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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
S: Today is February 17, 1994. I am here with Dr. Miriam Peskowitz. She is a new
professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, and we are in
the living room of her north Gainesville home. Would you tell me your full name?
P: Yes. My full name is Miriam Beth Peskowitz.
S: From where did that name come?
P: I actually do not know. It is clearly my paternal name and my paternal grandfather is
from some region that is in Poland or Russia, or was at one time.
S: I know your family is from New York. Is that where your family has lived for many
P: Well, my paternal grandmother and grandfather are immigrants, and their part of the
family mostly moved to New York, as far as I know. That is where my dad stayed
and all of his brothers and sisters stayed mostly.
S: So they just came right there from Russia probably. What about your mother's
P: My mother's family is a little older. Both of my maternal grandparents were born in
this country and their parents were born elsewhere. They come from various
places, mostly from Hungary, and from eastern Europe and they came and moved
to New Jersey. They were farmers.
S: Oh really? What did they grow?
P: Well, they [raised] chickens. They moved out of the city. They had done egg routes
in New York City and they just moved out to the country to rural, central New Jersey,
and they had an egg farm.
S: Were they rural people in Hungary?
P: I do not know. None of my grandparents have been interested particularly in talking
about any of that, which, sociologically, makes sense.
S: When did they come?
P: My paternal [grandparents] probably [came] in the 1920s.
S: So, did most of your family come before the holocaust, then?
P: All of them.
S: Yes. So, I am interested in where you grew up because you are from Long Island
and I grew up in Queens.
P: I grew up in Hicksville, Long Island.
S: To what high school did you go?
P: I went to Hicksville High School. I think I was born in New York City. My parents
lived in Queens in, I think, Hillside for about a year, [and] then we moved out to Long
S: It is funny because I know people who went to Hicksville High School, but I cannot
remember who they were.
P: I think I just have forgotten. I mean, I hated Hicksville with a passion and I pretty
much have forgotten those people with whom I went to high school. There is no one
with whom I really keep in touch.
S: You did not opt for going to any of the other high schools in New York?
P: Well, we did not have a choice because it was Nassau County.
S: But it was so close.
P: I know. It was so close. But, no, it was not even an option to go to any of the city
schools at all or to go to another high school. I mean, Long Island high schools, as
far as I remember, were pretty much that you went to high school in your town.
S: You could switch, though, if you wanted to be on the football team or something.
P: Yes, probably. I went to Julliard for a few years when I was a high school student
and I always envied my friends who went to Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, or any of
those status public schools where everybody was smart and nobody thought smart
kids were nerdy.
S: Is that why you hated it in Hicksville?
S: What was there pressure to be other than smart? What were you supposed to be?
P: Not smart. You were supposed to be not smart, not female, or not smart and
female. [Laughter] There were also very few Jews. That was another difference.
S: In Hicksville?
P: Yes. My parents were sort of 1960s liberals--not radicals--but just sort of 1960s
liberals, and they had heard that this was an integrated town. But that was wrong.
Basically it was a very white place, mostly Roman Catholic, Italian Catholic, and
Polish Catholic. And so being Jewish put you on the outside, as well as being smart
and female. And also my parents were not in a higher economic bracket than
everybody we lived near, but culturally they were more upwardly mobile. So, I was
taken to the museums in New York City and given music lessons and all that, which
also was very different from the people around us.
S: I saw that you studied the cello at Julliard. You did that while you were in high
S: And you did not consider going there to focus on music?
P: You mean for college?
P: Well, I did. I do not think I applied in the end. I decided I did not want to; I was
pretty ambivalent about music and about conservatory training. My two years at
Julliard had been very hard and very pressured. I remember thinking when I was a
senior in high school that I did not want to grow up and be a dumb musician. I was
very intense about it when I was in high school. My Hicksville high school always
gave me release time and [I was] one of their little stars so they let me do whatever I
wanted. So, I got away with murder when I was there, which was a good thing. For
a lot of reasons I did not want to continue. I also had the sense that I was not going
to be [great]. I was a mediocre cellist in the context of Julliard, and I did not want to
be a mediocre cellist. I knew what happened to professional cellists and musicians,
and it never seemed very possible for me.
S: So, then you went to Oberlin [College] [Oberlin, Ohio].
S: And what did you originally intend to study there?
P: I went to Oberlin because they had a double degree program. They have a
conservatory and a college there. It was a five year program and you could get your
bachelor of arts degree in music and your bachelor degree in arts, so that is how I
ended up at Oberlin. I ended up dropping out of the conservatory after two years. I
had been taking all sorts of humanities classes and that was more exciting to me.
S: You did not intend to study religion at the beginning at all?
P: No, not at all. I knew I would be a humanities major, but I had no idea what that
would be. I was taking philosophy courses. I loved history and things like that, but I
was taking philosophy courses and then sort of got, not bored, but they seemed very
This is a tangent, but this happens in both of my classes this semester. There is
always a student who just wants to take the burden of the entire class onto
themselves. In my introductory class there is a son of a rabbi, and he is just there
playing the son of a rabbi. He came up and said, "I am so frustrated with all these
people. They do not know this and they do not know that." I said, "Marcus, you do
not have to worry about that. You do not have to be the rabbi's son here, you can
S: Was he just frustrated because they do not have the background?
P: Yes. But I think he was used to taking a lot responsibility for making sure everything
worked out all right. So I said, "No, you can just be a student here. You can do all
that, but you do not have to." So, I will not worry if it is working or not.
Okay, philosophy. I felt that it was really abstract, and I remember thinking that
studying religion was like studying philosophy, but real people were doing it. So, I
started studying how real people thought about the world. In some ways it is not too
dissimilar from what I have ended up thinking the study of religion is about. I started
doing comparative religion, which is what the department of religion at Oberlin was.
They were requirements to study five major religions, which is still how religion is
sometimes conceptualized. [Laughter]
S: What are the five major religions?
P: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They get to be the five major
religions. So, I mean it was really a wonderful department, it really was. I ended up
getting to study how real people thought about the world in some ways.
S: Do you think people really think in the frameworks of their religion?
P: No. I mean, yes and no. It depends to what extent someone is educated within the
tradition. It depends to what extent a specific religion controls the discourse of a
specific community, and to what extent that religion has become powerful enough to
control what is imaginable and what is not. What I have been thinking about lately is
to what extent the frameworks that we use as professional studies of religion really
make sense. I find myself going back to them because they are easier to use,
especially in teaching. I always give these paradigms and these explanations,
especially in the introductory course. I keep thinking, is this real or am I just
repeating what armchair religionists have said real religious people do for centuries?
S: Can you give one example of that?
P: I am doing sacrifice right now in the introductory class you took last semester. I was
reading all these books on Israelite sacrifice, and the question that keeps coming up
is how does the Bible really tell us [about] why it wants its people to sacrifice? All
sorts of anthropologists of religion have come up with ideas of why people sacrifice:
feeding the gods, communicating with the gods, bringing up all the symbolism of
blood and life and death--just all this stuff. I started going through these with my
students and saying these are some of the ways scholars have imagined for why
people sacrifice. All of a sudden I thought, "Yes, these are the ways scholars have
imagined, but are they true?" We do not know.
