Dr. Barbara Mann is associate professor of Jewish Literature and the Simon H. Fabian Chair in Hebrew Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Her areas of expertise include Israeli and Jewish literature, cultural studies, modern poetry, urban studies, literary modernism, and the fine arts, and she has lectured and presented scholarly papers at seminars and conferences in the United States, Israel, and Europe.
From 1997 to 2004, Dr. Mann was a member of the faculty at Princeton University, where she also served as a faculty fellow in Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion. She was awarded a Fulbright-Hayes Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship in 1999, in addition to numerous other honors. From 2007 to 2008, Dr. Mann was a scholar-in-residence at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Dr. Mann is the author of A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv, and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space (Stanford University Press, 2006), in addition to numerous scholarly articles. She is also coeditor in chief of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History with Dr. Jeremy Dauber of Columbia University. She is currently writing a book about the conceptions of space and place in modern Jewish studies.
Dr. Mann, what are some of the classes that you teach at JTS?
This past semester I taught Literary Theory in Jewish Studies; it was a yearlong class about the relationship between literary theory and Jewish studies and critical theory and Jewish studies. In the fall, I'll teach a class about Hebrew and Yiddish women poets and another course on Modernism and Jewish Literature.
I'll be in Israel for a few weeks this month for a lecture at Hebrew University on May 12, and then I'll be back at JTS. I'm teaching a summer course here called History and Memory in Israeli Short Fiction. And then I'll be trying to finish a book and do a lot of stuff over the summer that you don't have time to do during the year when things are really busy.
Your Hebrew University lecture—is it about Tel Aviv, one of your longtime areas of research?
I would say that it's the latest and probably the last piece of my work connected to Tel Aviv for a while. It's a lecture called "Tel Aviv After 100," and it's on the new cultural history. It's something I've been working on for the last year or two and it's kind of an attempt to think synthetically about histories that have been written about the city. It's a relatively new field: the history of Tel Aviv. Urban history has a longer history in Jewish studies, but Tel Aviv has not been—up until the last decade or so—the focus of scholarly research. So my book, A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv, and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space, was actually one of the first to come out—in any language—that was the length of a scholarly monograph. For the talk at Hebrew University, I tried to think about what it means to be 100 years old and about the different stories that Tel Aviv has told about itself, and what new scholarship has brought to our understanding of the city. Because within the last five years, there have been about half-a-dozen major studies of the city.
What made you focus on Tel Aviv in your work?
It's got it all going on. It's a unique place; it's paradoxical. It's got wise, interesting people and great topography and culture. It's just a very dynamic, creative place. I lived there for many years before I went to graduate school. The book was really the product of about ten years of working and writing about it.
Did you fall in love with the city?
I don't know. I never know exactly what that means. Yeah. And then I fell out of love, you know? All the things that happen when you fall in love; then you realize what it really is, but you're kind of stuck with it.
The relationship gets real.
The relationship gets real. I think my relationship to Tel Aviv has sobered over the years. But some of the initial fantasy remains.
If you're not doing as much on Tel Aviv at the moment, what are you working on?
Space and Place in Jewish Studies—it's a little book about a big topic. Not just a literary study, but a conversation between place studies, or ways of thinking about space and place in the Jewish culture, and some of the bigger conversation in the academy around what's called "the spatial term," which is this emphasis on place and theories of place—mostly within the humanities but also within the social sciences. So the book is kind of wide-ranging. It's meant to be an introductory text, but it also has my own take on where the field is going; an overview of sorts. The book is actually part of a Rutgers University Press series of books called Key Words in Jewish Studies. I'm hoping to finish it this summer.
Some professors seem to have difficulty writing; some just waltz right through it. What kind of experiences have you had?
You know, it depends. I think the end of a book is the hardest, because you feel like, "This is it. I've got to get it all in, everything that I want to say," and the urge to revise is always there. But overall, I think I've always had a pretty positive relationship to writing. I enjoy it. I also enjoy revision. I'm involved in the Prooftexts journal, so I think I have a pretty healthy respect for the process and what authors go through—you know, how you can become attached to your work—but I also understand the value of stepping back and being able to see the forest for the trees.
Prooftexts is published at JTS?
Well, it is and it isn't. It's published by Indiana University Press, but I'm here; my coeditor, Jeremy Dauber, is at Columbia; and our editorial board comes from all over the world—they're mostly in America, and we have some Israelis on the board as well. JTS has been very generous, and the press has also been very good to us.
So you're kept busy. How did you come to select modern Hebrew literature as a primary area of study?
Oh, this is such a difficult question. I don't even know where to begin. Honestly. I don't think it's a pragmatic selection; I think it kind of selects you, if you are fortunate enough to do what you love. I heard somebody say this the other day on National Public Radio. They have that StoryCorps program, you know, that feature about celebrating lives through listening? They have a booth at Grand Central where people go in and they interview members of their family. Anyway, there was this older guy being interviewed by his adult son and the older guy was saying, "I always said to my children, 'If you never want to work a day in your life, choose a job that you love.'" Right? And so I think it kind of chooses you. It sounds banal, but I always loved literature, I always loved to read, I always loved to write, and I always loved languages. I come from a family of teachers. Everybody: my mom, my sisters-in-law. Teachers were honored figures in my household and so it just suggested itself as a career path. And I got good at it, I guess.
