What is a Jewish Classicist?

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Simon Goldhill


For once, the overheated press reports have got it about right. In every major university in the West, a “culture war” is taking place, right now. But – and this is where the press will let you down – so there should be. Let me explain why.

Education trains future citizens not just in skills or knowledge but also in the values of society. Just as a Haredi education is designed to conserve and strengthen the Haredi community as it is and has been, so too in broader society, education, whatever else it gives you, helps reproduce the norms and privileges that keep society’s inequalities in place. That’s why education is described as inherently conservative. Some embrace this sense of continuing order with enthusiasm: entitlement starts young. Others find themselves increasingly excluded, which is a different, pernicious enactment of society’s expectations.

Yet without education, where would social change come from? Feminism, LGBT rights, anti-racist movements, for example, start from perceived and experienced injustice but proceed through shared education – education that changes hearts and minds, and eventually expectations, and (finally) laws. Education can also be a motor for social transformation.

Education is at the heart of society’s culture war because of the tension between these two trajectories – reproducing social norms and changing social understanding. Education becomes a strident battleground because of the vested interests in both of these vectors, conservatism and progress, and the stakes are high. It should be all too clear why in America today, racked as it is with such bitter racial tensions, so many people inside and outside education want to make a fight over how racism is discussed in the classroom. What’s at stake is society’s order – and everyone’s place in it. We should be arguing about the culture we want to live in.

Today’s educational culture war also insists on a certain identity politics. The question is simple: how does who you are affect your access to education? How does the education you receive speak to who you are? The Jewish community should understand these questions better than most. In my own field of classics – the study of Greek and Roman antiquity – there was only one Jewish tenured professor in America before 1930, and he quickly went into an administrative role. In all subjects, there were quotas for Jewish students in the Ivy League universities for decades after the Second World War, and the prejudice that justified such quotas continued long after the quotas were removed. In Yale in the 1960s, the Jewish chaplain was so aware of the need to keep his head down that he built his sukkah indoors.[1] Even at Columbia in New York, my friend Seth Schein was pointedly introduced to visitors by his boss as “the cosmopolitan member of our department.” Things are different now – mainly. The position of mainstream Jews in American culture can be tracked by their admission to universities and their consequent positions in society. Jews should remember why access to education is worth fighting about – and how it is never just about scholarly excellence.

The influential Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) can stand as an icon of this long struggle. I had read and admired Cavell for years, but I never met him. I was amazed to discover from his autobiography that at the age of sixteen, during the Second World War, he had changed his name from Goldstein in order to find out what it would be like “if I did not simply announce my Jewishness by my name”: he wanted to escape what he called his “father’s inner ghetto.”[2] His journey from concealment in the 1940s through success in the latter decades of the century to public affirmation of his Jewishness – but only in 1994 when he told his story – mirrors a wider community history.

I am fascinated, therefore, by what it means now to announce one’s Jewishness in a university during the current culture wars. What does it mean to identify oneself or be identified as a Jew? Am I a “Jewish classicist”? I can specify more precisely why this matters particularly now. In current identity politics, it has become de rigeur to speak “as a…”: “as a gay man…”; “as a person of color…”; “as a woman…” It is a statement of authority, a self-authorization. There is an obvious and decent reason for this rhetoric. If you have been the object of ridicule, prejudice, or violence because of who you are taken to be, it can be a crucial gesture of affirmation to declare proudly and defensively that your identity matters. Gary Shteyngart in his hilarious memoir, Little Failure, parodies this politics mercilessly when he describes how he stopped being the classroom shlemiel when he realized he could start every intervention with “as a refugee…”[3] In college, being a refugee was cool. The trouble with such assertions is that they also reproduce the oversimplified stereotyping integral to the prejudice that is being opposed. As James Baldwin famously and brilliantly put it, “I am not your negro.”[4]

Yet who has not felt the need and the power of stating “I am a…” – the claim of an identity that matters? “I am Spartacus.” For many scholars, who you are is essential to the work you do. A woman who is a feminist scholar is likely to say that what she works on and the way she works on it are determined by being a woman and a feminist. A Marxist will also agree that her work and her Marxism go hand in hand. A black scholar will argue that her work is informed not just by the toxic racism of society but also by the insidious institutional prejudice within academia. There are indeed lobby groups for such identities, all of which see themselves as fighting against the hierarchies of their institutions: there’s the women’s classical caucus, the lambda classics caucus for queer classicists and their allies, the Asian classicist group, and so forth. These are the institutional signs of identity politics.

