Hybrid Jewish Identities Take Center Stage at Seattle TED-style Event

By Hannah S Pressman

At a January TED Talks-style event in Seattle, four young scholars advocated a more inclusive vision of Jewish community and Jewish Studies. In a short talk that most embodied the evening’s theme of hybridity, Hamza Zafer, a Pakistan-born assistant professor of Near East Studies, described his surprise when a 23andMe genetic test revealed a Jewish ancestor. Zafer and the evening’s other speakers all suggested that the boundaries of Jewish identity are much more porous than they used to be – and that that’s a good thing.

In the wake of the Pew Center’s controversial “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” this event showed that the community’s toughest questions about how to define Jewishness are beginning to impact scholarship, too. Daniel Bessner, for example, a specialist in U.S. foreign relations now in his first year teaching at the University of Washington, shared the stories of German exiles like Hans Speier, who fled Europe during World War II and became part of America’s Cold War defense industry. Speier was not Jewish but married a Jewish woman and participated in Jewish intellectual projects. Bessner used Speier’s case to argue that non-Jews be considered part of Jewish history, declaring: “We as historians, and just as engaged people in the world, need to expand the boundaries of Jewish history, and to consider people like Speier as part of it. … What I’d like to propose is that we have a new term: Jewish non-Jews.”

The evening’s other two talks, similarly, suggested that definitions of insiders and outsiders in the Jewish community are shifting. Noam Pianko contrasted the traditional “top down” model of Jewish peoplehood with a new “bottom up” model; while the former concentrated on distilling a single Jewish essence consisting of shared values, the latter is more flexible and recognizes the diversity of today’s Jewish community.

The lens of art can broaden our view of Jewish education and how we learn, according to Tamar Benzikry-Stern’s passionately delivered lecture. She used the example of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance art to delve into Jewish concepts of ritual, cleansing, and repair. Benzikry-Stern convincingly argued that the alternative perspectives provided by art can effectively expand the boundaries of the classroom.

The videos of all the short lectures are now available on the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies’ YouTube channel. The event’s organizers at the Stroum Center are making the talks easily available online to enable younger audiences, in particular, to engage with questions about boundaries of the Jewish community, past and future. These short videos would make excellent resources for religious school and day school teachers who want to jump start conversations about Jewish identity and history.

Here are links to the four talks. Take a look and let us know what you think!

Choosing Our Ancestors: A Jewish-Muslim Connection (Hamza Zafer)

How German Exiles Shaped the Cold War in the US  (Daniel Bessner)

How Art Can Change How We Learn (Tamar Benzikry-Stern)

Does Jewish Peoplehood Have a Future? (Noam Pianko)

All 4 videos can be found together here.

Hannah Pressman has a doctorate in Hebrew literature and is co-editor of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture.” Her writing has appeared in Tablet, Lilith, The Forward, eSefarad.com, and MyJewishLearning.com. She lives in Seattle, where she is affiliate faculty for the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.