EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2021/22
BIAJS Conference 2022: Unfolding Time: Texts – Practices – Politics
King’s College London, 11-13 July 2022
The Annual Conference of the British and Irish Association for Jewish Studies (BIAJS) invited scholars to explore how Jews have shaped and shape their individual, familial and communal commitments, cultural and social lives, historical understandings and political projects by engaging imaginatively with time and ‘time-like’ matters. At the same time, the conference offered a forum for the discussion of current research in many further areas, highlighted the work of PhD students and Early Career Scholars, and addressed urgent questions of the present moment. With more than 150 participants from 15 countries, the conference created a space for lively encounters and exchange that will inspire new research, collaborations and publications. Planned outcomes include publicly available recordings of online sessions, follow-up workshops, and a special journal issue.
The BIAJS conference topic ‘Unfolding Time: Texts – Practices – Politics’ was inspired by the multi-faceted and thought-provoking research of recent decades on narratives, practices and politics that engage with time and temporalities to shape Jewish individual, familial and communal life. The study of time, time-keeping and temporalities is flourishing in particular in the fields of early rabbinic, mystical and apocalyptic literature. Investigations of time and temporalities in medieval Jewish philosophy and early modern Jewish culture, critical interrogations of the sharp distinction between history and memory in modern times, and current ethnographic research on time in a pandemic are just a few further examples for the renewed interest in Jewish temporalities across various fields. The conference offered the opportunity to bring together a wide range of approaches and insights from diverse periods and regions to nourish new interdisciplinary conversations on Jewish temporalities.
Two keynote lectures showed impressively how attention to questions of time and time-keeping can lead to important new insights. Vivian Liska (University of Antwerp/The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) spoke about ‘“The End or the Beginning”: The Interval Between Past and Future in German-Jewish Modernism’. Reflecting on Franz Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, Liska showed how these authors drew on specific aspects of the Jewish tradition and reconfigured them, while simultaneously insisting on the rupture of tradition itself, as they looked for critical ways of conceptualizing the present moment and living in it. Liska’s emphasis on the resistance in the work of these authors to the fascination with the “decisive moment” that pervaded political thought in the first decades of the twentieth century resonated strongly in the discussions following the lecture, as conference participants reflected on the implications of such resistance for evolving responses to the crises of our own moment.
In his keynote lecture on ‘Living in Multiple Time-Frames in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Society’, Sacha Stern (University College London) took the audience on an intriguing journey from Qumran to early modern Ashkenaz. He showed how Jews had managed to live with diverse time-frames already in the ancient world, how they integrated the Christian liturgical calendar in their daily experience of time in the Middle Ages, and how they adopted contemporary visualizations of calendars in the early modern world. Stern pointed to previous scholarly assumptions that took it for granted that societies can only function with a single time-frame, and that multiple time-frames inevitably cause confusion and division. By contrast, Stern made a strong case for recognizing multiple time-frames as an inherent feature of the Jewish experience through the ages that deserves to be better understood in cognitive, social and historical terms.
Further plenary sessions accentuated additional dimensions of the conference topic. A round-table ‘Time in the Plural: Why Time Studies Matter in Jewish Studies’, held online in the pre-conference week, brought together three leading scholars whose recent books explore the times and temporalities of rabbinic culture. Lynn Kaye (Brandeis University), Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Fordham University) and Max Strassfeld (University of Arizona) discussed why “Time Studies” matter in Jewish Studies now: What can the rabbis’ legal reasoning and stories tell us about how they thought about time, and what could their insights mean for today? How do conceptions and organizations of time seek to establish identity and difference? How can time function to regulate embodiment in rabbinic literature? How is the division between modern/non-modern been racialized and gendered when it marks certain practices as outmoded? And finally, how can the interdisciplinary study of “time in the plural” enrich Jewish Studies, and vice versa?
For the concluding round-table ‘After Progress? Temporalities and Counter-Temporalities in Jewish Studies’, it was possible to bring together expertise regarding Jewish worlds in both Islamic and Christian contexts. Fred Astren (San Francisco State University), Andrea Schatz (King’s College London), Irene Zwiep (University of Amsterdam) and, chairing the session, Julian Weiss (King’s College London) explored medieval, early modern and modern Jewish historical practices to ask how current inquiries in the complexities of Jewish approaches to historical time, periodization and power in Christian, Islamic and secular contexts might inform new perspectives on ‘Wissenschaft’ and Jewish Studies today. Shared reflections on Astren’s question ‘What is an era?’ and on the Christian and colonial underpinnings of periodization led to a lively discussion that also explored timely questions of teaching in the classroom. Thus, participants fruitfully shared their diverse practices and experiences when introducing students to changing paradigms and unfamiliar concepts.