But there is no group for Jewish classicists. Current identity politics are dominated by assertive and justified claims to be a minority ethnic group, historically disadvantaged, excluded or oppressed. Being Jewish, however, apparently does not count in this category – despite the evident fact that Jews are a minority group, one that has suffered oppression and institutional exclusion for centuries.[5] Indeed, not even the Jews I discussed this with wanted to be treated as a minority in this way: “A minority? Me? Feh!”

So, I decided to find out what being Jewish meant to classicists – in the hope of shedding some new light on the politics of identity. I interviewed around forty people (including some non-Jews and non-classicists as a control) in conversations that lasted usually for more than an hour. They came from ten countries and were aged from their late twenties through their late eighties. I also read obituaries, diaries, biographies and autobiographies, and institutional and disciplinary histories, to get a sense of how being Jewish in a university has changed over time. This varied and personal data produced a fascinating and rich array of material – and I think it offers a remarkable and important challenge to the modern debate about identity and politics.

When people talk about their own past, their sense of who they are, and what the development of their careers have been, you should not need Sigmund Freud to tell you that reminiscences are unreliable, stories are self-serving and self-deceptive, and desire as much as truth leads narrative. Where possible, I backtracked over stories with repeated questions, followed with email inquiries, cross-referenced with other memories. But my aim was not to discover an accurate biography or a detailed sociology of a set of classicists, but rather to listen closely to how they represented themselves and what they thought mattered to them.

Glenn Most captures one particular strand of these conversations with his typical forthright incisiveness. Glenn was born in New Jersey and went to Princeton, but he has taught in Austria, Germany and Italy – he speaks French, German, and Italian with perfect grammar, but each with a heavy New Jersey accent. He is a rambunctious intellectual. He replied immediately to my email request to speak. Being born into a Jewish family, he stated, has no more effect on his scholarship than his height – a mere contingency. “I do not have an ounce of religiosity in me,” he wrote, but he offered to speak out of friendship – though, he added, “I have nothing to say.” He then proceeded to explain for fully eighty minutes why he had nothing to say. My questions touched a nerve – about family, about the past, about self-fulfilment – and it took a good deal of talking to exorcise what had seemed to be already exorcised ghosts. Yet Glenn’s initial dismissiveness had a strong basis. Scholarship in a university is necessarily secular. No one today could expect a hearing if they tried to explain history by appealing to God’s hand, or declared that the best way to appreciate natural science was to see it as evidence of God’s creation. The privilege of objective scholarship depends on rejecting the passions and faith of religiosity. Martin Ostwald taught for many years at Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania. He had come over from Germany just before the war, though he never lost his German accent or manner: he was the kindliest of scholars, an epitome of everyone’s favorite Jewish uncle. When he was asked by an aunt why he didn’t study Jews rather than Greeks, however, Martin exploded: “The Greeks are rational!” He had intended to become a rabbi until Kristallnacht, but he was committed to the tradition of scientific philology he followed. Religion and rationality were at odds in his mind.[6] To call oneself a “Jewish classicist” was to risk setting oneself at odds with the ideals of the enlightened, secular university.

The desire for “real scholarship” and the perceived tension with religion bore down even on scholars who were religiously committed. One feminist, observant, Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Hindy Najman, described with forceful lyricism how some scholars argued as Jews: their love of interpretation and an expansive mode of reasoning, both of which looked back to the style of the Talmud, gave them a distinctive approach in her eyes that she appreciated profoundly. In this perspective, not all “Jewish writers” were Jews, and not all Jews were “Jewish writers.” Yet when I asked if she taught as a Jew, Hindy Najman replied with immediate scorn: “No! I am a scholar!” The paradox remained unresolved.

