A Yiddish Studies to Come: In Conversation with Adam Zachary Newton’s Jewish Studies as Counterlife

Saul Noam Zaritt

Adam Zachary New­ton, Jew­ish Stud­ies as Coun­ter­life: A Report to the Acad­e­my (Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019). 256 pages. $32.

Much like other scholarly journals, one of the central tasks of In geveb’s peer review section is the review of new books. Identifying what new scholarship might be relevant to our readers can help define the field of Yiddish studies, or at the very least outline the ways in which the study of Yiddish intersects with a variety of scholarly disciplines and traditions. When setting out to find the right reviewer for a given book, we as editors often find ourselves asking questions that would push the limits of what Yiddish studies might be. How can a book review encourage a conversation that would reach beyond the conventional boundaries of the Yiddishist sphere? How can we draw the study of Yiddish toward a comparative horizon that would benefit larger groups of scholars and students? Yiddish studies can sometimes feel limited to a certain group of people, a clique of sorts, with a certain measure of intimacy (and with all the familial and Oedipal drama that could be implied). To balance this sense of exclusivity we as editors try to reach out to reviewers one might not expect to see in a journal of Yiddish studies: a Martin Buber scholar, an expert in Polish poetry, a cookbook writer. When this seemingly odd invitation has been accepted, the resulting pieces have been some of our most celebrated and reread. But this has been a rare occurrence during five years of publication. More often than not, when we reach out to a scholar in an adjacent field we get a singular response: “I’m sorry, but I can’t write for you. I’m not a Yiddishist.”

Some of these responses may be attributed to an anxiety of expertise one can find throughout the academy—the narrowing of specialty and discipline and the hesitation to find one’s way into broader conversations. And there is indeed a fear that one could accidentally offend, or at worst, unknowingly produce prejudiced scholarship. But beyond the seeming ubiquity of imposter syndrome, one can also perceive what in my mind is a dangerous assumption about Yiddish studies: potential reviewers and interlocutors may view Yiddish as a sacred realm protected by shibboleth; the demonstration of mastery over the threatened language and culture becomes a condition of entry. To cross such a threshold without the proper training or permission would lead to a scandal of some kind, a betrayal of Yiddish’s sacral glow. Alternatively, though less often these days, Yiddish may be thought to be of too minor an interest; a scholar of Europe (with a capital E) or of Diaspora studies or of ethnic studies (or any other relevant disciplinary category) might refuse to dabble in such lowly realms. Both cases—respectful and disdainful refusals to engage—involve a perception that Yiddish has specific limits, be they linguistic, religious, aesthetic, or disciplinary. It is a way to sequester the study of Yiddish, producing a ghetto of sorts where cultural contact may be measured, controlled, and often rendered marginal and insignificant. For some, there is comfort in this marginalization, what the poet and critic Jacob Glatstein once called the advantages of the “geto-lebn.” 1 1 Jacob Glatstein, “Tsvishn eygene,” Inzikh 8 (May 1938): 120–22.

Our editorial policy clearly has the purpose of challenging such circumscription even as we try to redefine Yiddish studies, at least temporarily. In making these invitations and blurring boundaries, we’re asking where Yiddish studies might belong—or where else
Yiddish studies might belong.

The history of the study of Yiddish already points to the difficulty of such a question. As a field, as a coordinated or identifiable subject/object of study, as a scholarly tradition, Yiddish has a rather winding and strange path. Many of the first grammars and somewhat systematic studies of the language from the early modern period were undertaken not by Jewish speakers of the language but by a host of German Protestant scholars. As Sander Gilman, Jerold Frakes, and Aya Elyada have shown, Christian humanist interest in Yiddish had a variety of practical, ideological, and theological motivations, often reflecting the European double-view of the Jew: Real and imagined Jews were seen simultaneously as both the once-chosen people and as the despised outsider to new forms of nationalism and modern statecraft. A portion of these Christian Hebraists had perfunctory or even bureaucratic aims, studying Yiddish in order to better understand and control the Jewish populations around them. Others had more aggressive purposes: to decode the “secret language of the Jews” in order to defend Christianity—and the threatened German language—from what they believed to be the pernicious and blasphemous nature of Judaism. That these early attempts at systematization, both scholarly and ideological, should form part of the foundation of Yiddish studies, even today, requires a certain amount of reckoning.

To be sure, this origin story is one that is somewhat shared throughout Jewish Studies or indeed can be found in and around any study of a culture whose roots are perceived to begin outside of the invented European center. Orientalism of one kind or another, overt or covert, is part of the engine of the academy as we know it. The invention of the “Western Tradition” was not the result of some natural progression of knowledge; it was dependent on superseding, discrediting, and translating previous traditions while combating the shadowy persistence of purportedly foreign, exotic, and primitive knowledge practices. The university, emerging as a Christian institution in the medieval period, was deeply invested in this project.