S: That is funny. That is important to recognize, I think. Let us get back to your
S: You went to Oberlin where you got interested in comparative religion. How did you
end up in a graduate program at Duke?
P: When I was a student at Oberlin, we had seminar requirements. We had to take
one seminar in the time that we were majors, so I, of course, got very macho about
this and took four.
S: Did you take them all at the same time?
P: No. Well, I took two simultaneously. But, it was a good thing because one of them
was [about] synagogue origins. I loved it; I loved the professor more than anything.
His name was Mike White, and what I loved about his class and him was that he had
a very clear mind. He argued very logically, he worked with evidence, and he dealt
with the problem of interpreting evidence. For example, in synagogue origins, we
were doing architecture, archeology, frescos, and early art work from the
synagogue. Mike was very willing to talk about how much we did not know, and how
difficult it was to interpret some of this early stuff. But what also was very exciting to
me about the class was that he talked about how scholars used to think x and now
with all this new archeological material scholars now think x, y, z, a, b, c--whatever.
It was really interesting to me. What was interesting to me was the process of
learning how we thought something was true and all of the sudden we realize it is
not. Which is still what is really fascinating to me. I took his seminar without
knowing much about early Judaism and Christianity or the history [during] the
period. I really was intrigued by what he was doing and by what I got to do in class.
That was my junior year, I think, and by my senior year I pretty much decided I
wanted to go to graduate school in that field.
After I left the conservatory, I, of course, went through this whole existential crisis.
What was I going to do with my life? Oberlin had this [saying], "Oh, you just sort of
prepare for life here." (That probably is familiar to you from Hampshire College.)
But on the other hand, I knew preparing for life meant finding a way to support
myself since I did not have any other way to do that other than working. (My family
has this sort of old socialist background.) I always had thought I would be a civil
rights lawyer. If I was not going to be a musician, I was going to be a civil rights
lawyer. This was when I was growing up. And then I realized I really did not want to
go to law school. I knew enough people who had gone through that or I had friends
who were going through it to know that I did not want to go through law school. I
decided I really loved teaching. I did not want to do high school teaching, I wanted
to teach [at the] university level. So, all of a sudden, I had this idea about teaching,
then I had this topic that I was really intrigued and curious about. I put those two
What happened after Oberlin was that in order to do graduate work in [my] field, [I
had to meet] high language requirements. Then I got my macho self and said yes. I
learned ancient Greek. Some friends of mine were moving out to the Bay area [San
Francisco] after graduation, so I decided I would move out with them. I moved with
[about] $400 in my pocket and the whole thing. I got a job doing secretarial work out
there. I took courses in Greek at Berkeley, worked on Hebrew by myself, and
applied to graduate schools.
S: And you also know French?
P: And German. Yes.
S: Had you studied those in school?
P: French I learned at Oberlin, and German I learned in graduate school.
S: Did you want to go to Duke [University] for some particular reason?
P: No. I knew I wanted [to study] early Judaism. And I wanted to use archaeological
materials. The place to do that was at Duke with Eric Meyers. There was a pretty
clear place. I applied to several programs in early Judaism; [one] was at Penn
[University of Pennsylvania], and I think another was at Princeton. I had thought
about going to Harvard to the divinity school there, because they have this
ecumenical program in the history of religions, but I decided I would not fit in there.
Friends of mine had been through it.
S: What was that environment?
P: I think at Harvard Divinity School there is this rhetoric on one hand that it is just a
place to study religion, and there is this rhetoric of ecumenicism, but the Jewish
women I knew who went there always felt it was very difficult to be Jewish in that
environment. People talk about that.
S: I have thought about the transition from Oberlin to Duke, never having been to either
place, but having known people who went to those places. Oberlin seems much
more to me like Hampshire College, which is where I went, which as you said is
where you learn how to live your life and how to be a critical thinker--not this
pressure towards grades or to make money. I have family members who have gone
to Duke who all have turned out in banking.
P: It was incredible. Okay, I have to sketch this. I left Oberlin, I lived in San Francisco
for a year, I lived in a warehouse with six of my closest friends, I am doing direct
action, [and] going to punk shows. Then I arrived at Duke. I have short spiky hair
up here and long hair in the back. I wear a lot of black now, but I looked more
radical then. I showed up. I missed orientation because I did not think it was
important; coming from Oberlin, orientation is a stupid thing. So, I missed graduate
student orientation. The department was sort of worried [because] they had given
me this big scholarship. That was the first day I missed. Later in the afternoon, I
managed to meet with my advisor, Eric Meyers, and he said, "Oh by the way, there
is a big reception for new students tonight. You should go." So, I went, having no
idea what Duke was like, because I had never really heard of Duke. At Oberlin, it
was out of the loop.
S: Sort of in another part of the world.
P: Yes. It was out of the loop. I knew it was this big, elite research university. So, I
showed up at the new reception for students. I got used to these over the years.
The entire department goes and everybody dresses and all the students--most of
the students are married graduate students--bring their wives because most are
male. I showed up unescorted. I mean, I did not realize I was supposed to bring a
man along for this. I showed up unescorted and I had the short, spiky hair. The
others in the room, as I remember it, were either white, blond Southern boys in their
thirties and forties, or women who were wearing these very pretty floral dresses with
hose and heels.
It was like walking into a different world. It was incredible. It was quite incredible.
And you were supposed to chit-chat with all [of them]. I mean, here I was, and
people were looking at me. Particularly some of the men--they just would look at me
and would look scared. Right? And I just had this sense of feeling "other" for really
the first time in my life. Then I realized there were no Jews other than my advisor
and two or three of the Jewish faculty. I had no idea there actually were not Jews
there because ...
S: .. this was the religion department.
P: This was the religion department. When I had studied religion at Oberlin, it really
had been comparative. They were trying to decentralize Christianity as the religion
against which all others are judged. Now at Duke that was not the case. The
department of religion at Duke is paralleled by a divinity school, so organizationally,
there is an attempt to say, "Well, over in the divinity school, they do theology and
over here we do the study of religion." But in fact, that split does not happen. The
department of religion at Duke is very geared toward the study of Christianity. For
example, there are seven fields in which the graduate program is divided. The first
is the Old Testament, now called Hebrew Bible. The second is the New Testament.
The third is the history of Christianity. The fourth is theology and ethics which is
Christian theology and ethics. The fifth is the history of Judaism. The sixth is
history of religions, and the seventh is a small field called religion and culture. Now,
the first four fields had existed up until about the early 1970s. In the mid-1970s,
when some of the Jewish studies faculty were tenured, they said, "Wait a second, let
us have these extra fields," and that is [when] fields five, six, and seven [emerged].
But most of the students, most of the graduate students, were in the first four fields.
It was a shock.
S: You did not have a social cohort or a professional one?
S: How many students were in your program?
P: There were about twenty-five in each entering class. The year I came in, I was the
only student in the history of Judaism program. I was just from another world.
There was an Old Testament program so I thought Jewish students would be there.
But no, Protestant students were studying the Old Testament. I just had no idea
what they did. I did an Old Testament minor, and I had no clue when I got there. I
had no idea what they were doing as they were studying the Old Testament. I was
very alien. Duke was actually a good place to be. My colleagues, or my peers,
came from other departments in the humanities.
