The next big idea in Jewish life is the past.
The relationship between history, a scientific discipline that is empirical and measurable, and memory, a personal and subjective relationship to one’s life or one’s community, is the subject of Yehuda Kurtzer’s proposal that last week was chosen as the first winner of Brandeis University’s first Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation.
Kurtzer, a doctoral student in Jewish studies at Harvard University, will serve at Brandeis for two years starting in September, teaching one course each semester and conducting research for a book that will be published by Brandeis University Press.
“It’s a huge blessing,” Kurtzer said of his selection.
The title of his proposal, which he — along with the four other finalists — presented at an all-day symposium at Brandeis two weeks ago, is “Shuva: The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory.” The theme of the proposal, which will be expanded into Kurtzer’s book, is that a growing part of the Jewish community in recent years has made the past personal. In other words, by embracing such parts of the Jewish past as textual study or an interest in Yiddish culture, facets of Jewish life that had largely faded from prominence in recent generations, Jews are turning communal history into individual memory.
“Jews en masse are reclaiming and prioritizing the work of the Jewish memorialists, producing a postmodern reclamation of an inspired and inspiring past,” Kurtzer’s proposal states. “A new direction for the Jewish communal establishment will be to democratize, popularize and make accessible programs and institutions that are forming contemporary Jewish cultural memory, thus enabling Jews to stake a meaningful claim to their heritage.”
In a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, Kurtzer, who is the son of former U.S. Middle East ambassador Dan Kurtzer, said the book that will grow out of the academic appointment “will be both prescriptive and descriptive.”
An active member of his alternative minyan in Brookline, he said he will study how the growth of such unaffiliated prayer and study groups reflect the Jewish community’s interest in reclaiming parts of tradition, and he will offer suggestions to foster that growing interest.
“It’s not as simple as returning to tradition,” Kurtzer said, noting that a burgeoning interest in “Jewish memory” is reflected in both the religious and secular communities. “It takes place across the Jewish world.
“Jewish memory is very selective. Jewish memory is being reclaimed by Jews,” he said.
Kurtzer “seeks to understand how and why we remember what we do, and how Jewish memory can be strengthened and renewed,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandies and director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, which will administer the chair, funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
A gift of more than $1.5 million from Bronfman Philanthropies will fund the first five years of the new chair, including an estimated $110,000 in salary, benefits and research assistance for each of the winning candidate’s first two years at Brandeis.
“Mr. Kurtzer’s project is particularly timely as we enter an era when the last Holocaust survivors are passing from the scene,” Sarna said. “With the preservation of Holocaust memory a renewed topic of concern in Jewish life, Mr. Kurtzer’s research promises to shed important light on this subject.”
The Brandeis competition was inspired by a $10,000 prize that philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck, offered in 1929 for the best answer to “How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?” The winner was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, whose book, “Judaism as a Civilization,” became one of the most influential books in 20th-century American Jewish life.