Until 1975, when then-Chancellor Gerson Cohen recruited Dr. David Roskies to the faculty of The Jewish Theological Seminary, the field of Jewish Literature had no academic recognition. Now, Dr. Roskies, who played a leading role in establishing the field's importance and cofounded its leading journal, Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, is making history again with a new joint appointment, dividing his year between Ben-Gurion University in Israel, where he is the first director of its newly opened Center for Yiddish Studies, and JTS, where he will continue teaching and doing scholarship as the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and professor of Jewish Literature.
David Roskies is a cultural historian of eastern European Jewry. A prolific author, editor, and scholar, he has published nine books and received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work Night Words: A Midrash on the Holocaust, one of the first liturgies on the subject ever to appear, has entered its fifth edition, was adapted into Hebrew, and was recently reissued as an audiocassette. In 2007, Dr. Roskies served as the J. B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is currently under contract with University Press of New England to produce Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide.
Dr. Roskies, you've been on the JTS faculty for a while now.
That's correct. I was talent scouted by Gerson Cohen in 1975, right after I finished my dissertation. He plucked me out of obscurity.
By that time, you'd already published Night Words, which doesn't sound much like obscurity.
That's a good point. I had done several things of note before I came here. When I was sixteen, I founded a Yiddish youth movement that still exists (Yugntruf). And I was one of the first people to create a liturgy on the Holocaust, which gained a certain notoriety, but I had not yet made any mark in Jewish scholarship.
Tell us about the impact you've made on the field of Jewish scholarship in the years since.
When I came here, my mandate was to introduce the subject of Yiddish literature. What grew out of that was a much larger and more ambitious mandate, to create a new subject of inquiry. That was Jewish literature, a new multilingual discipline, and JTS was the place where it happened, because the day I was hired the name of the department was changed from the Department of Hebrew Literature to the Department of Jewish Literature—the first of its kind. Then in 1981, I cofounded Prooftexts (with Dr. Alan Mintz), which created this field and remains its premier journal to this day. My goal has always been to find new ways of reintegrating the subject of Yiddish into Jewish civilization—to show how central the study of Yiddish is to Jewish self-understanding. That is what brought me here and that has been the guiding principle of my work. My name for that intellectual adventure is "Jewish literature."
These days, I have returned to classic Yiddish stories in an effort to "unpack" them in Yiddish—something I'm calling "reading from right to left." We've spent so many years teaching Yiddish literature in translation and working with translations that we've simply forgotten about the power of the original. I'm the last generation to have grown up in a Yiddish-speaking environment where not only was the home Yiddish-speaking, but so was the street. In Montreal, where I grew up, there was a Yiddish press, a Yiddish theater, a Yiddish public library, and a network of Yiddish schools. I went to such a Yiddish day school.
Because our students learn Yiddish not from the home or street, but in the university, it's our responsibility to provide them with the cultural context as well as the best possible instruction in the language and literature. So, I still have more to say on the subject of Yiddish storytelling.
And now you're taking this work to Israel, where you've been named the first director of the new Center for Yiddish Studies at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. You'll be spending half the year at JTS and half in Israel, is that right?
Yes, this joint appointment is an amazing development. There is a groundswell of interest among Ashkenazic Jews to discover and to access the severed past. Here in North America, the immigrant generation believed that the price of admission was to give up one's language and become American. In Israel, it was an ideological issue of erasing the past in order to express one's commitment to creating a new Jew. Now they've buried the hatchet in Israel and the war between Hebrew and Yiddish is over.
Your work in preserving and reviving Yiddish and its place in Jewish civilization is complemented by your focus on another major area of Jewish scholarship.
That has to do with responses to catastrophe, which began with Holocaust commemoration and grew beyond that because of my exposure to the universal Jewish culture of JTS.