S: Do they also have a Jewish Studies program?
P: No. There is a Center for Jewish Studies, but it is basically centered in the religion
S: You were in this position where things were different from what you expected. How
did you make it work?
P: There is a piece I could have given you. I would love to tell the tale that I got there
and I figured out right away how weird it was and where I was, and whatever, and I
made it work. But that was not the case at all. I just flailed around for awhile.
Again, this was so bizarre for me--I did not even have a map. I mean, I grew up on
Long Island, in Hicksville. I thought Catholics were the majority because everybody
in my town was Catholic, right? So, there I was, and I really have never been
around. I did not know the difference between Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran. I
just did not know. Religion is a very specific experience; it is gendered, but it is also
regionally specific. So it took me awhile to figure out what was [happening].
I remember I was in one class on pseudepigrapha, which are these non-canonical
Second Temple period texts, and there was this guy named Craig. He was [part of
the] Assemblies of God, which is a small sort of Pentecostal group. Stereotypically,
they are known for speaking in tongues. They actually are one of the fastest
growing sects in the world. Craig would be there, [and] he would talk about the
grace of God--I had no idea what the grace of God was. I remember he would raise
his hands and babble things in the middle of [class]. This was just unprofessional.
But he would do these things, and I did not even have a large enough map of the
world to be able to name the place from where he was coming.
For the first year I kept wondering why I could not have conversions with my peers,
the other students in my classes. And I finally, about a year or two later, realized it
was not just me. I mean, much of my first year of graduate school was spent
realizing that it was not just me that was wrong. The other problem in my first two
years, my first year especially, was that there was no one who took me aside and
said, "Look, I understand the kind of training you had Oberlin. This is what Duke is,
and here is the difference between the two." There really was no one who did that
for me, which would have been helpful.
Now there were bright points, and one is Maureen Tilley, who actually teaches over
at Florida State [University]. Maureen was Catholic so we got along real well
culturally. She sort of realized right away. She and her husband lived in town and
they were old radicals. Maureen had her own problems in the department because
the department was so heavily Protestant that she was chastised for being Catholic
and for asking different kinds of questions. Maureen was the kind of person who
just took me aside and started, as the year grew to the end, to explain what it was
like to be female in the department and what it was like to be non-Protestant. Little
by little, people like that really helped me.
S: Your advisor did not do that?
P: Not really. But to be fair, I probably did not let him know anything was wrong.
S: Just as an aside, how was it received by the other students and the faculty when
this man would speak in tongues?
P: I cannot even remember that. What I remember is my shock. There was a
continuum of shock, these assumptions of a certain kind of theology or a certain
God, the assumption of certain categories of experience which were totally alien to
me. Mostly, I remember people talking about grace, and categories of grace in the
texts or the documents on which we were working. It took me months to realize that
it was not that I was stupid, I just had no understanding of what the category of
grace was. They could not explain what that category was because it was an
entirely naturalized category for them.
S: And what does that mean?
P: Grace? How would I explain grace? The idea that the divine, God, saves humans
through love. I think that would be part of it. And it was a whole theology of human
agency and divine agency.
S: And they use that when discussing Christianity?
P: Well, we were discussing texts that came from the period slightly before Christianity
from Jewish documents. It is the pseudepigrapha, like First Enoch and those texts
that you read last semester. It was interesting because I was studying them as
Jewish documents, and they were studying them as documents of Christian origins.
Again, that is another sort of categorical difference.
S: Wow. But what did you then do with that to make this program work for you?
P: Well, the first year was just a horror. And it was hard. I mean, I was learning
several languages. I was in a program where most students came in with master of
art degrees or master of divinity degrees and I had a bachelor of arts degree. So
there were a lot of [challenges]; it was just hard academically. I had been living with
a man. We met in San Francisco, and he moved out to Durham [North Carolina]
with me. We decided to go to Vermont to work as camp counsellors for the
summer, and that was probably the best thing. I chose to put aside learning Greek
and Hebrew and just went to Vermont.
S: What camp?
P: Tamarack Farm. We went up there and in the course of that summer I decided I
was going to give it one more semester. I started to recognize I had been really
miserable, and I had started to lose track of why I wanted to do this. So I went up
there and decided that one more semester was it, and in January I was going to
evaluate whether I wanted to stay in or not. Well, this is the happy story. That
semester I took a course called the History of Feminist Thought. One of the reasons
I went to Duke was that they had an interdisciplinary program in women's studies at
the graduate level. The History of Feminist Thought class was one of the core
courses. I went into that class. I do not know if you have ever been to Duke, but it
is divided between the campus for men, or the old campus for men, and the old
campus for women. There was a college for women. In 1972, I think, Duke
University became coeducational, but there always was a correlate college for
women. Georgian architecture contrast [with] the phallic neo-Gothic stuff you
always see in pictures. The women's studies program is located in East Duke
building which used to be one of the old debate buildings. There are these two
Victorian style lounges on the first floor, [and] they are museum rooms. These are
registered with the North Carolina Historical Society as museum rooms, so they are
diagrammed. There is a small diagram on the wall that explains where every piece
has to go. You are not supposed to move the furniture; [it is] very intense. They are
filled with pictures of men.
S: Past presidents or something?
P: Yes, something like that. Big portraits of them. We all gathered in this room, and
again it is odd because at Duke even the feminists wore nice floral print dresses and
heels, which I learned to appreciate. I [went] there and Jean O'Barr was the
professor for the course. Jean turned out to be wonderful. Jean is someone with
whom I worked closely and hopefully still will. Jean understood what I was going
through. Jean understood what an Oberlin college graduate needed. She also had
a sense of how you needed tools so that when the going gets tough, or when you
were in these difficult departments, you did not need to drop out of them, because in
some ways that is where feminists and radicals need to be. You need tools to figure
out how to work through there. Jean gave me tools. She gave me a way to
understand, within a history of how women and feminists think about knowledge and
themselves, where I fit in with all of that.
At the end of the semester, I realized I hated my department. I still was not quite
sure exactly why I was there, but somehow I was going to stay. Years later I told
Jean she was the reason I stayed in graduate school, and she was surprised
because she had thought I had it all together. She did not realize how much she
really had helped me. The year I was admitted to Duke was the first year the
department of religion had admitted women in any great number. There were five of
us in the entry class of twenty or twenty-one. The year after that they let in several
more women and feminists as well, and the year after that a few more. At the same
time I was going through the program, a growing group of women and feminists
made a big difference.
I think I took another women's studies course the next semester and it really was a
salvation in a lot of ways because it was interdisciplinary and I could be with other
graduate students from other departments. They also gave me analytical tools that I
was not getting in the department of religion. One of the differences was that in a
department of comparative religion there is this whole canon of anthropology of
religion, philosophy of religion, and so on. These traditions have their problems, but
you learn how to think about religion. The problem at a place like Duke is that there
is usually very little reflection [about] how we think about "religion." There is
resistance to that, although there were several professors who were really smart
about method, reflection, and critical theory. Taking women's studies courses was
where I got my categories, so when I came back to my courses in religion I started
to figure out how to read these texts, how to ask questions I wanted to ask, how to
phrase those, how to force those, how to make these questions central to
interpreting ancient texts.