As Jewish scholars of Jewish texts came to have a more prominent role in the university, especially beginning in the nineteenth century, they struggled to find a way inside its walls that did not require various forms of self-abnegation or apologetic rhetorical strategies. Becoming part of the university often meant redefining Jewish scholarly practices in European terms or even Orientalizing one’s own culture and identity. The scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the German Jewish scholarly movement, famously argued for the universality of Jewish textual practice, eschewing particularity in order to join the academy’s ranks. Leopold Zunz argued that “by participating in the intellectual currents of the past and contemporary world, sharing its fights and sufferings, [Jewish literature] becomes, at the same time, a complementary element of general literature, albeit with its own organism that, understood by general laws, helps to understand the universal.” 2 2 Leopold Zunz, “Die jüdische Literatur” (1845), in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1 (Berlin: Gerschel, 1875), 42. As quoted and translated by Andreas B. Kilcher, “‘Jewish Literature’ and ‘World Literature’: Wissenschaft des Judentums and its Concept of Literature,” in Modern Judaism and Historical Consciousness: Identities, Encounters, Perspectives, ed. Andreas Gotzmann and Christian Wiese (Boston: Brill, 2007), 299–325. Despite such aspirations, Jewish studies often remained a part of the para-university, adjacent to the academy but never fully accepted.

The tendency toward self-justification and the attempt to incorporate Jewishness into the larger universal story of humanity is a narrative strategy that continues to haunt Jewish Studies to this day and Yiddish Studies in particular. The sense of incomplete arrival, the lingering separateness of Jewish studies, has its advantages of course. In this age of constant crisis for the academy, and for the Humanities specifically, Jewish Studies centers/departments/programs in many universities have been able to weather some storms due to their partial independence. Significant endowments and broad donor bases—in the US, the result of postwar Jewish class ascendency—can be protection from the corporate administrator’s austerity mandates.

To be sure, such self-ghettoization can also be viewed as an abrogation of responsibility. If Jewish Studies, and Yiddish studies, remain only adjacent to the university, can they be said to fully participate in the scholarly community? What might this “full” participation entail? Does it require a return to transcultural and unstable foundations? Or can this insecurity also be leveraged, toward a “counterlife” for the university writ large? Can the breaking down of the geto-moyer, the ghetto walls, lead not to a refashioning (or dissolution) of some singular Jewish collectivity but to the sharing of boundaries and to new forms of scholarly exchange?


These questions admittedly are not entirely my own. They come in concert with those asked by Adam Zachary Newton in his book Jewish Studies as Counterlife: A Report to the Academy, the volume this essay purports to review. Newton’s book provides a stirring call for a Jewish Studies to come, a proposal for new forms of affiliation, both within the loose boundaries of Jewish Studies and extending outward to the whole of the Humanities and to the university as an institution.

Newton’s book is rich with metaphors and figures that would guide this new set of practices without providing a draconian playbook or set of regulations. The lever, the pitchfork, the open hand, the thread, the knot, the counterlife—these figures and images focus on moments of displacement that would unsettle the foundations of knowledge and institutional stability often associated with science and the demand for mastery linked to rigid disciplinarity. Choosing modes of “elective affinity” and “affiliative relation” (191), Newton gestures toward a scholarly community in-the-making that would be founded on a dialogical mode, referring to those critical conversations one associates with scholarship at its most dynamic and most productive. This approach eschews the siloing of disciplines, in which one has some kind of filial responsibility first and foremost to a specialization and the policing of its borders. Newton even defers the promise of “interdisciplinarity” for its preservation of boundaries, even as many universities make it a point to reward such projects with generous funding and prestige. But often the sharing associated with interdisciplinarity is one modeled on something like a division of labor, in which various structures of knowledge are simply “applied” to a collection of data without critique or self-reflection; mostly such moments of dialogue between scholars and disciplines surround the possibility of “relevance” more than any sense of a truly shared intellectual process. It is not surprising that, in the majority of cases, interdisciplinarity means the privileging of scientific rigor over humanistic discourse. Thus, the result is often the facilitating of highly controlled exchanges across a clear and mostly unchanging boundary. Each discipline offers its contribution and then returns to its place within the university hierarchy.

