S. Bach was fundamentally grounded in an orthodox, pre-Enlightenment Lutheranism colored by anti-Judaism, and his biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, a close friend of W. F. Bach, included in his General History of Music (1788) a screed against modern Jews and their unmusicality.

Sara Levy knew of these tensions and debates, yet she left no written verbal testimony concerning them, nor any number of other pressing issues. She wrote no autobiography and no diary; all but a few of her terse letters are lost. Instead, what remains is the remarkable collection of some 500 musical scores that she assembled together with her husband, a banker and a proficient amateur flutist. Her collection did not appear by accident; instead, she cultivated it, shaped it, and left her mark upon it, inscribing each score with her name or stamping it with her distinctive ex libris. Seemingly in response to the accusation that Jews were inherently unmusical, Levy partook of German music and made it part of her own experience. In donating the majority of her holdings to the Sing-Akademie around 1815, she rendered her collection part of the Prussian patrimony and emerging cultural identity, and she inscribed herself—a Jewish woman—into that heritage. When her great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy ignited the public “Bach revival” within the walls of the Sing-Akademie with his performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, he was picking up on family tradition.

If Levy’s participation in the musical culture of Prussia set her apart from other Jewish women whose salons focused solely on belles lettres, she stood apart from them in another essential respect as well: in contrast to many of the other salonnières, who left Jewish practice and identification, assimilated into the predominantly Christian society around them, converted, and married Christian husbands, Levy continued to identify strongly as a Jew throughout her long life. She provided financial support to numerous institutions of the Berlin Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), including a Hebrew publishing house and a Jewish school and orphanage. She was intellectually, financially, and socially engaged with the Haskalah to an extent unmatched by other women.

Levy is known among musicologists as a transmitter of important German music, and among scholars of Jewish studies as merely a peripheral figure in the world of Jewish salons. Consideration of the relationship among these aspects of her persona—unexplored until now—sheds new light on her life as an individual, and on the story of this tumultuous moment in European history as a whole. I argue that through her salon, her public concerts at the Sing-Akademie, and the cultivation of her collection, Sara Levy forged a common cultural environment with music at its center in which both Christians and Jews could participate.

***

Rebecca Cypess is Associate Professor of Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and an affiliated faculty member in the Rutgers Jewish Studies Department. A harpsichordist and musicologist, she is founder of the Raritan Players, whose debut recording In Sara Levy’s Salon was released in 2017 by Acis Productions. Her publications include Curious and Modern Inventions: Instrumental Music as Discovery in Galileo’s Italy (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and she is co-editor, with Nancy Sinkoff, of Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin, forthcoming in 2018 from the University of Rochester Press.

Sara Levy’s story is fictionalized in the novel, And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer, a book selected by several of HBI’s Conversations programs.

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