The thesis of my work on catastrophe and memory is that what on the surface seems to be concerned with breakdown, crisis, and destruction is really about the opposite. To understand the Jewish response to catastrophe is to see the powerful continuities. There's a cumulative, ongoing tradition of Jewish response, in which I am both a player and an explicator. I'm the purveyor of that response through Night Words and doing Holocaust commemoration, and then trying to describe and see it as something normative and ongoing. I call my first work, Against the Apocalypse, a dybbuk and not a book.
What do you mean by that, "a dybbuk and not a book"?
It was something I had to get out of my system. It was a huge intellectual challenge that occupied me for years. No sooner did I finish writing Against the Apocalypse than I sat down to produce a source book called The Literature of Destruction, which I consider to be my major contribution to Jewish learning.
Now, lo these many years later, and I want to finish the work that I began. My current project is a history of and guide to Holocaust literature where I want to take the story down to the present, to the year 2009; lay out the central works and write a no-nonsense literary history of Holocaust literature. How did Holocaust literature develop? What I see is a pattern that emerged in fits and starts in all European languages. By 1960, the genre of Holocaust literature is already in place. By 1968, it is already recognized as a new subject by the Library of Congress with its own classification number. Everyone believes that Holocaust literature began after the Eichmann trial, and I shall demonstrate that what happens after 1960 plays out what already had been put in place much earlier.
What does that mean? Is there nothing new after 1960?
Of course, there are many new stories to tell, of the second generation, of hidden children, and many new ways to tell them. Each generation will be scandalized by the Holocaust anew and will believe itself to be the first to bear witness.
That's what keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive in every generation. Each generation has to discover the Holocaust on its own terms. Our task as scholars is to chart this development as clearly as possible.
How far back in Jewish culture do you trace this issue of continuity and discontinuity in response to catastrophe?
I start with the Mosaic curses in the book of Deuteronomy, which lay out the punishment of exile in horrific detail: "If you do not observe My law, this is what will happen to you . . . " This becomes a timeless blueprint of catastrophe. What are the texts that are constantly being referred to and recycled generation after generation? One text builds on another, culminating in wartime writing, by which I mean the First and Second World Wars. Holocaust literature, I argue, begins in wartime and in some respects is the most important chapter. Wartime writing has been neglected because it's written in "obscure" languages like Yiddish and Polish.
Is the Jewish cultural response to catastrophe unique?
Yes, because of our peculiar combination of being both a people and a religion. We have a historical memory, as a people, of shared experience that is then translated into our religious civilization. Such historical events as the Crusades, the Chmelnitsky massacres, and the Kishinev pogrom are inscribed into Jewish collective memory. The Binding of Isaac, the Exodus, the Exile, the concept of kiddush hashem—these are time-bound events that we understand to be timeless. They help us disassemble events that occur centuries and even millennia later. Jews created this shorthand. I call it a "grammar of remembrance," which allows us to respond to anything that happens in terms of the models that are already inscribed in Jewish tradition.
So much material has survived from wartime that one can locate the precise point of no analogy. On such and such a date, in this ghetto, in this region, we can say that the Jews realized that this was something that had never been seen before. They had tried all the analogies on for size, and none of them worked. At that point those who were still alive understood that something unprecedented had happened. This was a change in Jewish consciousness, and it demanded that one write about it in a different way--or remain silent. At that turning point all the patterned responses were no longer relevant and had to be transformed from within.
After the war, commemoration proceeds in two directions, one that uses a Jewish cultural idiom, and one that doesn't. The one that does locates Jewish memory within the destroyed communities. The one that doesn't focuses on the individual in hiding, in the concentration and death camps. Auschwitz becomes the stand-in for the Holocaust, as opposed to the ghettos, which up until 1942 was where the Holocaust was unfolding, day by day. These two paths of commemorating develop side by side, and are still in competition with one another. Today it is possible to speak of the Holocaust in terms so universalized, to speak of testimony and trauma, without mentioning the word: Jew. This is where Jewish literary history steps in to offer a powerful, moral corrective.