So what's happening in modern Hebrew literature today?
I think that modern Hebrew literature is struggling with its "Israeli-ness" and its Jewishness. I think for a while there was this kind of path on which modern Hebrew literature and Jewish literature walked together. Since the creation of the State of Israel as its own political, cultural entity, modern Hebrew literature is Jewish in many ways but not Jewish in other ways. It's Mediterranean, it's Middle Eastern; it still has a lot of European qualities.
And so I think now, from what I can see, there is something called Israeli literature, which happens to be in Hebrew. A linguist actually just wrote a book about this. There is this thing called Israeli Hebrew, which is really only nominally related to modern Hebrew, rabbinic Hebrew, before the establishment of the State. It's not surprising, because it's gotten a lot of exercise. It's a language now that is used in every possible way—the full gamut of expression that you can imagine in Hebrew ever. So the language has really changed, and I would imagine that for Hebrew-writing Israeli authors there's a challenge to figure out what their theme is, what their story is, what they want to tell. So I think that that, as far as I can see, is the inner conversation—a new dialogue-that you often see in writing these days.
What era does modern Hebrew cover?
When we say modern Hebrew, it's not really a temporal or a chronological definition. It's more: When did Hebrew become a literary vernacular? When did they begin to write poetry in Hebrew? When did they begin to write novels? When did they begin to think "novelistically" in Hebrew? It almost has to do with more of a cognitive definition. And that happened, more or less, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
So it really evolved in very wacky and unexpected ways, and now it's just a question of its relationship to this thing called Israeli-ness. Now there are many Israelis whose first language is Russian, for example. So there is Russian Israeli literature. There's Arabic Israeli literature as well. So there are all these other languages that are going on, and Hebrew is one of many. Hebrew is the language of the majority in some ways because it is the language of the State. And yet it's embedded in an environment where there is, again, a lot of cultural dynamism—in the reading audience as well as among the people who produce it.
As somebody who loves words, it must be fun for you to work in different languages.
Yes. There is one famous aphorism about Hebrew writing and the way that it has developed. If you think about the relationship between Chaucerian English and American English, there's this vast gap between English of the late fifteenth century and English of the early twentieth, early twenty-first century. It's like they're barely recognizable as the same language, whereas Hebrew has developed comparatively quantitatively, but over a much shorter period of time. So in the expanse of maybe half a century you've gone from the equivalent of the Chaucerian Hebrew to the Hebrew of Eliot or Joyce or something like that. It's just a lot denser; there is a lot more to cover, in that sense, in that historical period.
Now that you're bringing things into your realm other than Tel Aviv and Israel, are there still other projects you're working on?
The next book will be about the relationship between fine arts, poetry, and painting within Jewish culture, beginning specifically with Judaism's normative prohibition on sculptural representation: the second commandment and the relationship to artistic representation. How does that whole set of issues manifest itself? That is the question—with Hebrew writers, Yiddish writers, and probably some English writers as well.
About JTS. What do you find are the advantages to students of higher education in a Jewish environment like the one here at JTS?
What I have observed in the classroom setting is that there is an interesting kind of synergy that happens when students from the different JTS schools with different professional and vocational and intellectual agendas sit around talking about the same text. It's really very interesting. For example, in the seminar we had this afternoon, one of my students (a rabbinical student who's graduating this semester) is working on Angels in America, the Tony Kushner play. He wondered aloud why he was interested in thinking about the themes of Jewish identity and gay identity in the play, and how they intersect. And he said, "I was trying to think about why I'm interested in this, how I got to this." And he thought that part of it had to do with the whole discussion of gay ordination that happened at JTS some years ago. To me, this is a great example of how people who have different agendas, and come from different vocational settings, can come together here and-you talk. And so that synergy, it seems to me, is unique.
It probably has a closer relationship to what reading really is than a classroom in which you may be drily addressing the qualities of a text. In other words, when people read, they bring who they are to the text and maybe that comes into conflict with the text itself and with other people's interpretations. Reading is very much about that—bringing all that you are and all the questions that are in your life to the book. And so this idea of a classroom being a pure place where only one set of questions is asked, only one mode of inquiry is employed, is probably not what reading is really about.
What would you like to see happening at JTS?
One thing that has been on my mind lately is the public discourse about Israel, and the way Israel is spoken about and not spoken about within the American Jewish community and within this country as a whole. And I think that there are a lot of people now who are concerned about this, who are thinking about this. And I think that at JTS we have a responsibility as educators to try and cultivate a kind of civic political discourse about Israel—to be honest with each other and to encourage a variety of opinions, to think about what it means when we talk about Israel, to try and develop frameworks and tools to do that. It would be nice to, again, begin to cultivate that nuanced public discussion about Israel.
Do we need more and better writers and more and better discussions?
We need a vocabulary to talk about Israel, and we need to create one for ourselves that is honest, accurate, and expressive.
And the best way to do that?
We just begin. You just start talking. I think that there are people in the field, there are professionals who have begun to think about what kinds of frameworks are productive for people, and thinking experientially, asking people to think about their experience of Israel, what their political opinions are, how they think those political opinions were formed, how they've changed. We just begin and learn and figure things out as we go along.