S: And was that welcome?
P: Things were changing by my second year. There were a few senior faculty women
in the department who either were starting to get tenure or to gain a little more
power in the department. My experience there has very much to do with how
women's studies is organized, how female faculty around the university were
organized, how female faculty within the department were organizing, and how
female [undergraduate and] graduate students were organizing. I was in college
doing what I was doing, but at the same time there was no one who would say, "This
is maybe where you could go now." I was encouraged, but I was very independent.
S: Is that the way you wanted to work?
P: It would have been nice to have had someone to help out a little bit more.
S: It sounds like you did not ask anyone.
P: Well, yes, in some ways. You have to understand that the two senior women,
although both of them ended up on my dissertation committee, were sort of
astounded at what some of their students were doing. Even though they were older
feminist scholars, our relative development was not all that different. They were
most encouraging and helpful by actually being there and by giving us hope. I
remember Carol Meyers was someone with whom I worked closely, and I kept going
to her. I remember several times I would pop into her office, pose a question to her,
and really think she had the answer. She would say, "Well, maybe you should go
talk to so and so." It took me awhile to realize that is a statement about where
feminist knowledge is and who gets trained where and how, and how also we are
working on this stuff. But I really wanted to be told the answers. That is why I
understand when people want me to tell them the answers, because God, I wanted
them so badly.
S: That is funny, because in your class, which I am taking right now, that is the
experience a lot of us are having. As you mentioned, I think [students] are so full of
questions. They are just questions, [and] we do not have any way to answer them
P: You guys have more frameworks than I had when I was going through, which is
interesting. Two or three years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, I was a guest
speaker in Laura Levitt's class at Temple [University], and we both had a very
interesting experience. Part of the session was on Mishnah, which is part of the
Talmud. The second was a critical reading by a feminist of the article of a feminist.
The point was to show that there are differences within feminism. As the seminar
went on, Laura and I just started rallying. We just really went at it, and we were
having a great time. After that class one of her students came up and she was so
excited that she had seen these two feminist scholars. She was studying feminism
in her class and she just wanted to tell us. Later that night, I think Laura and I talked
either that night or the next day, and we realized that we had both wanted
something like that, how much we would have given to have had a classroom
situation like that when we were coming up through the ranks.
S: So you get to be a kind of new model.
S: That is kind of neat.
P: It is really fun.
S: How did you come to Philadelphia?
P: I was still in graduate school.
S: So were you working on your dissertation then?
P: Yes. I had gotten a graduate research fellowship to work at the Annenberg Institute.
S: And what is the Annenberg Institute?
P: The Annenberg Institute actually does not exist anymore, so here is the whole story.
Dropsie College [for Hebrew and Cognate Learning] was an institute in Philadelphia
where doctorates were awarded in Jewish studies. It was once very much
impossible to get those kinds of degrees in universities. But once departments and
programs in Jewish Studies started, you could get a doctorate from Columbia or
Yale. Dropsie experienced problems. They are doing Jewish studies. They did
philology, and they did it quite well even though it is one of the most boring things
possible. Dropsie had to close its door, but there remained a vast Judaica library.
Roger Annenberg of the Philadelphia Annenberg family funded an institute devoted
to Judaica, near-Eastern, and cognate studies. The idea was to bring twelve or so
scholars a year, pay for their sabbaticals, give them office space, secretarial help--
and all the things they would need to produce research. That was the Annenberg,
and when I got there it was this beautiful building in downtown Philadelphia. I was
with another graduate student in this basement, although the seniors got nice offices
on the fourth floor. That was fine.
Basically, I had a fellowship to write a good deal on my dissertation, and I got to be
around senior scholars. I really gained a lot of confidence there. First of all, I saw
them taking themselves very seriously, so I realized what it meant to take [your]
research seriously. Secondly, I saw some of them take themselves very seriously
even when I did not think they were that smart or interesting. It just gave me the
sense [that] it probably did not matter what I did, but I could take it seriously. It was
a good thing. Also, it helped me get very skeptical and not be too afraid of people
whose titles seem professional.
S: But they were all working on Judaism history?
P: Yes and no. Most of them were working with Jewish sources. Very few of them
came from fields of religion. More of them were doing texts or philology. They were
not thinking about questions of religion, like how we understand religious
experience. Their projects were much more narrow.
S: What did they think about what you were doing? Did you have much opportunity to
mix with them?
P: Yes. Most of them knew what I was doing. It is hard to generalize. There are some
people with whom I still keep in touch; people who I thought were really smart and
interesting ended up liking me. That was a good thing. There were some people,
especially some of the older men, who could not quite take seriously what I was
doing. I had to explain to them that, yes, I actually did read Hebrew and Aramaic.
That was a problem. Then there were some people with whom I did not have much
S: This would be a good time to talk about your dissertation.
S: I read one chapter of it which was [about] how you used gravestone inscriptions and
weaving and spinning imagery to flesh out rituals of burial. I have some questions
about why you chose this period in Jewish history, why you latched on to this piece
of evidence, and about the general topic.
P: It happened, that is all I have to say. The first question, how did I pick the Roman
period out of all the possible periods--that happened because I took this seminar as
an undergraduate. I mean, it was the Roman-Byzantine period and I was excited by
it, so I just kept going in that period. So that explains that. I wanted to do women.
Of course, how to do women changed as I went through graduate school. I got to
graduate school and earlier I had read a lot about the history of women and how to
"put" them into history.
Well, as I went through graduate school, especially being at Duke where critical
theory and post-structuralism and all this stuff was hitting, and Duke was a really
happening place, and still is, that the whole way we conceptualize women and
gender became a lot more complicated. There I was. The kind of project I could
write as a dissertation necessarily became complicated [and] more dependent on
critical theory. I was very dissatisfied with a lot of the scholarship in the field which
"treated" of women, but it also made it hard to figure out what I would do. During my
second or third year I was almost in over [my head]. About what was I going to write
my [dissertation]? In my graduate program I took classes for about two and half
years, then I took my preliminary exams at the end of third summer. Now by that
point I knew I wanted to do something about the work of women in the Mishnah, or
in the Roman period of Judaism. I knew I wanted to look not solely at the Mishnah
and written sources, but [at] archeological materials. I had this stuff in my hands
and I knew where to find things, but I really did not have an idea. One of the
preliminary exam questions asked me to describe what kind of dissertation I wanted
to do. That was not a surprise. Somehow I came up with this idea. I was interested
in weaving and spinning because everyone talked about how women did those
things. I can probably dig it up somewhere. It would be interesting to me to see
how I started with all this. But it was a way to start. We knew women were spinning
and weaving and that seemed like a good place to start thinking about their roles or
the evaluation of women or the way the lives of women were made possible. I was
interested in the intersection of gender and economy. And then I thought, well,
spinning tools, and loom pieces. We have some archeology here. When I look back
I cannot imagine why my professors let me do this because it just seemed so absurd
in some ways. But, I had something going on, I mean, month by month I would start
to figure [it] out, some of the connections would come. I realized that I basically had
a good hunch and some open questions, and I was lucky that they worked out.
S: But you did study in Israel. You did do some archeological and related work.