In contrast, Newton calls for interdiscursive practices that leverage knowledge in order to repeatedly arrive elsewhere, to engage in conversations that would not hesitate to muddle boundaries rather than aim for some middle ground. This requires relaxing one’s grip on some stable disciplinary home in order to let oneself fall into the knotted weave of knowledge production. In geveb—in the web—as it were. In practice this can mean many different things, from small gestures to large systemic change. The university counterlife can begin in syllabi or job descriptions that defy categorization and bring together texts and methodologies from disparate corners of the academy. But Newton also means to recommend a restructuring of the academy as we know it, from revising its bureaucratic codes to critiquing its neoliberal and corporate ideologies.

Jewish Studies (shortened to “JS” throughout the book) appears in this context to be a fortuitous model (though not the only one) for the unsettling of the university and what Newton calls its “recommencement” (200). To be sure, defining Jewish Studies, both in its history and in its current articulation, is no easy task: “JS denotes, variously, a data-field; an interdiscipline; a program; a center, or institute; a departmental major or minor; a vocation; and an academic pursuit” (9). It also has at least two origin stories: in nineteenth-century European Wissenschaft des Judentums and the postwar renewal of the “Jewish academy” in Palestine (and then the state of Israel) and in the US. 3 3 The founding of the Israeli academy, in particular Hebrew University, began of course in the interwar period, but its full institutional coherence and authority is largely a product of the early state years. Jewish studies rose to prominence in the US in parallel with the new middle-class status of second generation Jewish communities, many of which provided the funding and impetus for new chairs in Jewish studies at prestigious universities. These multiple origins and vastly different cultural and political contexts create a wide range of possibilities for JS as well as a host of constrictions. One can understand the impulse then to choose one of these paths, in particular the desire to assimilate JS within the university and its “universal” ambitions. This genealogy for JS is represented in Newton’s book through the figure of Jacob Neusner, whose prodigious body of work was centered on Rabbinic Judaism but more aggressively sought out the total integration of JS as “a history of Judaism ‘under the auspices of the academic study of religion.’” (120) In this case, JS is a model of interdisciplinarity in its most conservative form. The study of Yiddish and the study of ancient Judaism only cohere in that they agree on a single Jewish subject, linked through a single line of national history. This broad but ultimately unified field can then be inserted, when appropriate, into larger construals of the ancient world, medieval Europe, and the like.

The more heterotopic vision takes as a point of departure the work of Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas, along with their interlocutors (a familiar set of thinkers for those who have read Newton’s work before). JS figures here as a community of scholarship always reaching toward new avenues for conversation, in ways that cling (adhere in Newton’s terminology) to a sense of collective ownership while constantly revising the parameters of such a project and critiquing its modes of identification. The aim is “interlocative and interdiscursive,” such that, following Said, one can enact “a process of bringing otherness to bear upon the world, as opposed to receiving otherness as an external property” (21). That is, the study of Jewishness is meant to bring about a placing and a displacing of the field itself, in a way that would model how the academy as a whole could be refigured. Newton argues that “to make the institutional culture of Jewish Studies dialogical, both in self-relation and extension outward, is to put into action… [a] mobile, omni-directional frontier.” (47)

This is something more than the interdisciplinarity supposedly inherent to JS or the repeated call for dialogue between those who pursue Jewish Studies and those in fields like comparative literature, postcolonial studies, gender studies, religious studies, anthropology, and so on. Though much work has already been done over the last thirty years to begin these kinds of border-crossing conversations, Newton demands a shift in perspective. A JS to-come requires “a counter-archive to its regulative predicates of identity” (22)—it requires eroding the identitarian foundations of Jewish Studies and inviting scholarly exchange that would challenge autonomy and self-sufficiency. That is, JS is not simply the record of that which can be named as Jewish, especially since to name something as Jewish is hardly a self-evident thing. Jewishness is a term to be considered critically, a mode of reflection that may begin as internally motivated but, in disturbing its own foundations, also quickly finds itself moving in multiple directions. This is why JS is not a self-sufficient body of knowledge to be reinserted into larger scholarly discourses, with Jewishness becoming some incidental marker of human difference. Rather, for Newton difference must be a lever that would upset hierarchies instead of reinforcing them.

In this way, Newton calls for the wielding of this precarity—the historical, contemporary, and future placelessness of JS—toward a scholarly community to-come. JS is poised to present itself as “a modern intellectual pursuit both with and against the grain” (72), “a sometimes-shadowy supplement… [that] lives, in part, a kind of prosthetic counterlife, hinged or grafted onto practices both academically prior (history of religion, philology) and immediately contemporary (visual culture, women’s studies, ethnic studies)” (61). The uneven history of JS, its assumed marginality and belatedness and yet its growing institutional coherence, make it a model for the simultaneous critique and reformulation that is so desperately needed to unmake today’s corporate university. JS’s investment in the academy is undeniable—it will always be affiliated with and adhere to the academy’s hierarchies of knowledge. Yet, it is predisposed to critique that affinity, in that it is always finding something incomplete about that relation. To stand in and with JS means to imagine all of the university in a state of constant displacement. The resulting collective endeavor would be one “[n]ecessarily self-encumbered and still poised at the verge of community, that consortium would exchange a social economy of bond or communion for the communicative politics of partage, at once an interruption and a sharing at the boundary among its constituent parties and with its university others” (80).

