Jewish Literacy Project
Beginning in the 1980s, the concept of “Jewish literacy” began to emerge as a desired outcome for Jewish education. Charitably, “Jewish literacy” was a new name for an old idea about the importance of knowledge of Jewish texts and practices. Somewhat less charitably, the increased use of “Jewish literacy” represents an uncritical acceptance of a set of assumptions—assumptions both about what kinds of knowledge matter (knowledge of information, especially the kind that lives in books) and also about the cultural condition of American Jews (i.e., their purported ignorance or “illiteracy"). These assumptions are important because they end up influencing curricula and pedagogy in a broad range of Jewish educational institutions.
But what if these assumptions are wrong? What if there are better ways to think about “Jewish literacy,” or better ways to think about the desired outcomes of Jewish education altogether? This project, led by MCSJE Director Jon A. Levisohn, started with some early work published in 2016. He continued this work as a Fellow of Applied Research Collective for American Jewry at NYU in 2018 and 2019, and then as a Fellow of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020.
Publications from this project include the following:
- “Redeeming Jewish Literacy,” Hayidion, Spring 2016, pp. 12-3;
- A critical commentary on Leon Wieseltier’s well-known essay “Language, Identity and the Scandal of American Jewry” from 2011, published in The New Jewish Canon, edited by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire Sufrin (2020), pp. 421-6;
- A review of "The Oral and the Textual in Jewish Tradition and Jewish Education," edited by Jonathan Cohen, Matt Goldish and Barry Holtz (2019), published in the Journal of Jewish Education 86 (2020), pp. 464-7;
- “A New Paradigm of Jewish Literacy” (2019), produced as part of the Applied Research Collective for American Jewry at NYU;
- “Producers not Possessors: A Direction for Jewish Education in Turbulent Times” (2021), also produced as part of the Applied Research Collective for American Jewry;
- Presentations at the Network for Research in Jewish Education (in June 2019), at Spertus College (January 2020), at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (March 2021), at the Seminar on Contemporary Jewish Life at Brandeis (May 2019 and November 2021); and at a roundtable at the Association for Jewish Studies (December 2021).
Current writing for this project includes two draft articles, one that addresses what we actually know (and more importantly do not know) about the condition of American Jewish literacy and a second that argues that our contemporary discourse on American Jewish illiteracy can be understood by examining and critiquing three precedents—Leon Wieseltier in 2009, Joseph Telushkin in 1991, and Harold Himmelfarb in 1975.