The Forum section of Studies in American Jewish Literature is an occasional feature in which scholars can explore significant questions, problems, and events at the intersection of Jewish American literary studies and the larger multidisciplinary Jewish studies field. Jewish studies is, at face value, a complex and multivalent assemblage, perhaps anxiously maintained, even if often deceptively so. With origins grounded in nationalist philology, it currently understands itself as promiscuously interdisciplinary. But the path from those restricted origins to its present expansive existence is neither continuous nor unitary; to examine that history from a perspective inscribed from within it will undoubtedly yield limited results. As increasing numbers of scholars become interested in critically examining the theoretical and historical foundations of Jewish studies, the publication of Adam Zachary Newton's Jewish Studies as Counterlife: A Report to the Academy (Fordham University Press, 2019) presents an opportunity to think deliberately about the institutional history, current configurations, and possible futures of Jewish studies.
Professional Jewish studies has never had a particularly easy (some, like "I," might say healthy) relationship with "theory"—I mean this both in the historical sense, indicating the movement that started exerting institutional force in the late 1950s and 1960s in what for a while we called the human sciences, and also in the [End Page 84] methodological sense, to suggest that Jewish studies seems to have a fair amount of trouble thinking through the ways that theory informs its practice—and this twinned refusal has persisted in the historicist predilections of AJS-sponsored Jewish studies to this day. Not unrelatedly, Jewish studies has a sometimes difficult relationship with literary studies understood as anything other than literary history, often specifically as limned by nationalistic itineraries. Less frequently than its sibling academic identity-studies formations does Jewish studies feel comfortable applying a critical lens to its methodologies and institutional practices. These histories of disciplinary tension that traverse the Jewish studies field—almost always experienced affectively by Jewish studies intellectuals—are a focus of Newton's book, but they also come to a head in Newton's book.
Here we gather responses from three scholars whose interests span the disciplinary range of Jewish studies—experts in, respectively, literary studies, history, and religion—to respond to Newton's field-level provocations. Their brief was open-ended: how does taking seriously Newton's project in Jewish Studies as Counterlife affect your intellectual practice within Jewish studies? Beyond that, they were free to explore whatever paths their thinking took them on. [End Page 85]
BENJAMIN SCHREIER is the Mitrani Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature: Ethnic Studies and the Challenge of Identity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), The Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literature (New York University Press, 2015), and The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature (Virginia University Press, 2009). In addition, he is coeditor of The Year's Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons (Indiana University Press, 2017). He has been the editor of Studies in American Jewish Literature since 2011.