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Q&A: Deborah Kaye, Professor of Jewish Studies, published in The Religious Studies Review

Courtesy Deborah Kaye
Kaye wrote a review essay called “Jewish Continuity and Mediterranean History: Medieval and Early Modern Studies”.

Earlier this year, professor Deborah Kaye had her work on Judaic and Mediterranean studies published in the the Religious Studies Review. The essay, titled “Jewish Continuity and Mediterranean History: Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” is an extensive essay on the extent of Jewish culture and how it has been analyzed in the past. She also writes on the impact Mediterranean lifestyles have had on Jewish customs. The Daily Wildcat interviewed her about the work and her field of study.

Daily Wildcat: What is your review essay about? Can you offer a quick summary?

Deborah Kaye: My review essay explores the dissemination and preservation of Jewish beliefs and practices in the western Mediterranean. I judge the ways in which Jewish historians and religious scholars of the medieval and early modern periods are addressing the field of Mediterranean studies. I have found that network analysis has tended to be the most popular approach to the Mediterranean among Jewish scholars. I begin by reviewing new research on the Italian port city of Livorno, tracing the activities of Jewish emissaries (or shadarim, as they are referred to in Hebrew) from Palestine, Constantinople, North Africa and Europe who seek assistance from the elders of the Livornese community to redeem Jewish captives. Although network analysis is interesting, there is more to Mediterranean studies. I discovered that one Jewish scholar is working within the framework that Mediterraneanists refer to as an “ecologizing” approach, one that combines cultural studies and climate-related research, including such topics as cultures of epidemic and plague.

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DW: How did you become interested in an area like Jewish History and the Mediterranean, since it is such a specific topic?

DK: Initially, I suppose I became interested in Jewish studies and the Mediterranean region many years ago when I lived in Israel as a young woman, aspiring then to be an artist. From the kaleidoscope colors of ancient Roman glass to the domed ceilings of the port city of Jaffa built by the Ottoman Turks, to the Russian artist Marc Chagall’s dreamy expressionist stained glass windows at the Hadassah Medical Center, one is enveloped in a kind of artistic cocoon when in Israel. Standing on Mt. Scopus, surrounded by the Judean hills, I gazed at the sunset-hued golden stones of Jerusalem, breathing in the mystical air of three great world religious traditions. How could one not be moved? When I returned to the U.S., I went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan to study Jewish history and later at the University of Arizona. Of course, I had so many wonderful opportunities to travel as a student, especially to London and to Italy where I would eventually do my doctoral dissertation research as a Fulbright scholar. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of travel and study abroad for students today.

DW: How is your work contributing to this field?

DK: As the editor for medieval and early modern Judaism for the Religious Studies Review, I am very fortunate to contribute to shaping the field of Jewish studies for the next decade by reviewing and critiquing the best new scholarship. It is a tremendous responsibility, since there is so much wonderful work being done these days by a new generation of talented research scholars. This recent essay attempts to see how Jewish studies has been engaging with the trans-local and trans-national approaches that draw the interdisciplinary interest of scholars from numerous academic disciplines. It is meant to hopefully point the way not only to Jewish scholars, but also because RSR reviews work in all religious traditions, I would hope that this review will encourage new directions in comparative religious study. Certainly, the group of monographs under review show what we have long known and that is the field of Jewish studies is paradigmatic for any diaspora study.

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DW: Where do you see this field progressing in the future, how much more is there to discover or understand?

DK: There is no doubt that Jewish scholars are writing works that contribute to Mediterranean studies. The problem, as I see it, is that they do not engage with the epistemological aspects the new Mediterranean studies presupposes. In my review essay, I think I make it quite clear that they contribute well to ways in which the study of Jewish society broadens our understanding of the Mediterranean model. However, in the future, it is my hope that Jewish historians and scholars will begin to recognize the importance of applying the theory and methods of Mediterranean studies to their research. What this means is to transcend specializations and begin to look at the cross-fertilizations of cultures that have existed for centuries. It also means contributing to the creation a new socio-historical map of discourses aimed at shaping our understanding of the complex relationship between Jewish peoples, culture and the environment in the Mediterranean region.

DW: How has your time at the University of Arizona affected your work?

DK: The University of Arizona provides a remarkable collegial atmosphere. Over the years, I have had wonderful interactions with scholars within and outside of Jewish studies at the University of Arizona who work on Mediterranean topics including professors Linda Darling and Julia Clancy-Smith in the history department and my mentor, Professor Emeritus Hermann Rebel, a scholar’s scholar who taught me how to judge the quality of mind and research like no one else. More recently, I have gained from the insights of an extremely creative thinker, a scholar who studies queer subjects and transfiliation in French and North African cultures, professor Denis Provencher, the head of the French and Italian department, where I am also a faculty member. In fact, Dr. Provencher and I just finished creating a new undergraduate course on French, Italian and North African Mediterranean Cities, which I am very excited about. Indeed, I feel quite fortunate to have the support of so many gifted colleagues.

To read the essay please visit here.

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