P: I had done some field work at Sepphoris. That helped me figure out the process by
which things were dug out of the ground, and all the vicissitudes of what happened
to them between the point at which they were dug out and the point at which they
were recorded. So, it really helped me read archeological reports much more
critically. There were legal materials, mostly from Roman-period rabbis. I looked at
some of their descriptions of what women did. I looked at Latin and Greek non-
Jewish written materials. Then I looked at inscriptions, and I did some of the
archeological stuff. The archeological chapter you read about was archival work
that I did in Israel at a much later time. This is the way I started: I had these ideas
and then I realized I had to find some evidence.
It was a summer and I sat in the library. There was this one section of the stacks
where Israel Exploration Journal of Palestine, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, and a
few other archaeology journals [were]. I read through [it all] from start to finish--
entire series of journals. I know that sounds insane because you see CD-ROM
used now, but that was the only way to find stuff. Such specific topics are not
catalogued. Nobody thinks [about] it. And I found out fascinating things. I realized
that in some reports I was not finding what I was looking for, and then I realized I
had to look under titles such as "feminine utensils." There I would find spindles
listed. I really learned a lot about the construction of gender into archeology at the
same time I was trying to find evidence for what I was doing. Doing that,
photocopying, and all the stuff you do, ended up in notebooks. Finally, I culled
through and figured out where my sources were, and eventually I ended up getting
some grants to do some archival work and see what was not published.
S: Did you find discrepancies among archeological reports, analyses, the non-Jewish
literature of the time, and Jewish texts of the time in talking about women, or did
P: It is more complicated. The way that question is framed within the field is that you
have these different sources and you look for differences and contradictions, or you
look for similarities. I guess knowledge became more complicated as I went through
graduate school, and what I was trying to do is say, "Well, what happens when we
look at written sources as central, and then what happens when if we look at
archeological sources as central. What happens when we think about the relation of
Jewish and non-Jewish literatures or cultures or communities as more fluid, as more
dynamic." What happens when we think of questions about ancient Jews and
gender in terms which talk about strategies and tactics of resistance. How do we
talk about cultural interchange, what language do we use? And I know it is
something to which I eventually will return.
One of the things I ended up arguing in my dissertation was that there is an awful lot
of conjunction between some of the rabbinical materials and some of the Latin and
Greek material with regard to these sources on female spinners and weavers. I
think one of the things that happened is early rabbis--as you know, they had no
nation, no political power--what they end up doing is kind of a mimesis or a mimicry
of gender roles within Roman elite culture.
S: Do you think that rabbinical literature is mimicking the dominant culture?
P: In terms of some aspects of gender, but not all. I think there are ways that early
rabbinic literature resists Rome. The culture finds itself surrounded and there are
also ways that it is mimicking it.
S: Do you think that they reflect the reality of the lived experience?
P: Do I think they reflect the reality of the lived experience? Well, no because all those
terms need to be problematized--like whose reality? What is the lived experience?
What are the many ways that lived experience is experienced? Who gets to write
that down? What kind of mood are they in when they write it down? Several years
ago I had lunch with my friend David who is very smart and thinks about knowledge
broadly, and I said, "You know, David, sometimes I just wish I were in comparative
literature or English. Some people just do not have to struggle against these
positivist, old-fashioned disciplines anymore." And he looked at me very wisely and
he said, "Yes, but people in English and art and architecture, they have it easy. It is
easy to just interrupt those discourses, but religion, scholarship on religion, if you
can interrupt that discourse that is really a change in knowledge." Sometimes I wish
I were in a field where I did not always have to talk to people who had really different
perspectives about how the culture and society work, but I suppose I have not left so
S: I think too, any discipline where you are dealing with history or religion, you have a
big responsibility to be honest which is something that, archaeologically, you cannot
just say because it sounds very good and it makes logical sense. You have to think
about whether you are considering all your pieces of information, and I think that is
another piece of this. I would think, particularly with your dissertation, you do not
want to say something about the experience of women, you want to say something
you think may be true.
P: Yes. You know, I go over that a lot because of the question of what is "true" when
we are working with these fragmented sources, especially antiquity. The archeology
itself is pretty fragmented from 2,000 years ago. A fraction of the sites are dug, and
an even smaller percentage of those excavated sites published, or published well.
We have a fragment of the literary remains. Then we try to make these fit. From all
of that we try to say something true. That is a problem, but there are rules of the
game and you play within them.
What was interesting to me as I worked on my dissertation was the question of what
stories to tell. You have all these questions, all these sources, and the question of
what story I wanted to tell kept emerging. (I do not know if I talked about that in the
paper you read.) When I started looking at material sources for the history of
women, those were being used for, in terms of the history of early Christian [and]
early Jewish women, to say, "Look, things were not that bad."
These elite religious documents really portray the lives of women as awful and
heavily controlled, but when we look at material sources we find women, we find
agency. We find agency, we find less restriction, and the classic example of that is
the work of Bernadette Brooten. She looked through published excavation reports
and inscriptions to find female leaders in the early synagogue. Basically, her work
was based on a short sampling of inscriptions. She said, "Well, here the rabbis
talked about there being all-male synagogue leadership, and women are either up
on a balcony, or not in the synagogue at all. But here are [women]. We have
looked at the material culture and what we have found is evidence that women were
not only in the synagogue, but they had leadership roles." That was how material
culture was being used. I guess my earliest perception of what I was doing was
finding women, happy stories about women.
This important moment happened when I was in Israel. I was doing my archival
research about a year ago in November/December and I had been working in these
dusty rooms in museums and archaeological store-rooms and I have long sets of
notes, spindles, loom weights, grave goods, and the rest. The question was what
was I going to do with this. It was really fun being there with my electronic caliper
and doing all this stuff, but I had to write a dissertation chapter. I started trying to
figure out what to do with it. I started to put together all the evidence--this is the
chapter you read--of these funerary inscriptions and some of the literary texts on
women and spinning and weaving. All of a sudden I realized spinning and weaving,
although they were female economic activities I had coded as good, positive, and
valuable, were another way women were constructed as women. And I put that
together with some of the rabbinic restrictions on who owns the products and profits
of women, basically her husband. I realized I had found women, but not as agents.
I was staying at the Albright Institute and it was Christmas Eve and I was working. I
was going to go to Christmas Eve services with some colleagues. We were going to
go to the old city and do that, and the other archaeologists and art historians who
were there at the same time had gone. They came back around 1:00 and they had
some Bailey's Irish Creme with them and they said, "Oh, Miriam, come join us in the
kitchen for a drink." And I was so perturbed. I was so upset because I finally
realized I was not finding a happy story about women in the past. I knew it. I knew
this was not a new revolution, that this was not a happy story. It was a happy thing
to be finding information about women in the past because we have so little, but the
information on the story I was finding was not a happy one. And I could not make it
a happy one. Christmas Eve--what will you do? [Laughter]
It was East Jerusalem and we used to watch Jordanian news in English. The
Jordanian news, whatever the television station was, had this special Christmas Eve
thing where they had a video montage and Christmas music in the background--
Silent Night, Holy Night, stuff like that--but the images on the screen were warfare
and bloodshed from around the world! It was most bizarre! I think what they were
trying to say was, "Look, it is supposed to be Christmas Eve, but there is misery
around the world." [They were showing] dead babies with their guts torn out and a
lot of footage from Bosnia, just incredible stuff. In the midst of realizing there was
not a happy story for Jewish women in Roman Palestine, I was drinking Bailey's and
watching Jordanian news.