At the other end of the spectrum from Glenn Most, two historians, Jonathan Price in Tel Aviv and David Levene in New York, both accepted the description of “Jewish classicist” with reflective care. Jonathan Price moved from St Louis to Israel in order to live a more committed Jewish life – and he describes himself as a Modern Orthodox Jew; David Levene – who moved from England to New York for the same reason – calls himself “traditionally observant,” though he kept qualifying his self-description along the way. David told me how he would introduce a class on the history of the Roman religion by announcing his partiality as a Jewish reader. He glossed his style as “ethical reading,” influenced by Midrash, something Hindy Najman would recognize, happily. His intention by declaring his own partiality, however, was to encourage his class to think about the bias of all writers and readers of historiography: the ideological and conflicted authority of writing the past. He announced his Jewishness not to enact it, but to make a scholarly point.

One of Jonathan Price’s obsessions is Josephus. Josephus is the most celebrated traitor, who escaped from a suicide pact as a leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome to write in Rome his histories of the Jewish war and of Jewish antiquities for a Greek-speaking audience: the go-between or collaborator par excellence. He is a tricky character and, for that reason, not nearly studied enough, especially by Jews who find him, well, awkward. Both Levene and Price saw studying Jewish history as a topic that they had a specific concern to understand and contribute to, but they also saw no difficulty with sharing the material, causal explanations of contemporary historiographical methodology. Their interest was personal but not, therefore, inevitably compromised.

One historian of antiquity I spoke to who was ultra-Orthodox (Haredi: his own description) was more guarded, but he also declared that a scholar “has a responsibility to produce a consensual discourse with which the academic community can agree.” When he gave his first public seminar, he had been told by another Jewish scholar (who would turn out to be a colleague in later years) that he had “to choose between wearing a shtreimel and wearing a mortar-board” – which he remembered not as advice or a choice but as a vivid and aggressive demonstration of prejudice. As ever, publicly recognizing a Jew – from a look, a way of dressing, a way of speaking – re-opens the scars of past prejudice, and, like Jewish jokes, opens a tension between insiders and outsiders, with all the dynamics of being in or out of the club. For a Jew to write on the history of the Jews is a self-implicating process. It needs discussing, but its very awkwardness often means such discussion is silenced. Molly Myerowitz Levine, at peace with her religiously observant life – while teaching for more than thirty-five years at the traditionally black university, Howard – recommended a “dual consciousness”: “To hold two contradictory ideas at the same time,” she insisted with a laugh, “is the mark of an intellectual” – and thus, from the opposite perspective of Glenn Most, saw no salient intellectual category of Jewish classicist. There’s classics, and then there’s her Jewish life.

Molly also typified another element of my conversations, however. She described a “peculiarly polite yet inhumane brand of Wellesley anti-Semitism” during her undergraduate days. She had to take a physical education qualification to graduate. The only course she could take was crew, but crew met on Shabbat. She went to explain her difficulty to the dean, who replied that because Wellesley was inclusive she had to conform to the general rules and no exemption could be given on religious grounds. Desperate, she turned – as she put it – to “what a Jew could do”: she fasted and said Tehillim all through the summer. The day before semester started, the boathouse burned down – barukh Hashem – and rowing was cancelled for the foreseeable future…[7] Again and again, the scholars I talked to mentioned stories of such misunderstandings, prejudice or annoyances. But, as in this case, even more often, stories erupted into laughter or wry amusement. Of course, the first response to the question “Are you a Jewish classicist?” was a question “What do you mean by…?,” but this was followed by a story, a joke, an anecdote. I have to confess that this project was the most fun research I have undertaken.

