My grandmother was born in Poland, within 20 miles of the man she would eventually marry. When her mother died in childbirth, her father brought her to Strasbourg, France, to be raised in a Jewish orphanage. In the course of the 100 years of her life, she survived two world wars, lived on four different continents, and learned to speak Yiddish, French, German, Spanish, English and finally Hebrew. She and my grandfather were tremendously wealthy pre-WWII and then utterly poverty-stricken after it. During the Second World War, she kept two children from being killed by the Nazis, bribed the guard of a French concentration camp to win 27 Jews their freedom, and lived long enough to have 7 grandchildren and 26 grandchildren. Perhaps because she had been an orphan, her personal motto was ‘L’essence de la vie, c’est la famille’; the essence of life is family.
My mother didn’t come from Europe. She was born and raised in Wisconsin. Her father had been a boxer in Chicago—a pro in the all-Jewish boxing league. The 14th time he had his nose broken, he decided to retire from the ring and used his modest winnings to open a furniture store in Fort Atkinson—Field’s furniture. He and his wife settled in Watertown, midway between Milwaukee and Madison, where there were very few Jews and visceral anti-Jewish sentiments. I think, for my mother, attending UW-Madison as an undergraduate must have been a relief to her soul—an escape from small-town life to the promise of bigger places ahead. She used to tell me (when she was still alive) that she hadn’t fit in at all, anywhere, until she came to UW-Madison.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston, basically well-accepted, if not particularly well-behaved; because I was young, I couldn’t fathom the anti-Semitism that both my parents had faced, on different continents and contexts. I thought my mother was exaggerating when she described how her neighbors had treated her family, and I thought my father’s fleeing Europe sounded exciting. I couldn’t imagine what their lives had been like—testament to my narcissism as a child (or hopefully the narcissism of all children). As I grew up, though, I wanted to understand the world that shaped them and, by extension, me.
Given those intertwined histories, it’s not surprising that I would end up believing so fervently in the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies and its continuing importance in this global age. Understanding Jewish history and culture is not only for Jews seeking self-knowledge as was I; it helps all of us understand our neighbors, Jewish or not, nearby or far, from the haute- bourgeoisie to the working poor, from the refugees to the fighters, the settlers to the immigrants, the local to the transnational, from Strasbourg, France in 1901, Watertown, Wisconsin in the 1930s, Tel Aviv, Boston, Tajikistan or Al-Daraj, Gaza City. I hope you’ll agree with me that the work of our center remains vital and that the events on the world’s stage demand analysis.
I write this at a moment when the ceasefire in Israel and Gaza is holding, but it is unclear whether or how a truce could pave the way for peace. It is a moment when opposition to the current Israeli government’s positions has bled into violent and regressive anti-Semitic expressions. It is a moment when political polarization and class differences in the US are at extreme highs, and the environmental devastation caused by global warming is scary. And it is a moment when universities are grappling with what it means to encourage political diversity, respect freedom of speech and still cultivate civility. As I see it, this is a time when the faculty and staff at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies have a role to play on campus, in the nation and in the world, and it is not an unimportant one.
Our Center for Jewish Studies is one of the few places left where the difficult issues facing American Jews and world Jewry can be openly discussed. We don’t have a position on Israel; we have faculty who understand its historical complexities and current-day challenges and can help students understand the Middle East in nuanced ways. We are not dedicated to the creation of Jews, but in the business of creating understanding of Jews. Perhaps obviously, the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies is therefore not only for Jews. Our courses and programs and lectures and outreach are for anyone wanting to understand the world because by understanding Jews, Judaism and Jewish Studies, in all their forms, that’s what we’re doing—we’re learning about the world.
With your help, we can remain a robust place of learning—a place our students come to understand themselves, their histories, their neighbors and the world they’ll inherit. We rely on whatever size donation you can make, and we appreciate it, no matter what your history of giving, no matter what your history at all.
Simone Schweber, Director
Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies
Goodman Professor of Education and Jewish Studies