S: So you put this together and now you are getting ready to publish it.
P: In a different form.
S: In a different form. And then where are you going? What are you working on next?
P: I guess the question I will go into is how I am publishing it. It is actually amazing to
me how much more maturity I gain as each year goes by in terms of looking at
sources. So, it is actually taking a lot more time to rethink and recast what my
dissertation was. This a fun story. I defended with honors which surprised me
because I was not sure it was passable work. You never have a sense of yourself.
S: What does that mean when you defend with honors? I do not know what that
P: Oh, okay. [Laughter] About one or two people a year in the department get honors
on their dissertation at the defense. It basically means it was not just passable, it
was really good. I had these five people, who I really respected, telling me my work
was not just passable, but really good. I was flying. Another professor said to me
that he had had a meeting with some editor at Harvard Press who did early
Christianity, but she was sort of thinking about moving into early Judaism. She was
interested in women's studies and he said to me, "So why do not you send her your
dissertation?" I did. I did not realize you were not supposed to just send your
dissertation off to important university press editors.
She sent it back with a letter and phone call saying she really liked it [and] it needed
revision. She did not publish dissertations at all, but she really liked it and she was
glad I had sent it. We have been working together on revisions and she has helped
me figure out what it means to not write a dissertation and to write a book. But,
going back and figuring out how to talk to people other than scholars and how to
write a book for different people, a book that I would stand by, really brings up the
issue of voice and what it means to be a scholar, what it means to be a producer of
knowledge, and why it matters. I always go back and forth. On the one hand I have
all those older men in my field and I think, "Oh, they will not think I am a real scholar
if I put the word 'I' in the text." Then I think about people, from my students to
people I know or meet, who actually would be interested in some of the things this
book is about. [They] will not be if it is written toward those older, iconized men in
my field. The whole question of what it means to be a scholar, what it means to
produce knowledge, what it means to write are things with which I am dealing.
Actually, the revised introduction for the book talks about what it means to do
archival research. Instead of using theoretical language to talk about challenges to
historical knowledge and how we know what is true and how we use evidence, I
talked about what it is like to be in the archives and what it is like to use an
electronic caliper. I was living in East Jerusalem during the month the deportations
happened, the removal of four hundred or so Palestinian men. So I talk about what
it was like to be in Israel at that time. All of a sudden it became clear to me that I
needed to talk about the politics of how we do our work, even if I was not sure how
to talk about that.
S: So what did it feel like to be working on something like a dissertation that deals with
important subject matter, but in a way is very removed from the daily lives of people
in a place of turmoil?
P: When I was there I felt a number of very memorable things. One is that I was living
in East Jerusalem, which is a place where most Jews do not go. And when people
who lived outside of that area would ask me how it was to live there I would say it
was fine. In some ways it was the only place I have ever felt absolutely invisible [as
a Jew]. Nobody thinks a foreigner who was there would be Jewish because Jews
really do not go to that area. That was a really interesting feeling to have. Here I
was working on this dissertation in Jewish studies and feeling very free about it in
The second thing I remember is that I was doing a lot of work at the Rockefeller
Museum and cars would be burnt outside and taxis would be torched. I would come
out and I always would see that stuff had happened while I had been in the
museum. It was incredibly romantic to be doing archival research, and I wrote about
that in this introduction. I was really excited about that. And then there was all this
stuff happening that I felt really powerless about. I could have joined
demonstrations, but it just did not seem that it was really my place to do that. None
of the demonstrations or resistance seemed to affect government policies.
In some ways I just felt invisible when I was there. When I write about it, I write
about how there do not seem to be easy answers to locating oneself in terms of
Jewish-American identity vis-a-vis Palestine and Israel. Basically, I just leave it at
that and I do not try to find a closure. But I use that as an entry way to say that this
eschewing of easy answers sort of sets the stage for thinking about history and how
we write history, and about how ancient rabbis made gender.
S: So, in your book, the way you are writing it now, have you found a way to make it
appropriate for all those audiences that you are hoping to reach?
P: I am not sure. A colleague of mine says that when we think we can write for a
universal audience you end up writing for no one; it is really impossible. That means
you never position yourself and you always are trying to talk to too many people. I
think what is starting to happen is that I am finding out what I want to say and, of
course, there are all these more material considerations. When I send chapters off
to my editor she writes back and tells me to cut out the footnotes. She [says],
"Miriam, you have too many footnotes. Try paring them down." There are some
material considerations of what is publishable by a university press.
What is going to happen is that I will end up publishing the more technical thesis in
technical journals. There is a kind of value you get for writing very narrowly defined,
academic books and showing your proficiency with ancient languages and
archeological materials. That is important stuff because it gets back to how we
argue and how we use evidence. But what I am also realizing is important is
producing knowledge and being an active knowledge producer with a set of politics.
There is just so long that I can put that aside.
S: So if you are producing knowledge, to whom do you want it to [reach]?
P: I am not sure. See, this is what perturbs me--people do not read anymore. I do not
know what to do there. Basically, to whom do I write? I am writing my book for
S: You mentioned her briefly once.
P: Did I?
P: We went to college together. Deborah Budner was the one who really got me into
this. I have to tell you this other narrative, but it is really Deborah Budner now that
we get to the heart of it. Deborah got me into the side of Jewish women [and]
feminists in a very significant way. She had been very much a central organizer.
There was a Women in Judaism group that had done a feminist haggada at Oberlin.
[Deborah] and I probably talked at certain points in our sophomore years, but we
were both in the Religions of India class [taught by] Paula Richman the first
semester our senior year. This is significant because Paula Richman was the first
female professor of religion whose classroom I had ever [entered].
It was, in some ways, the influence of Paula on me that really sent me to graduate
school. Deborah and I met because Paula, or Professor Richman as we had to call
her, started talking about Hinduism this and Buddhism that and whatever, and either
Deborah or I raised our hand. We forget who said this now, but one of us raised our
hand and said, "Are you talking about Buddhist men and Hindu men or are you
talking about Buddhist and Hindu men and women?" Just like that. We were
serious about that stuff. [One of us] turned around and we had this moment of
recognition. That was it.
Later that semester we were in the snack bar at Wilder Hall and were having a
conversation and decided to teach an EXCO class together that spring. EXCO is an
experimental college of Oberlin where students and townspeople can teach one-
credit courses. We prepared this whole course on the religious history of Jewish
women. At that point there was very little available. There was one textbook called
Written Out of History which I actually have right here because I am using it for this
lecture tomorrow night. There was very little available so we culled through all these
things and created this source book--biblical and rabbinical passages, and
whatever--[having to do with] Jewish women.
[Deborah Budner] really was the first one. She got me into that part of what I do.
