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The New Spatial Turn in Jewish Studies

  • Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert (a1)


During the past decade or so, there has been a “veritable boom … of projects that investigate questions of place and space” in Jewish studies. In this arena, scholars in various fields of Jewish studies have begun to engage with developments in the humanities at large. Since the 1980s, many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have become more attentive to the cultural challenges of globalization, prominent among them the effects of increased movements of migration. From these movements have arisen questions about the effect and meaning of uprooting and dislocation, the significance of belonging to a place (or to various places), the emergence of diaspora communities, and so on. The spatial dimension of human existence began to move to the forefront of scholarly considerations, and with it, new names of fields of study, such as human, critical, or cultural geography. While Jewish studies has, of course, for the longest time been aware of “diaspora” as a dimension of human existence, often perhaps with the understanding that diaspora was historically a uniquely Jewish experience, to a certain degree our field remained caught in the binarism of diaspora versus nationalism or Zionism, at least until the advance of this new impulse in the humanities, identified by some as a “spatial turn.” Against such binarisms, the volumes under discussion repeatedly appeal to “multidimensionality” in Jewish topographies and in our approaches to them.



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1. See Brauch, Lipphardt, and Nocke, Jewish Topographies, 10. The editors provide a long list of Jewish studies conferences the world over that have been devoted to issues of space and place since 1990, and that list is quite impressive.

2. Following Edward Soja's claim for the humanities in general—namely, that the privileging of time over place is attributable to the historicist tradition in Anglo-European scholarship—the editors of Jewish Topographies (1) suggest that Jewish studies was even more dominated by this approach than other fields. See Soja, Edward W., “History: Geography: Modernity,” in Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), 1042.

3. A fourth volume that belongs in this group (Wallenborn, Hiltrud, Kümper, Michael, Lipphardt, Anna, Neumann, Jens, Schwarz, Johannes, and Vassilikou, Maria, eds., Der Ort des Judentums in der Gegenwart, 1989–2002, Sifria—Wissenschaftliche Bibliothek 7 [Berlin: Bebra Wissenschaft, 2004]) was not available for review.

4. See Kümper et al., Makom, 7. The German habilitation is roughly equivalent to a tenure book at American universities—that is, a second book beyond the dissertation. Schlör's Das Ich der Stadt is the published version of his habilitation. Beyond the published volumes and individual research projects, the Graduiertenkolleg invited a variety of guest lecturers, including myself in 2005, and organized three conferences.

5. According to the Web site of the DGF, “Research Training Groups (Graduiertenkollegs) are university training programs established for a specific time period to support young researchers in their pursuit of a doctorate. The Research Training Groups provide these doctoral students with the opportunity to work within a coordinated research program run by a number of university teachers. Doctoral students are incorporated into the research work being done at the participating institutions. The study program aims to complement and extend the doctoral students’ individual specializations and to provide a structure for cooperation” (

6. Cited in Schlör, Das Ich der Stadt, 41. All translations from the German are mine.

7. Kümper et al., Makom, 8. The editors of Jewish Topographies attribute to Schlör the initial concept that resulted in the Makom program, and they go as far as to call him the “father of Jewish space studies” (xi). That might be a bit of an overstatement out of deference to the teacher.

8. The Philantropin was a school for poor Jewish children that was founded by Sigismund Geisenheimer in the early nineteenth century under the Enlightenment ideals of education and humanism.

9. An earlier version of this essay, “Institutionalized Experiment: The Politics of ‘Jewish Architecture’ in Germany,” appeared in the special issue of Jewish Social Studies 11, no. 3 (2005), edited by myself and Vered Shemtov, under the title “Jewish Concepts and Practices of Space.” Herz has since updated his piece by integrating reflections on the recently opened Jewish Community Center with its synagogue in Munich.

10. Second Life is a 3-D virtual world that is continuously created by its users or “residents.”

11. An exception may be the themed fellow year on “Jews and the City” (2007–2008) at the Frankel Institute at the University of Michigan.

12. Schlör himself states that “the volume evolved in the intellectual environment of the Graduiertenkolleg ‘Space and Places in Judaism’ at the University of Potsdam” (39).

13. I am not certain that his critique of Baumgarten's book is entirely fair. In the end, Schlör's major issue is that the literaturwissenschafliche (literary) approaches pose as solely valid kulturwissenschaftliche (culture study) approaches, which is not what Baumgarten claims in his book. However, the point that textual studies about the city would be much enriched through grasping the phenomenon city by drawing on all kinds of visual and extratextual material is valid.

14. This text, according to the author, is being prepared for publication by Elisabeth Albanis and Till Schicketanz of Mainz, who are editing all of Goldstein's writings for an edition of his works (54 n. 2).

15. See, e.g., p. 105. Existing collaborative projects, such as the anthology Juden in Berlin, ed. Hermann Simon, Julius H. Schoeps, and Andrea Nechama (Berlin: Henschel, 2001), remain inadequate, according to Schlör. One might however question whether, in an era of fundamental doubts about master narratives, such a project might be even possible, at least if it is supposed to be single authored.

16. And what a powerful line from Goldstein's pen, emphasized by Schlör (90), describing his good-bye from the city, as he leaves by train: “My hometown threw itself into a new busy day of work, rushing and buzzing as I had always known it. The fact that the devil had possessed it, was imperceivable.”

17. The opening sugya of the talmudic tractate of `Eruvin (2a–3a) suggests the Temple gates as one possible model for the mishnaic measurements of the height of the boundary markers for the eruv community, but this is one among other structures, such as the sukkah and royal palaces, all of them extremely suggestive. But in the end, our talmudic editors opt for another, more pragmatic explanation altogether, a topic that I discuss in my book manuscript.

18. Here, Schlör seems to be overly influenced by his source from Wilhelm Nowack, whose 1926 translation of and commentary on Mishnah `Eruvin he cites, and who much more overtly applies the typical Protestant antihalakhic (at best) rhetoric to this tractate when he writes, “In as much as the regulations of the Sabbath rest were multiplied and intensified by the leading sages of the synagogue, in order to prevent the transgression thereof, so the difficulties grew for the Jew situated in practical life, to remain on top of the Sabbath laws that grew into infinity,” cited on p. 21.

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The New Spatial Turn in Jewish Studies

  • Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert (a1)


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