restricted access The Berkeley School of Jewish Literature
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The Berkeley School of Jewish Literature

David Shneer Introduction

It was a seminar on Yiddish and Hebrew literature early in my graduate career, sometime in the mid-1990s. Chana Kronfeld’s classes usually took place in the lovely living room or dining room of her home, really more of a classic Victorian salon, the space in which my best graduate learning happened at Berkeley. Chana’s salon was my intellectual home at Berkeley, where I met the people who would become my lifelong colleagues, teachers, and friends, and where I fell in love with reading.

I would even go one step further; Chana Kronfeld taught me to read. Of course, it was my parents and kindergarten teacher who taught me to discern individual letters, put them together to make words, and to put those words into sentences as I became literate; if by literate, we mean able to understand what someone has written. In a classical Jewish context, one might say that my early education taught me the pshat, the surface level of what written language communicates. Chana taught me that beneath the pshat lay many complicated layers of history and culture, a pardes, a fruitful expanse of meaning.

As the only historian in the illustrious group of scholars contributing to this collection, I feel uniquely positioned to talk not about how Chana bequeathed to me a career in history—she didn’t do that—but rather how she taught me to read. If anything, what Chana taught me had the potential to undermine what has become a very successful career as a historian. In a history graduate seminar, I usually read at least one, if not two, books, accompanying articles, and other ephemera. The historian’s approach tends to emphasize quantity over quality, breadth over depth. Our reading lists are long (and we’re proud of that fact); we teach our students to “gut” a book, by which historians mean not reading every page or every chapter and nonetheless gleaning the basic point of a five-hundred-page book, which took someone ten or more years to produce. What I, the historian, learned from Chana is to slow down, to savor reading, to enjoy reading, and to refuse the very notion of “gutting” a book. After all, as Chana taught me, why would you want your students to read a book that you then encouraged them to gut? Teach them to savor it, read it closely, unpack its meaning, get below the pshat. [End Page 1]

To be sure, Chana’s first love was reading, and she taught me to love reading literature of the fictional, belles-lettres kind, that which we historians tend to like only if we think it is revealing historical truths, not aesthetically recreating worlds. So it was, when I got the syllabus for Chana’s seminar in literature, I saw that there were some days when we were reading a mere twenty pages, often just poems (which weren’t even a whole page, because the lines didn’t go to the end.) How could one justify three hours of seminar discussion to twenty, but not even twenty, pages of reading? It was in Chana’s seminar that I learned that one could, in fact, must spend three hours discussing two poems and not even get to what she had planned for the day’s seminar. Chana taught me to read in that seminar.

I had already known that I wanted to write a dissertation, which became a book, about Jewish culture in the early Soviet Union, one that would focus on Yiddish, a language that I had studied just before the seminar with another beloved mentor who has since passed away, Dr. Eli Katz. I knew I wanted to write about writers and how important they were to establishing something I ended up calling the Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia, a group of people empowered by the Soviet state to define official Soviet Jewish culture and who were at the same time deeply embedded in global, international, Jewish cultural communities. I wanted to find minutes of writers’ meetings, letters from one writer to an editor about how literature...