I write this message in the middle of my first semester as Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. I consider it an honor to serve in this position, and also a vital responsibility. CJS owes its existence to dedicated alumni and faculty members, beginning with Laurence A. Weinstein and George L. Mosse, who initiated our program more than a quarter century ago. My colleagues and I are entrusted with carrying forward their efforts, an endeavor that calls for some reflection. As CJS proceeds into its twenty-sixth year, it is worth pausing to consider why we, as scholars and teachers, dedicate ourselves to the subject of Jews.
I recall a particularly vivid moment from my first semester at UW-Madison, in 1998. During the final week of my survey, “The America Jewish Experience,” a student told me my course had disappointed her. Raised in the African American church, she complained that I made the Jews seem “ordinary,” as if they were no different from any other people. I had spent fifteen weeks giving lectures on migration patterns, economic niches, urban politics, cultural assimilation, and other topics I considered interesting and significant, but which had diminished the Jews in the eyes of my student. She thought of Jews as God’s Chosen People, but I seemed to treat them like any other group. While I could not agree with the theological underpinning of her criticism, I could not brush it off either. Did I really believe Jewish history was no different from that of any other people? If so, why teach it and not some other branch of history? What is significant, instructive, or maybe even profound in the history of Jews and their civilization?
My colleagues in CJS would surely offer any number of persuasive answers to those questions. For my part, I draw inspiration from David Hollinger, the eminent intellectual historian. Hollinger has written that, of all religious and ethnic communities, the Jews of modern Europe and the U. S. have proved “the most responsive to the global modernization processes entailing science, capitalism, socialism, and modernist movements in the arts.” For the past two centuries, Jews have played the role of creators and disturbers, of innovators. Not all Jews and not Jews alone, but Jews prominently and disproportionately have questioned established knowledge, challenged traditional social hierarchies, and expanded rights and liberties for the excluded. In the realms of culture, society, and politics, they have negotiated between elites and masses, dominant and minority religions, high art and popular entertainment. Put simply, the modern world cannot be understood apart from Jews. When we study them, we gain a better, deeper comprehension of the world they inhabit.
The classes taught, the public events organized, and the scholarship produced by CJS faculty have reached thousands of students and members of the Madison community. This website provides a glimpse into what we at CJS are doing. We are always working to update this information, but for now I’m proud to present a snapshot into the vibrant undertaking that is the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies.
With good wishes,
Tony Michels, Director
Mosse/Weinstsein Center for Jewish Studies
George L. Mosse Professor of American Jewish History