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  • Guest Editor’s Introduction: Ethnographers and History: A Conversation Located in Jewish Studies
  • Riv-Ellen Prell (bio)

Beyond Boundaries, the theme of the biannual scholars’ conference of the American Jewish Historical Society, was an occasion for ethnographers to reflect upon the ways in which our scholarship on American Jews and Judaism has been shaped by the academic field of Jewish history. Despite a shared interest in ethnography, we hail from different disciplines: anthropology, folklore, sociology, and linguistics. Broadly speaking, our work has engaged the study of various facets of American Jewish experiences, but all of us have in common an abiding interest in grounding our ethnographic studies in their deep and complex historical roots. At the same time, like that of all ethnographers, our work has demonstrated how historical processes have taken shape through cultural negotiations and the construction of meanings in Jews’ lived realities. How did those people whom we studied in neighborhoods and synagogues, on tourist buses in Israel, or at communal Jewish Renewal retreats adapt, shape, or even invent a Jewish life, identity, language, behaviors, rituals, or aesthetics? How were these “worlds” grounded in history?

Our roundtable was the product of intellectual and social histories that touched most fields in the social sciences and humanities in the academy beginning in the 1970s. Our goal was to discuss how ethnographic studies of religion, nation, culture, gender and politics were shaped by a social theory shared by both history and anthropology. Our roundtable not only suggested that ethnographic work is not simply linked to historical studies; it also asked several questions: What is Jewish history? Whom does it include or exclude? How does our work address that? Our conviction was that the ongoing conversations between the fields, carried out through interdisciplinary Jewish studies, remain productive and exciting.1 These questions raised issues pertinent to the pursuit of interdisciplinary Jewish studies. But they also provoked more fundamental questions about how American Jewish culture can and should be studied.

These conversations taken up by our scholarship can be traced back to discussions within the field of Jewish studies that began during the [End Page ix] last twenty-five years of the twentieth century and, between the disciplines of anthropology and history, considerably earlier. They grew out of questions about the place of culture in social life, and the place of texts in culture. They raised the problem of how to understand change, and they explored the elements that shape human experience.

Scholars’ interest in the relationship between history and anthropology took center stage in several academic fields beginning in the decades of the seventies and eighties. Their linkages became givens by the late twentieth century; however, that was anything but the case when they were first broached. In 1980, the anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn noted that an “extensive body of literature” had been in place for thirty years about the “intellectual and social relations between these scholars, due to their shared epistemologies.” However, widespread engagements about that relationship had not really emerged until the latter third of the century. 2

Cohn argued that there were important connections between these disciplines, since neither history nor anthropology, in contrast to other social sciences, successfully engaged in predicting the future or in creating law-like generalizations. Rather, history and anthropology, as interpretative fields, “translate” what they learn from the “sources” (whether found in the archive or in social encounters) that they study. They carefully analyze the context and textuality of those sources in order to offer rich and nuanced narratives about (in various eras) groups, peoples, communities, nations and translocations, such as those that created Diaspora communities. The theoretical connections between history and anthropology are promising, but the separation between the fields is equally obvious. Is there intellectual common cause between scholars who see their work as the study of societies over time versus within time? How might interests in culture and ritual, which are central to some versions of anthropology, apply to historical studies committed to the politics of the nation? How does anthropologists’ work on politics relate to historians’ interest in nationalism?

Jews as a subject matter of scholarly investigation seemed to fall on the side of historical study if anthropologists held...


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