Honors | The American Jewish Experience
H303 | 24552 | Alvin Rosenfeld


The year 20O4 marks the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in
the new world. Numerically, the Jews have never been a large
percentage of the total American population, but their contributions
to the cultural, intellectual, and social life of this country have
been notable and reward careful study.  I  propose  to design a new
course for the Honors College that will offer students an
opportunity for such study  through a focus on American Jewish
writers. If approved, the course will be offered for the first time
in the spring semester, 2005, and could  be repeated in subsequent
years.

The course will begin with a look at the earliest years of Jewish
settlement in the mid-17th century and then shift attention to the
periods of mass immigration  from the countries of eastern Europe in
the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It will conclude with an
intensive examination of Jewish experience in America in  more
recent decades. Texts to be studied will include selected historical
documents from the literature of arrival; immigrant-era memoirs and
fiction; and novels, short  stories, and essays from the latter
decades of the 20th century. Students will be encouraged to study
this literature using the disciplinary tools of  both historical and
literary analysis and to orient their thinking to issues of broad
cultural concern.

In studying the Jews of America, students will be encountering a
people with a unique cultural and religious history  but also one
whose adaptation in America mirrors that of other immigrant groups.
While our focus will be on Jewish experience, therefore, the kinds
of questions we shall be raising go to the heart of life in multi-
cultural America. Among other matters, we shall take up the
following: What facets of “old world” experience seem in harmony
with life in the new world, and what aspects of  traditional culture
tend  to give way under the pressures of American modernity?  What
does it mean to live with a hyphenated identity–Jewish-American,
Irish-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American, etc.? Are such
ethnic identities sustainable over generations, or is it a natural
end-product of  acculturation for them to attenuate and ultimately
disappear?   If they do disappear, who or what does one become in
becoming an “American?”  What defines and gives meaning
to “Americanness?” And how can a study of American-Jewish life
through an examination of American-Jewish literature help us to
fruitfully engage issues of this kind?

As these questions suggest, our concerns will be with cultural
definition in both  old  world and new and with how literary texts
reveal the connections and confrontations between these worlds. In
studying a body of writing that registers a strong sense of  history
as well as strong yearnings for the innovations of modernity,
students will come  to appreciate some of the notable
accomplishments of American -Jewish literature as well as some of
the tensions and contradictions inherent in the American experience.

A special feature of this course will be the appearance in the
classroom of some of the writers we will be studying. I intend to
invite 3 or 4 contemporary Jewish authors to campus for meetings
with the students, who will study their texts as part of the
required readings for this course. These visits will offer our
students a rare opportunity to discuss literature with the people
who create it and will demonstrate that this body of writings is
very much a living and still evolving  corpus.