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November 1, 2007

Students Explore Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

Religious studies course taught by Robert Cohn, Berman Professor of Jewish Studies, examines how the Holocaust has influenced Jewish identity

This semester, students in Jewish Responses to the Holocaust, taught by Robert Cohn, Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Studies, are examining how Jews and Judaism have experienced, responded to, and remembered the Holocaust.

Cohn explains that he has been teaching versions of this course for the past 30 years and that it coincides with his own particular fascination with the subject.

“As a student of religions, I was fascinated by how religions explain the problems of suffering and evil and how for most Jewish thinkers, the Holocaust seemed to explode all previous explanations,” Cohn says. “More recently, I have become interested in how the Holocaust is represented in our culture and what its implications are for Jewish identity.”

According to Cohn, this course has four main objectives. The first is to glimpse Jewish experiences in Germany, and in the ghettoes and Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe through diaries and memoirs. Secondly, the course sheds light on the “politics of memory” through analysis of how museums and memorials are remembering the Holocaust. Thirdly, the students will assess theological coping mechanisms used to endure the Holocaust in regard to former responses to disaster and hardship in Jewish history. Finally, the class will investigate Holocaust fiction and explore current Jewish identity and the issues facing the “second generation” through the lens of the Holocaust.

Though Cohn incorporates lectures into the class structure, the course primarily focuses around discussion of assigned texts. Reading material for the class includes Doris Bergen’s War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (2003), Edward T. Linenthal’s Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (2001), and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1962). Co-curricular activities for the course include the screening of several films pertaining to the Holocaust and a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Students are also required to attend three local public lectures taking place related to the subject matter. They are “Why the Connection Between Jesus and Judaism Still Matters” by A.J. Levine of Vanderbilt University, “Wonderful Blood” by Caroline Walker Bynum of Princeton University, and “Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine” by Omer Bartov of Brown University, which will take place at Lehigh University.

Cohn will integrate all of these co-curricular events into the students’ writing assignments and class discussions.

“I want students to understand the ways that Jewish people have reacted to and explained the problem of human suffering by examining catastrophic events in their history, most particularly the Holocaust,” explains Cohn. “I also want them to appreciate the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish identity and American life in the decades since it occurred. Finally, by studying how the memory of the Holocaust has been and is being preserved, produced, and disseminated through art, literature, media, museums, and monuments, I want students to observe the politics of memory in the making.”

Students in the class are Rachel Abramovitz ’10 (New York, N.Y.), economics and business major Sarah Christy ’10 (Levittown, Pa.), economics & business and history double major Lauren Clarke ’08 (Chagrin Falls, Ohio), history and religious studies major Patricia Figueroa-Cruz ’09 (Houston, Texas), economics and business major Vincent Gallo ’09 (Paramus, N.J.), government & law and philosophy double major Osasumwen Izevbigie ’09 (Springdale, Md.), biology major Danielle Jenkins ’10 (Shirley, N.Y.), economics & business and music double major Emmett Jusino ’08 (Freeport, N.Y.), history and government and law major Steven Koppel ’09 (New York, N.Y.), psychology and art double major Kathryn Lewis ’08 (Scarsdale, N.Y.), psychology and English double major Lia Mandaglio ’08 (Annandale, N.J.), government & law and foreign language major Elizabeth Matecki ’10 (Springdale Heights, N.J.), history major Catherine McVey ’09 (Pleasantville, N.Y.), economics and business major Stefanie Mircovich ’10 (Wyckoff, N.J.), music major Kisha Thomas ’08 (Baltimore, Md.), and government and law major Ashley Yelland ’08 (Quakertown, Pa.).

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