We have kept in touch and we are still really close friends. She lives in Boston. She
is very well educated in Judaism right now and Jewish sources. But she is also a
smart, interested person. She is also someone for whom all the stuff I do, which
sometimes gets very technical and very divorced from real life in certain ways,
potentially has meaning. She is going to be a Jewish educator, and she is someone
who can translate what I do into classrooms and distribute it more. So I am writing
for Deborah Budner.
Another thing, Deborah does not care how I am going to show that I really measured
my spindle whorls correctly, and she does not care to hear all the contingencies of
how I translated a certain Hebrew word a certain way. But she wants to know what
happens at the end, and she wants to see a well argued [manuscript]. I write for
Deborah right now, because I think in some ways she represents [people]. There
are other people like her. I also actually want my book to be able to be used in the
S: I have a question about the paper you gave me today which talks about when you
first began to teach the Introduction to Judaism course, particularly with your
background. You wanted to teach the history of Jewish men and women, and you
were faced with this book.
P: The Jewish people, Jewish-thought book.
S: Yes. Which basically was Jewish men, and then you had a book that you were
using to insert Jewish women. You used similar books last semester in your
introductory class here at UF. First there is the idea that you have [about] normative
male Judaism, and then you insert the women into the main text. But I noticed that
[despite] your concerns and your care [about] laying out these chapters about the
experience of women, they really did not work their way into the lectures or the class
P: I know. Here is the background here. I grew up in the 1970s, my mother was a
feminist, the revolution was supposed to happen. This was not the [case]. Despite
having to deal with sexist things along the way, I did not realize this was not true
until a few years ago. I realized this whole critique that knowledge has been based
on the normative male, in fact, was very true. Every time I teach I again realize how
hard it is to break down. Now it sounds so esoteric to talk about the main struggles
being breaking down knowledge patterns, but I am a teacher and an educator. That
is what I do. It is a little better this semester.
What I have found is that I do not yet know how to imagine (I think I wrote that in the
paper) a gender-inclusive Judaism. I do not know yet how to teach lectures on the
development of Jewish religious history where I can talk about men and women. I
cannot imagine it yet. I know other people cannot either. I kept on waiting. Every
time I would go to conferences in the last few years I kept on looking around for
people who had the answers, and I have been astounded to realize that some of my
colleagues look to me for answers [about] how to do this. I actually am hoping some
of the students in the class you are taking can help me figure out how to do that.
That sounds like such a cop out.
S: Not really, because I can see how hard it is.
P: I do some things. I started out talking about the exemption. I talk about
mitzvot/commandments and then I talk about the exemption of women from one
category of those. I start out with a critique of gender, but I end up not getting the
stuff on what women did, and I do not know how. I think my critique of gender is
more present this semester than it was last semester. It is also hard to do this stuff
in a very real way. I do not feel comfortable being a feminist scholar at this campus.
S: Can you elaborate on that?
P: I have a sense that there is not enough. I have recognized a push to hire women
and there are really good feminist scholars who were hired this year. But I do not
get a sense that there is enough recognition in the liberal arts and sciences classes
of the difference gender makes in the curriculum and in all knowledge so that I can
assume that my students will have sensitivity or sensibility to all this. I also have
been surprised at the kind of resistance students will voice. Not publicly or in the
classroom, but one-on-one or privately.
S: What kind of things are coming back to you?
P: Well, it is just about "Why do we have to do so much of women?" Or, "We did not
really need that book on Jewish women anyway, did we?" Of course, I think I was
more afraid of that first semester so I really did not do it right. This semester I just
have decided, based on the experience of last semester, that if I really was serious
about this stuff, then I really had to put it up front and make it very clear that, yes, it
is important to have these double books even if it is awkward right now.
S: And what is the difference in the reactions of your student?
P: It is hard to know because I will not get some of those responses to this class until
S: Do you think they are holding back until they get their grades?
P: Probably not, because a lot of it comes up on the course evaluations that are
S: So you got some of that on the course evaluations?
P: Yes. "She is such a feminist, why do we have to learn from her?"
P: Things like that. That is not surprising. It is 1994 and there is a lot that other
feminist scholars have published on what it is like to teach, what it is like to teach
feminism, what it is like to teach this stuff, so in some ways I have the hindsight of
the experiences of others.
S: You did teach this course at Duke also. How does that experience compare with
P: It was very different. The students were very different there, the atmosphere of
teaching [was different]. Women's studies at Duke was much more pervasive
through the campus. That does not mean there was not resistance to it--there
certainly was--but there was a sense that they had done very well at convincing
students and faculty that this was important stuff, and that it belonged in the
curriculum and the classroom. In some ways what that meant was that students
expected it when they [were admitted]. It was too easy for them to say, "This is
where we are doing feminism, we have to do it," or, "This is where we are doing
women, we have to do it." And because Duke was so polarized ideologically,
students would have those attitudes like, "Oh, yes, here is where we do the critical
theory part." Or they would have this, "Oh, yes, she is graduate student, we are
going to have to do all this shit." That kind of thing. They would sort of resist it that
I do not want to paint too bad of a picture here, because one of the lovely things is
that I think some students here do not get very good training at critical thinking.
Some of my students really love what we are doing because it is the first time
someone has said, "Yes, knowledge comes from some place. You know, this thing
called the Enlightenment that affected that way we Americans think." In the midst of
all that, talking about gender becomes very easy. But again, it is this kind of thing
that I learned actually when I was writing my dissertation.
Through the 1980s alone, when I was writing my proposal for my dissertation, I went
through millions of drafts. I mean, not millions, [but] it was about five or six or seven.
What I finally realized is that the reason I was having trouble with it was that I was
not coming right out and saying, "I am asking feminist questions that come right out
of what feminist scholars in various disciplines have been trying to figure out for
several years now. And that is what this is about." And I was trying to figure out all
these ways to be nice and wishy-washy and not quite say that. Then I realized that
that was the problem, and I sat down at the computer and just wrote. "These are my
questions. This is what I am trying to figure out. This is its significance for
theorizing about gender and feminism and the experiences ofwomen," and that was
the one that was accepted and that was the one that was coherent and made sense.
So what I really learned, but of course I have to keep relearning, is that despite how
hard it is and despite the resistance, you just have to put it up front and do it. Again,
I wish I could say, "I got perfect at this and I do it all right," but I really do not.
S: You are here at the University of Florida, this is your second semester, and you are
finding it to be somewhat conservative. But do you like it?
P: Yes, I like it.
S: Are there a lot of other young faculty? Do you get to know people in other
P: Yes. They actually do a pretty good job. We all grumbled about this last fall when
we were sort of moved around from the dean's reception to the president's reception
and so forth, but they did a good job of these mass welcomes which meant that first-
year faculty got to meet each other. And this year there were two of us hired in
religion, I think there were several people in philosophy, history, and English. We all
know each other, so that is a good thing. Some of us are around the same age,
[living] here in Gainesville, and not living with families or spouses. So that is a good
point. Several of us are forming a reading group to get together and read and talk.
S: You do not have to answer this but, being so young ... you are younger than a lot
of the graduate students.
P: I know. I am twenty-nine. Yes. Okay, what is the question? [Laughter]
S: What do you guys get to do for a social life because there are all these boundaries
that you are not supposed to cross.
