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Preview for August: Meet Michael Bernard-Donals
July 18th, 2012
Michael Bernard-Donals, 49, is director of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has held that position since July 2011.
He is a professor of English who comes originally from the Queens borough of New York City. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, his doctorate at Stony Brook University. He has been on the UW faculty since 1998, and converted to Judaism some 16 years ago. He is married to Shoshana, and they have three children.
He visited Milwaukee June 28, and among other activities stopped at the office of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle to meet Chronicle editor Leon Cohen. Selected and edited excerpts of that conversation follow.
English was easy because it was what I loved even as far back as high school. I remember just loving being immersed in books. I really didn’t know how to do much else, so I just kept going through English through college and graduate school.
But the Jewish studies connection comes through [1993 Holocaust-themed movie] “Schindler’s List.” I remember seeing that movie when my oldest daughter was maybe five years old. There is the scene in the movie of the little girl in the red coat [during a Nazi massacre of Jews]. And she looks nothing like my daughter, [but] she looks everything like my daughter. The connection was uncanny, and I wanted to understand why.
I trained myself in Jewish studies and Holocaust studies to start. I wanted to understand what was particular about that event, and why it loomed so large in the Jewish imagination, and why in the United States and not just Jews but also non-Jews, saw this as a kind of defining event of modernity.
Lately my interest has been in the relation between testimony and memory. The book I’m working on now is on the space of [the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.] … how the exhibits are arranged, how the visitors move through that space, and how their encounters with objects and images and movies and texts create a memory. Of course it’s not a real memory because most visitors were not there. But I think the goal of the museum is to create a kind of second-hand memory.
What other Jewish studies scholarly work interests you?
I’m actually trained as a rhetorician. There are three or four different ways I explain that to people who say, “What’s rhetoric?” I’m interested in writing and the teaching of writing, non-literary writing, persuasive writing. I’m interested in how language moves us or compels us to do things. I’m also interested in the historical traditions behind it.
The typical way of understanding argument, rhetoric, and writing is that it begins with [ancient Greek philosophers] Plato and Aristotle and moves through the Western canon. Lately I’ve become interested in the Jewish tradition that begins with biblical writing and works its way through the Talmud and legal writing. Looking at the differences between the two, the western tradition and what could be called the Jewish tradition of rhetoric.
To read the rest of the article, see the August issue.