Voices around the Text: The Ethnography of Reading at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem

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Essay Excerpt

The title of this article was inspired by a piece called "Voices in the Text" by my brother Daniel Boyarin (1986). His article is a close analysis of a brief example of midrash, the early genre of rabbinic literature which records the sages' expansions on the Bible. His title pointed to the multivocality of the founding rabbinic texts, whose primary character is that of represented dialogue. My "voices around the text" are those of myself, my fellow students, and teachers in an informal class that has been meeting for several years at a yeshiva on the Lower East Side of New York City.

The quotes from Greenblatt and Iser suggest that, despite the apparent gap in time, the voices "in" and "around" these texts are mutually dependent and coexistent. Without the text, we who constitute the class would have no basis for dialogue among ourselves. Without us, the rabbis' inscribed words would remain only potential.' The intersubjectivism Iser identifies as inherent in any literary reading opens into a vast (though bounded) number of relational possibilities when several voices together read several voices. The dialogism between reader and text identified in these quotes should not blind us to the social process among groups of readers collectively constructing given texts. Therefore this article aims to address three primary issues:

* The ways people mark themselves as distinct groups through unique recombinations of various cultural genres.

* The convergence between the concerns of anthropology and those of literary theory in the study of textual practices.

* The anthropological understanding of Judaism, insofar as founding texts are critical to the perpetual recreation of Jewish identity.

The first two points are familiar to readers of this journal. The third has fairly recently begun to receive the attention it deserves both from literary scholars concerned with the history of reading and interpretation, and from ethnographers of Jewish life (Goldberg 1987; Heilman 1983).  (Boyarin, 399-400)

About the Author

The Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, Jonathan Boyarin, began teaching at UNC in the fall semester 2007. Boyarin, an anthropologist and lawyer, has served as visiting professor at Wesleyan University and Dartmouth College and came to Carolina from the University of Kansas, where he was distinguished professor of Modern Jewish Studies. Boyarin received a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1998, after receiving his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1984.

His research and writing combine his backgrounds in anthropology and Yiddish culture to point toward new pathways in the study of Jewish culture. His first book, as co-editor, was From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry (1983 and 1998), which served as an introduction for younger, English-speaking Jews to first-hand accounts of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. This was followed by Polish Jews in Paris: The Ethnography of Memory (1991), based on his dissertation fieldwork in Paris, and by a volume on the life history of Yiddish scholar Shlomo Noble. Further ethnographic and critical essays, including some dealing with the contemporary Lower East Side in New York, were published in Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (1992) and Thinking in Jewish (1996). He edited and contributed toThe Ethnography of Reading (1993) and Remapping Memory: The Politics of TimeSpace (1994). With his brother, Daniel Boyarin, he co-edited Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies (1997). His interest in Zionism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and revaluation of diaspora in contemporary Jewish life is reflected in Palestine and Jewish History (1996) and (again with Daniel Boyarin) Powers of Diaspora (2002). His interests in the relation between Jewishness and legal theory resulted in a study published in the Yale Law Journal regarding a controversy surrounding a school board in a contemporary Hasidic community, in addition to a journal article on Jewishness, law, and psychoanalysis. He is currently working on a study and translation from Yiddish of the last book published by Abraham Joshua Heschel, while completing a manuscript on the relation between Jewish difference in late medieval Europe and the dynamics of the colonial encounter in Latin America.

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