While it is impossible to report on all individual conference sessions in detail, a few key themes may be highlighted here. First, it was intriguing to see how ‘trans-temporal enactments’ were explored jointly by junior and senior scholars in lively inter-disciplinary conversations. Drawing on philology, philosophy, anthropology and the arts, they discussed the complex temporalities created in the space where modern individual and communal reading practices and performances interact with biblical and rabbinical texts. A further key topic were the intra-communal and inter-communal interactions that shaped medieval and early modern astronomical and calendrical research and practices. Finally, it became obvious that attention to the role of ‘narrating nation time’ continues to be highly productive for understanding the complexities of modern Jewish engagements with the national movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A key event of the conference was the round-table on Jewish Heritage in Ukraine, organised by Eva Frojmovic, that took place in a hybrid format. Researchers, teachers and library/museum professionals working in Ukraine joined the panel remotely, and as the event was free and open to all, 120 additional audience members registered for it. Eugeny Kotlyar (Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts), Sofia Dyak (Center for Urban History, Lviv), Vitaly Chernoivanenko (Judaica Department, Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, and President of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies) and Nadia Ufimtseva (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) offered introductions to the rich field of Jewish material heritage in Ukraine: buildings, monuments, museums, artefacts, and library treasures. It was impressive to hear about the research and preservation activities of recent years and the ongoing work under conditions of war to safeguard and document Jewish heritage. The round-table was the first conference panel jointly offered and supported by BIAJS and the Jewish Historical Society of England (JHSE), whose president, Miri Rubin, welcomed panellists and participants, and we look forward to many more such joint events in the future.
Initiated by conference participants, further thematic strands developed as important parts of the programme. Panels were dedicated to Jewish Heritage in the UK, to new research on the history of Jewish liberalism, and to Jewish-Muslim relations in Europe. Research on historical and current forms of antisemitism and discussions on responses to them, including at an open meeting of the BIAJS Antisemitism Working Group, led by James Renton, formed an important part of the conference. In methodological terms, a panel on ‘Digital Mapping and Analysis in Jewish History’, organised by Oleksii Chebotarov on behalf of the EAJS Digital Forum, showed how digital approaches supports research in intellectual and social history, with themes ranging from Enlightenment translation practices via Jewish migration history to the social history of Hungarian yeshivot.
The conference theme was chosen before the pandemic began, but could now also be taken as an invitation to reflect on the last couple of years and the questions that have become particularly urgent during this period for individual academics and the field of Jewish Studies: How may we find recognition for the time needed for both families and work? And how can we talk successfully to our institutions about the time that matters in our field? We need time to learn and teach languages, time to gain and transmit the skills and expertise to study ancient texts that remain obstinately fresh and stimulating, and time to develop multi-focal approaches that look at Jewish communities and individuals while also considering the larger societies and cultures in which they lived and live. The conference offered space to consider, among other things, how to make our time as academics and the time-frames of Jewish Studies matter, now and in future years.
The conference was attended by more than 150 participants from 15 countries, and more than half of them were PhD students and Early Career scholars. A ‘New Scholars reception’ on the first conference day and a round-table on developing academic careers, both organised by Wendy Filer and Susannah Rees, highlighted the achievements and prospects of PhD students and Early Career scholars, who have often been harshly affected by the pandemic and have pursued their work with admirable resilience. The panel addressed topics such as thesis completion, grant applications, the publication of one’s first monograph, applications for teaching fellowships, and tenure-track positions. In the discussion, it became clear that finding funding opportunities and designing post-doctoral projects were of particular relevance to participants. These are themes that BIAJS will take up and address in further events, ideally also in cooperation with the EAJS. The encounters at the panel and lively discussions supported further networking that will continue beyond the conference.
The conference offered various opportunities to explore the conference topic and other themes beyond the conference venue: Nadia Valman arranged a visit of the ‘House of Life’/Willesden Cemetery; Ilana Tahan led a ‘Show & Tell’ at the British Library, Vivi Lachs and Nadia Valman took conference participants on a ‘Literature Walk through London’s Jewish East End’, and David Newman offered a guided visit of St John’s Wood Synagogue with David Hillman’s stained glass windows.
The conference was the result of many collaborative and individual initiatives and contributions. The conference organizers would like to thank the Department of Theology & Religious Studies and the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s for early and enthusiastic support; the BIAJS committee and the conference committee at King’s for many brilliant ideas and excellent solutions; and the Faculty’s Professional Services team, the teams at King’s Venues, AV Services, Central Timetabling and Campus Operations for expert guidance and support. Brill generously sponsored the main conference reception. For a generous grant in support of PhD students and Early Career Scholars, who contributed so decisively to the fresh and stimulating research and lively conversations that characterized the conference, we would like to thank the European Association for Jewish Studies.