Both the Jews who lived an observant life, then, and the Jews who had little or no communal or religious life as Jews, found a significant gap between their scholarship and their Jewishness but reflected on it with stories, humor, and recognition. There was also a third group, whose response took a different route. Amy Richlin is a very well-known feminist scholar in California, about to turn seventy, who has a made a career out of the study of Roman sexuality. Like many women of her generation, she is very conscious of having to fight for her place in the academy. She started to talk to me and found herself – to her own surprise – telling me stories she had barely told a soul, and she followed up our conversation of nearly two hours with a string of emails. When she was five-years-old in Hackensack, New Jersey, she belligerently replied to her grandmother’s delight that she was a yiddishe sheina meidel, a “beautiful little Jewish girl”, with “I am an American girl.” Both her parents, though they grew up poor, knew some Latin; her mother in old age could conjugate verbs even when suffering with dementia. Her father, who was forced to give up his musical training to work as a butcher, rather wonderfully took “Vercingetorix” as his middle name. Amy Richlin completed the unfulfilled promise of their careers – the classic story of generational social rising, through educational success in classics. She threw herself into student life in Princeton with such verve that she founded the women’s crew (inspired by the Victorian novel Tom Brown at Oxford) and even served in chapel (the contrast with Molly Levine is striking). Amy Richlin, looking backward, now describes her decision to go into classics as a “sort of internalized anti-Semitism.” For her to choose classics was both an engagement with her parents’ hopes and failures and also a drama of fitting in. For a woman who had fought so hard in her academic life about the nastiness of exclusion, it was an extraordinary moment of self-recognition.

Jim Porter, also now in California, is a classicist with a profound knowledge of Nietzsche and German scholarship. He grew up in New Hampshire, with only a bare Jewish education and active religious life in a Reform community, but nonetheless said this experience “shaped everything I do.” His “sense of alienation,” of “not belonging,” was crucial: Judaism meant little; being Jewish was formative. He never “felt more Jewish” than when he worked on Nietzsche’s philology living in an apartment block in what had been East Berlin. It fueled his “scholarly rage”: he was “enraged, saddened, fascinated” by what he was reading and experiencing. Like many I interviewed, Porter was explicit that how he now thought about – and publicly expressed – his identity (a term he put in several sets of inverted commas) was not available to him when he was younger. It was weeks after our interview that Porter wrote to me to say he had just remembered – eat your heart out, Dr. Freud – that as a graduate he had been paid to translate two books from German, one on the Final Solution, the other on Martin Luther and anti-Semitism.

Doing classics for Jews is always a question of assimilation – from the Talmud’s ambivalent attitude to Greek onward. (There is barely a page of Talmud without a Greek word in it, despite the occasionally fierce injunction against learning Greek. There are even bilingual puns between Greek and Hebrew, which shows how deeply Greek was part of the culture.[8]) In Britain, well into the 1970s, “smart boys” – a significant title – were directed into classics as the privileged subject: a route into assimilating to an educational and cultural tradition. That was my own experience. Being Jewish – which need have no connection to institutional Judaism – and becoming a classicist is a drama of fitting in, of finding a place, whether the drama is disavowed, misrecognized, or played to the hilt. To choose classics turns out to express a sense of belonging or alienation.

When I asked many of my friends and colleagues about being a Jewish classicist, they immediately deflected the question by talking about other people. They listed cases they knew about – often long dead – or cases they thought were telling. Froma Zeitlin, one of America’s most distinguished and influential scholars of antiquity, now in her late eighties and still teaching at Princeton, sent me several lists. Like many, she found it hard to move to a personal, self-reflective narrative; she repeatedly resisted it altogether. Is the question “what is a Jewish classicist” about the self or the other? Froma Zeitlin, whose life work could be summed up as the exploration of how projections of the other are part of self-formation – her best known book is called Playing the Other[9] – claimed she had never thought of how this might be related to her formative experiences as an outspoken Jewish feminist in Ivy League establishments from the 1960s onward. But how could it not be? We discussed this for a good while, inconclusively.