Newton’s sense of JS’s special mission may appear partisan to the field, perhaps even echoing some notion of chosenness. Indeed Newton’s interlocutors are overwhelmingly invested in this particular wing of the academy, even if they also want to dissolve its boundaries. After all, a central model for Newton’s project is Rosenzweig’s Lehrhaus, the somewhat failed para-university institution for Jewish learning that the German Jewish thinker founded in the 1920s. It would be tempting to think that JS is better poised than other fields to remake the university. I think, though, that Newton’s call for a community to-come can find its most powerful articulation when it is imagined in concert with other communities of difference, based on ethnicity, class, gender, and other forms of partial implication within the dominant structures of the university. It is only through this collectively diffused critique that a re-commencement of the academy will be possible.


What might it mean for Yiddish Studies to participate in this coming community? Should Yiddish Studies simply be folded into Jewish Studies? Does each component/faction/niche of Jewish Studies have a particular role to play in this project of unmaking? Do some fields perform their precarity better than others? Or would such a competition between subfields be self-defeating? Newton quickly does away with such distinctions—his rolodex is full to bursting with texts that name themselves or can be named as Jewish and he marshals them to his cause freely, from ancient biblical text to rabbinic commentary to all the modern Jewish literatures and literatures by Jews. Central to his methodology is the loosening of such distinctions: Newton allows Jewish discourses to bleed together without any one of them losing its own grammar; he then enacts their convergence with what many scholars call “non-Jewish” discourses. For Newton of course the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish is hardly the point—rather the aim of intermingling the many facets of JS with the Christian university is that rare moment of meeting in and through difference, producing a JS that might perpetually be both at home and in exile.

In this way, it is important to admit that Yiddish has no special propriety over Jewishness in competition with other forms of Jewish speech and text, variously defined and in multiple languages. At the same time, one cannot simply dissolve difference or present some homogenous Jewish Studies voting bloc within the academy. Indeed Newton is not calling for the abandonment of specialization—he asks only that one just loosen one’s disciplinary hold. Newton suggests that a field’s lack of absolute coherence might actually be to its advantage. What might it mean to specialize in a field that is falling apart, whose edges are frayed, whose boundaries constantly shift?

The structure of Yiddish is of particular import here. Yiddish is simultaneously a Jewish and non-Jewish language. Yiddish is a Germanic language; it was from its earliest inception a way to facilitate exchange with non-Jewish populations even as it quickly became an intimate language of Jewish experience. That is, Yiddish is a language of cultural uncertainty, even if it still has clear communal affiliations. In this way Yiddish is indeed a fusion language, to use Max Weinreich’s famous term, but this fusion need not lead to a neat and finalized synthesis. Newton encourages us, as Yiddishists and non-Yiddishists, to leverage the translational conditions of Jewish discourse. Yiddish is indeed taytsh, a language that begins elsewhere, begins as Deutsch; and, at the same time, it is a language that reaches outward toward the dialogical, to the call and response of taytsh, the sing-song of traditional Jewish exegesis and the unending search for meaning. S’taytsh? Within the unsettling of the university, and as part of the re-founding of JS, Yiddish can offer a vocabulary for the kind of precarity that needs to be embraced, a precarity conditioned by the bonds of affiliation.

This might be the great potential for Yiddish studies, and for In geveb
as a journal, that too often falls by the wayside as we become beholden to the politics of disciplinarity: to invite conversations that push the limits of our stated specializations, that highlight both the institutional capacity of Yiddish and constantly renew our commitment to the re-founding of that institution and its coming-community of learners.

Zaritt, Saul Noam. “A Yiddish Studies to Come: In Conversation with Adam Zachary Newton’s Jewish Studies as Counterlife.” In geveb, October 2020:
Zaritt, Saul Noam. “A Yiddish Studies to Come: In Conversation with Adam Zachary Newton’s Jewish Studies as Counterlife.” In geveb (October 2020): Accessed May 20, 2024.


Saul Noam Zaritt

Saul Noam Zaritt is an associate professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. He is currently a peer review editor at In geveb and one of the site's founding editors.