P: It is hard. Yes, there are boundaries like relationships with students. That does not
just concern sexual relations. The University is concerned with sexual relations, but
I think I am concerned with a whole continuum of boundaries and what it means to
be a twenty-nine-year-old person in a position of authority. Also, I look fairly young.
But I look older than I used to.
I used to like going out a lot and going to clubs and hearing music. Here I feel very
restrained about doing that because most of the bars or clubs are student-oriented.
They are student-dominated. I do not feel comfortable having a few beers and
running into some of my students and then seeing them next Tuesday as I am
dressed up in a suit in class. I just do not feel . all of that is difficult.
S: Yes. I wondered about that.
P: This is small. I was really happy to come to Gainesville because it is a larger college
town than many and I was just terrified of ending up in some really small liberal arts
college town. Gainesville is a step up from there, but it is not a city where I could
live on the other side of the city and go out and not worry about running into
students. I do not know how to solve that yet. Jay Tribby, in the history department,
[assistant professor of history, appointed 1990] lives in Tampa. So if things do not
work out in Gainesville, I can move to a nearby city and commute a few days a
week. I have not figured that one out.
S: I wondered about that because I know faculty are not supposed to use the gym, I
think for the very same reason, that they want to use the gym that the students use
for free, they have to pay more than they pay. I think it is some huge fee, more than
the regular health club.
P: Some of that is odd for me because at Oberlin [College] there were very close
student-faculty relations. I got to know a lot of my professors and we went to their
houses. There are not written interdictions against doing that [here], but you are not
S: I know that at Hampshire, we had a clothing-optional sauna, and when you go there
in the morning after a swim, more likely than not there was your naked professor in
P: Right. And it is a very different perspective. It is funny because I think professors
are seen as very formal here, and there is a kind of beauty to that. It is sort of an old
model: you have the formal professor here, and the student down here, and you
convey information one way. But that is not the way I was trained and it certainly is
not my model of education. It is hard, being one of the youngest professors here
and being female, to go against that, although I do. I end up being very informal in
class, even more so than last semester, or I end up feeling very informal in class.
Sometimes I come home at night and I think, "Oh my gosh, are the students
learning? Maybe we laugh too much in class. Are they learning?" And then I think,
"Of course they are." You have to be relaxed to learn. But it is interesting to me
how powerful are these unwritten ideas of what a professor is supposed to be.
Last fall was my first semester teaching full time and I remember the first few weeks.
At the end of every week I would congratulate myself for having gotten through my
third or my fourth week as a professor, and around that same time I realized that
whatever I was, was what a professor is. There was not this model "out there." It is
sort of the same thing about my creating new scholarship and creating new
knowledge. Well, how do you create new knowledge, and what does it mean to be a
professor? I do not know. I think it is easy to fall into these familiar models because
they are so prevalent. Sometimes I hope I am interrupting them a little bit.
S: Well, I know you teach the introduction to Judaism, and you teach the standard
religion class. Do you teach something else?
S: And what is that?
P: Well, last semester I taught a seminar called Classic Jewish Texts. It is a traditional
course that we teach and I taught it on the Mishnah because those are the classic
Jewish texts that I knew the best.
S: There is something really important that I wanted to ask.
S: At the beginning of the Introduction to Judaism class you had us read an article that
talked about departments of Jewish studies and religion departments. Why are they
separate? What are their different agendas and why are you in the religion
department and not in Jewish studies? They are not even on the same side of the
P: There are several things. (I am trying to tease all of that out to you.) Some of it is
University specific and some of it has to do with how Jewish studies has developed.
Jewish studies is not a discipline; [it is] an interrelation of several fields of study,
[and] does not really deal with religion. Often, Jewish studies programs are not
located within departments of religion, and they also tend to be more
interdisciplinary. So, for example, here there are some people who do linguistics,
literature, Jewish history.
All of that is why Jewish studies is a different program. I am affiliated with Jewish
studies. Jewish studies at this campus does not hire its own full-time faculty. It is a
program and not a department. I think the way it works is that only departments are
granted funds to hire faculty. Most departments of religion will have someone, if
they are large enough, who will be able to do Judaism, so that is where I fit in here.
But it is really interesting, a lot of this theorizing about religion. Religion is a social
phenomenon that came from Christian scholars interviewing, examining, and
investigating non-Christian and non-Jewish religions. What happened is that
Judaism fell in between-- Judaism was too close to study for the Christians, and also
not far enough away. So that is all that that article is talking about.
S: You mentioned these people really wanting to know last semester in class about
where you stood on the continuum of Jewish practice. And I was curious about
what it means to be not hugely committed to a religion as a belief system. Do most
people in departments of religion really believe the religion they teach?
P: It is hard to make generalizations. There are some people for whom it is very easy
to pigeonhole into a belief or tradition. What does not get recognized is that all of us
have commitments. I do have certain commitments to Judaism. They may not fit
into a branch, specifically one we studied in class. But, I mean, I do have certain
commitments. I have certain commitments to... I do not know what I would call it.
So, I actually get frustrated when people want to know, "What religion are you?" As
if religion is the only way someone can make a [commitment].
It is like that discussion we were having in the gender class, cultural relativism. We
sort of had two poles, either you could be a cultural relativist and not take any
stance and not make value judgments about the practices of anyone, or you can
make those judgments. We did not talk about the fact that even not taking a stance
means taking a position. [We did not talk about] what all the places in between
those two poles are. How do we make judgments? How do we speak about the
experience of somebody else? How do we speak about our own experiences [with]
some critical frameworks there? So, yes, I have commitments. It is funny because
my students always want to know where I stand and what I am.
S: I guess my question is about whether it is expected ... I know that perhaps students
expect it, but within the actual discipline itself?
P: The discipline is very much divided over those questions, and it usually gets played
as a debate of theology versus religious studies. It assumes that people who do
theology are committed, and people who do religious studies are not. Also, one of
the things I like about the department here is that it is fairly diverse in terms of
religion, region, ethnicity. Several of the people, especially people who are not
Christian or teaching some form of Christianity, are very much dealing with the
tensions of assimilation, or tensions of what it means to be Hindu or a Muslim in the
U.S. So we have those kinds of things to talk about which complicate the whole
thing. What are you? Are you X or are you not X? Well, I am assimilating X. I am
changing what it means to be an X.
S: Now I know you said your parents came from the North with a political background.
Did they ever hope you were going to be a rabbi instead of a professor? Something
you were devoting your life to or that kind of thing? Or your grandparents?
P: I am not sure. Not my maternal grandparents, but my paternal grandparents cannot
figure out what it is I do because, for them, being a professor of Jewish studies does
not fit into how they think the world works. There are rabbis, rebbetzins, Hebrew
school teachers, Torah scholars. They are very religious. These are my paternal
grandparents. They do not quite know what it is I do. I do not think any of them
hoped I would be a rabbi; my mother might have at a certain point. Rabbis do not
get to be scholars these days, I mean, unless they are very traditional.
S: So what does a rabbi do?
P: I cannot answer [that]. They do sort of social-work things: making sure synagogues
get run, trying to create Jewish communities, trying to extend Jewish communities. I
think some rabbis do question critically what it is they inherited or what it is they do
in the synagogue. I think that is true. But I never wanted to be one. I do not like
doing what they do.
S: Thank you.