The problem was epitomized for me in this vivid and funny exchange. “The one classical historian who I would definitely describe as Jewish,” said one historian, knowingly, “is Erich Gruen.” Erich Gruen came to the US from Vienna just before the war, and as well as being a very distinguished historian, he has written a good deal in the last decades on ancient Jewish texts and on the Jewish diaspora in antiquity. He had chosen his career on the advice of Martin Ostwald, the kindly professor at Swarthmore. When I asked Erich Gruen if he was the Jewish classicist I was looking for, he replied by trying out different possibilities. Did he write “from a Jewish background”? Or “as a Jew”? Or “from a Jewish point of view”? He thoughtfully denied them all: “Wrong identity,” he concluded. He wrote about Jewish history, but, he insisted, it was no more than a trajectory of his earlier work. I did point out that it was a trajectory that had stopped – perhaps reached home? Though he had, after all, worked on Jewish stuff – not just history but biblical texts – for decades now. But he was unimpressed by my suggested version of his career, too. It would seem that it is easier to project the category of Jewish classicist onto another scholar than it is to adopt it for oneself.

This shifting between uncertain, qualified, or rejected narratives of the self and more willing recognition of others is matched by a refusal of everyone interviewed to imagine any essentialist definition based on blood or birth as anything other than toxic. The fact that Keith Hopkins – Professor at Cambridge – and Oliver Taplin – Professor at Oxford – both discovered late in life that they were halakhically Jewish makes minimal difference to who they are or to their scholarship. I suppose it does add piquancy to the dramatic symmetry of the era-defining debate about the nature of the Roman Emperor conducted between Keith Hopkins and Fergus Millar (Oxford) – a debate which so inspired the young Mary Beard (Cambridge). This famous public discussion was a set-to between a Jew who did not know he was a Jew and a non-Jew whose wife and children are Jewish, and who described himself as an “honorary Jew” – elective affiliation versus unaware birthright. A plot for a novel, perhaps, but only a racist would see such facts as determinative or even relevant for the scholarly debate and its impact.

Now, I could add many more examples from my hours of conversation and reading. But it is time to make some conclusions, because collectively these stories do reveal something I think is important for today. First, no one had a glib or worked-out answer to the question of what is a Jewish classicist, even though they were primed to the subject beforehand. Certainly, nobody made any suggestion that the mere fact of a bloodline mattered (one sign of the desperate, racist madness for purity). Each person told stories, backtracked, and changed perspectives as the conversations proceeded: contradictions, jokes, self-mocking, deflections, uncertainties were integral to the attempt at definition, not distractions from it: jokes in particular, Jewish jokes, were everywhere. Each person, even when they denied any connection between their Jewishness and their scholarship, recognized that Jewishness played some role in who they were, a recognition sometimes unwillingly pursued, sometimes proclaimed; even the most religiously committed Jews recognized a significant gap between their scholarship and their religious perspective. For the older scholars in particular, their self-awareness and willingness to speak out had changed significantly over time. In short, the scholars’ sense of their own identity remained opaque, dissimulated, performed, denied: told as stories but not fully understood, not fully made visible.

There is a contrast here that I find particularly telling. So much of contemporary identity politics depends on stating, “As a [person of color, woman, gay and so forth], I declare…” It demands that recognition and self-assertion are certain and clear. “I am a…so I know…” This proud self-affirmation is often accompanied by aggressive rejection of the weak-hearted who are less committed or assured. It is a very authoritarian gesture that assumes that identity is a fixed and single powerful marker of who you are. But the question “What is a Jewish classicist?” did not provoke such authoritarian answers but rather an insistence on multiplicity of perspectives and uncertainty of self-understanding. This conclusion, I think, sets a challenging question to current political rhetoric about identity and its rather too shrill and certain claims to authority and knowledge.

