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Memory Bearers and Mediators of Traditional Knowledge in American Jewish Girls' Novels

Our panel considers temporality in Jewish American girls’ literature, specifically how representations of the past shape religious orientations and practices in the present. We consider the lineage and inheritance of girls’ stories, both within families and broader communities, in order to parse often unstated but deeply replicated assumptions about girls’ and women’s responsibilities as the memory bearers, sustainers, and mediators of traditional knowledge.

Sarah Schwartzman Ramsey focuses on contemporary novels marketed to Jewish middle grade and teen girls, and how they model a particular and gendered mode of memory work. Invoking Robert Orsi’s writing on family mythmaking and hagiography, she considers how novelistic protagonists weave themselves into intergenerational narratives. For girls, “coming of age” into Jewishness gets mapped onto a process of narrating their own stories into intertextual family tales; via extensive reading, research, and writing, the girls become skilled historians and preservers of family memory. With reference to Diana Taylor’s work on performance, Schwartzman Ramsey spotlights the embodied labor of girls in these texts, such that historic reading, personal writing, and family research become gendered praxes of Jewish American lived religion and methods for girls to inherit and sustain communal knowledge. Further, she identifies substantial thematic parallels between girls' and women’s literature in a Jewish American literary landscape, which further illustrates how novels normalize and proliferate gendered representations of sacred and familial memory work.

Dainy Bernstein's work takes up similar questions about Haredi historical fiction novels for teens and pre-teens. Both boys and girls are involved in the preservation of the community's religion in Haredi texts, but the particulars of their roles differ along gendered lines. Grounding eir analysis in Jacob Neusner's description of paradigmatic time, Bernstein surveys novels published between 1980, the beginning of American Haredi children's publishing, and the present day. With reference to Melissa Klapper's discussion of American Jewish girls navigating multiple identities at the turn of the twentieth century, ey identifies trends in Haredi children's literature placing men and boys in the role of protecting their Jewish communities and women and girls in the role of negotiating between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. Memory and lived religion, as Haym Soloveitchik explains, are less binding than textual interpretation in Orthodoxy, but it is still the Jewish girl who is tasked with defining lived religion while the Jewish boy can only resist the encroachment of non-Jewish cultures.

By bringing together our papers, we seek to prompt practical questions about how stories are inherited within contemporary Jewish families and communities. How does the labor of preserving communal stories become “women’s work,” distinct from the men’s labor associated with Torah and Talmud? Within Orthodox communities where men are officially the final arbiters of religious structures, how does the negotiation between text-based law and contemporary American society become a woman's domain? By looking to girls’ literature, we see specific examples in which these traditional roles are not only conveyed, but also possibly subverted by treating girls as textual authorities and purveyors of communal knowledge, or by centering them as mediators between two worlds, in a nexus of Jewish relationships across time.

The panel is designed to address these questions through two papers, followed by a response from Dr. Jodi Eichler-Levine, to bring together ideas about American Jewish children’s literature, community, and memory. The 90-minute format allows ample time for community Q+A and conversation to delve further into ideas which have implications across multiple contexts, both literary and practical.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

This session has been sponsored in honor of Laura Levitt.

This panel considers how representations of the past in Jewish girls' novels shape religious orientations and practices in the present. We consider the lineage and inheritance of girls’ stories, both within families and broader communities, in order to parse often unstated but deeply replicated assumptions about girls’ and women’s responsibilities as the memory bearers, sustainers, and mediators of traditional knowledge. The panel is designed to address these questions through two papers, one addressing the trope of girls reading grandmothers’ letters in popular fiction and one addressing gendered differences in Haredi historical fiction novels. The papers will be followed by a response from Dr. Jodi Eichler-Levine to bring together ideas about American Jewish children’s literature, community, and memory. By looking to girls’ literature, we see specific examples in which these traditional roles are not only conveyed, but also possibly subverted by treating girls as textual authorities and purveyors of communal knowledge, or by centering them as mediators between two worlds, in a nexus of Jewish relationships across time.

Papers

  • Abstract

    A common trope in Jewish middle grade and young adult novels portrays a Jewish girl who discovers and reads her grandmothers’ letters. She becomes a careful reader, creative writer, and thorough researcher, and her impressive findings heal and enrich her family. I argue that this subgenre of Jewish girls’ fiction depicts a specific, gendered Jewish coming-of-age praxis wherein tween and teen protagonists scaffold their own stories through the narratives of their grandparents’ generation. Relying on Robert Orsi’s discussion of family hagiography and Diana Taylor’s performance theory, I view girls’ reading and writing—both within the novels, and as encouraged by the novels—as an embodied form of lived religion and cultural performance. The specifically gendered emphasis on Jewish girls as preservers of family memory also conspicuously parallels Jewish communal memory work prevalent in women’s contemporary Jewish American literature.

  • Abstract

    Haredi views of history align with Mishnaic views described by Jacob Neusner, with the past acting as "paradigms for the formation of the social order." Haredi historical fiction for teens and pre-teens establishes this link between past and present so that today's children learn about roles, limitations, and opportunities available to them through depictions of how Jewish children lived in past centuries. Protagonists of both genders engage in Jewish communal life embedded in the broader political contexts of their host countries, but the narrative built across the corpus clearly delineates between male and female engagement. Drawing on Melissa Klapper's theorizing of American Jewish girlhood, I argue that Haredi historical fiction cultivates an understanding of gendered roles where men and boys always resist the dominant culture, protecting their communities from both physical and spiritual endangerment, while women and girls maintain boundaries by engaging with and navigating between religious and secular cultures.

Audiovisual Requirements

Resources

LCD Projector and Screen
Play Audio from Laptop Computer
Podium microphone

Sabbath Observance

Saturday (all day)
Sunday morning
Accessibility Requirements

Other

Our panel is available on June 25 and 26. Our respondent is not available on June 27.

Full Papers Available

No
Program Unit Options

Session Length

90 Minutes

Schedule Preference Other

Our panel is available on June 25 and 26. Our respondent is not available on June 27.
Schedule Info

Tuesday, 3:30 PM - 4:45 PM (June Online Meeting)

Tags

girlhood
temporality
gendering
inheritance
lived religion
fiction
Jewish

Session Identifier

AO25-400