Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Once Upon a Time, I Was Going to be Something

Eleven years ago, I was poised to be a Judaic studies scholar. It was my dream, and I was willing to do just about anything to make it happen. After graduating with my bachelor of journalism, I went to The Washington Post for an internship after which I got hired on as a full-time employee. I was miserable in DC, and I started working on chasing my real dream: a master's in Judaic studies followed by a PhD followed by a prolific career as an academic, professor, and writer.

Instead, I ended up moving to Chicago, living with a guy I thought was my forever, working for a Nobel-prize-winning economist, and only a year later heading to graduate school. Just a few years after that I was married, divorced, and quitting a program at NYU where I was attempting a second and third master's degree.

Now? Well, life is different now. I don't have time for books or papers or pursuing all those fascinating topics that were going to keep me happy and sane and on the chase. So what did my dreams look like? This. And, I'll point out, I was going to be the scholar to blow up the Ulysses S. Grant history, not Jonathan Sarna. When I interviewed at Brandeis in 2009/10, I mentioned the fascinating issue to Professor Sarna. Then, in 2012 he released his book.

Coulda been me. Here's a letter I sent with my application to the University of Chicago. Maybe, someday, I'll get back on this track.
Does the world really need another Jewish studies scholar? There are truckloads of academics in pursuit of answers from the Holocaust or the perplexing makeup of American Jewry and the Diaspora. But what about the uncharted grounds of Jewish history and thought? What about, for example, Ulysses S. Grant and his expulsion of the Jews in 1862? A piece of U.S. history you won’t likely find in most history books, this is just one of the complicated, uncultivated avenues on which I plan to tread in pursuit of a career in Jewish studies. 
During my junior year, while pursuing a journalism degree and minor in Judaic studies, I took an ethnopolitical conflict class – nicknamed the “genocide class” – which I was told by those who had taken the course that it would either break me down or change my course of study. The class, taught by Prof. Patrice McMahon, was centered on a single ethnic conflict research paper written in three parts throughout the semester. I knew instantly that I would research Grant’s infamous action, which I had heard about from a rabbi visiting my synagogue as part of the celebration of 350 years of Judaism in America. Unfortunately, the rabbi couldn’t tell me much about the event, thus piquing my interest. 
I spent weeks in the library scouring the school’s collection of Civil War, Grant and Jewish histories. It turned out that few people had heard about the incident and even fewer had written extensively on the topic. It was clear that I had my work cut out for me, which only wrapped me up more in the research. My research focused on what motivated Grant to issue the order, including the effects of war, economics and other generals on his decision. My research turned up a rabbi and professor, both of whom had detailed accounts and assessments of the incident. My shock of the unexplored event turned into excitement. Could I chart a new path or cover new ground on an anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic act sanctioned by the U.S. government? I set out to advance the study of General Order No. 11. 
The result of my semester-long effort was a comprehensive look at what led Grant to issue the antiSemitic order in a paper, “Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews: A Mighty Order and a Blemish on U.S. history.” At the end of the semester, in presenting the research to classmates, the expression of surprise on the faces of the 30 or so students was the most rewarding aspect of the venture. When detailing this seemingly veiled incident with others, friends were hesitant to believe and fellow scholars were shocked to know they were unaware of such a significant instance of antiSemitism in U.S. history. It was then that I staked my claim as a scholar, researcher and educator. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “Passion … is a powerful spring.”

I hope to expand my undergraduate research on Grant to explore aspects of the incident beyond the motive. Few have focused on the lasting effects of the order or how Grant managed to carry the Jewish vote in both of his bids for president. Additionally, I would like to explore how such a significant event has managed to go unmentioned in textbooks and whether similar orders were issued during the Civil War or during other U.S.-inclusive wars. In a way, Grant has helped me find my raison d’etre.
But my interests reach much further than Grant and U.S. Jewry. My passion for Jewish studies spans American-Jewish fiction and authors such as Tova Mirvis, Jonathan Safran Foer and Cynthia Ozick; biblical Judaism; Jewish printing of the Middle Ages; and Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations. I hope to explore Rashi, his daughters, and whether his encouragement of their Talmud study was widely explored or purely rejected. I’m also fascinated with Emma Lazarus, whose outward effort to connect to the Jewish people seems hypocritical and insincere; I’m drawn to her understanding of Jewishness. Perhaps the most interesting avenue of research I’ve pursued and hope to look at further involves Jewish television and the rise of the sitcom, which spanned “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Bonanza.” 
My passion for Jewish languages has made me desperate to learn Ladino in order to study the Jews of Salonika, which I know so little about and yet am constantly reading about. My knowledge of Hebrew is limited, having taken only one semester of biblical Hebrew with Prof. Stephen Burnett late in my undergrad. Although my undergraduate university lacked regular Hebrew courses, my liturgical Hebrew is strong, and I am constantly working toward a fluent understanding of Modern Hebrew, in addition to biblical Hebrew.

I have to stress that this field of study is as much an academic endeavor as it is personal. The pursuit of a master’s degree will serve as another spring on a path to teaching, writing and researching, whether through a PhD and professoring or, as my rabbi has suggested, through rabbinical school. My work with Grant and the Jews proved to me that there are a bounty of uncultivated avenues in Jewish studies begging to be examined and shared by curious, burgeoning scholars such as myself.

The University of Chicago has a history and reputation of excellence, brought forth by the presence of passionate scholars – both students and professors – who are searching for answers to some of history’s and society’s most significant puzzles. While researching the scholars of the Committee on Jewish Studies, I found professors who I know will be beneficial to work and study with. I only hope that my passion for Judaic studies is apparent and that I can continue my studies and work toward a career in teaching Jewish history, religion and philosophy with the help of the Jewish Studies department at the University of Chicago.