National and institutional frameworks produced significant differences in these stories. Two Orthodox Jewish women in Israel described the surprise of their students that they – as Orthodox women – could possibly have been taught Greek. “Regarded as the enemy,” was one, wry and immediately qualified description of her reception as a scholar of Greek in her politically charged educational environment. For the scholars of antiquity I interviewed, anti-Semitism became a passionately experienced force – rather than a low-level expectation – only in theology (or, occasionally, abroad). In theology, shocking stories emerged of anti-Semitic tropes being aggressively and publicly deployed, especially where early Christianity was concerned. At a conference, Paula Frederiksen was accused by a distinguished male professor of trying “to reclaim Jesus for Judaism” (as if there was any doubt that Jesus was Jewish): “What would I do with him?” she replied, in hilarious bafflement. Hindy Najman recalled her shock that her colleague, the (Protestant) Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, at a conference tried to explain why Jews are hated – with the apparently unrecognized anti-Semitic trope, “Jews think they are the Chosen People”. (The gender dynamics of these cases also should not be ignored.) The anti-Jewish rhetoric of the texts of early Christianity has left its mark.[10]

The public (in)visibility of Jewishness – a major difference, historically and now, with the enactment of racial prejudice against people of color – is significant. I was told many versions of “funny, he didn’t look Jewish” stories. Or, “he’s a real Jew – me, I am just Jewish…” Being Jewish, everyone knew, was a question of performance and recognition. Conversations often reverted to the question of “How Jewish are you?” or “How are you Jewish?” Again, what I find so significant is that the question “What is a Jewish classicist?” prompted stories, jokes, misprisions, disagreements, disavowals: a contingent, shifting narrative of cultural identity, performed through the exchange of tales and jokes in an exploration of (self-)recognition.

So let me lay my cards on the table. We do need to have a culture war about the sort of society we want to live in: through education and discussion we need to fight for a fairer, more decent world for our children – for everyone’s children – to live in. But the current politics of identity has been dominated by a rhetoric that is too authoritarian, shrill, and nasty. The answers to the question “What is a Jewish classicist?” reveal how complex the question of identity is. “Who are you?” should be a hard question to answer. So, when it comes to the politics of identity, my hope is that we can discover and nourish a more nuanced, conversational, and exploratory language to set against the destructive forces of prejudice and exclusion.

[1] L. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: their Impact and their Experiences (New Haven, 1984); S. Klingenstein, Jews in the American Academy, 1900-1940: the Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (New Haven, 1991); W. Calder, “The Refugee Classical Scholars in the USA: an Evaluation of their Contribution,” Illinois Classical Studies 17 (1992): 153-73; D. Oren, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale, 2nd ed. (New Haven, 2001); J. Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (Boston, 2005).

[2] S. Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge, MA, 1994), 11, 24.

[3] G. Shteyngart, Little Failure: A Memoir (New York, 2014), 255.

[4] See Raoul Peck’s wonderful documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2017).

[5] Most amusingly argued by D. Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count (London, 2021).

[6] M. Ostwald, Memoirs; R. Chopp, “Martin Ostwald (1922–2010).”

[7] M. M. Levine, “Annals of an Orthodox Jew at Wellesley in the ‘60s,” Wellesley Alumnae Magazine 70 (1985): 14-15, 27.

[8] W. Smelik, Rabbis, Language and Translation in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2013).

[9] F. Zeitlin, Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Chicago, 1995).

[10] G. Stroumsa, “From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism in Early Christianity?” in O. Limor and G. Stroumsa eds Contra Iudaeos. Ancient and Medieval Polemics Between Christians and Jews (Tübingen, 1996): 1-26. P. Frederiksen and O. Ishai, “Christian Anti-Judaism: Polemics and Policies”, in S. Katz, ed., The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume IV: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period (Cambridge, 2006): 977-1034; L. Nasrallah and E. S. Fiorenza, eds., Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies (Minneapolis, 2009), D. Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York, 2013).

Simon Goldhill is Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge, as well as Foreign Secretary of the British Academy and a foreign fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His books have been translated into ten languages and won three international prizes. He has lectured and broadcasted all over the world. His most recent book is The Christian Invention of Time: Temporality and the Literature of Late Antiquity, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.