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Meet Michael Bernard-Donals
August 1st, 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.
Principally there are probably two or three different roles that any director I think plays. The first is to essentially give form to the curriculum, to the courses that we offer, to make sure that the major is providing the kinds of courses that our students need to get through, but also to make sure that the offerings are multi disciplinary, that they are balanced between, say, literature, history, culture, art.
There’s also the outreach piece of my work, and part of it is working to connect with our community in Madison, our student community, but also the community of Jews and non-Jews in the city, and it’s about making connections with, for example, the city of Milwaukee and the Jewish community there. [He also reaches out to alumni of the center, which started in 1991, and general UW alumni interested in the center’s work.]
And then the third piece I would say is strategic. I’m trying to make sure that the center and its faculty have the resources to do what they would like to do over the course of the next ten years. That involves making sure we have the financial resources to do what we need to do, that we have workable and fruitful relationships with our university administration, that the administration understands that we are a resource to the university, and working on insuring that as budget cycles come and go, that we have what need to sustain the program.
How big is the Jewish studies center now?
We have 25 affiliate faculty members, we represent 14 departments across three different colleges in the university. So we are truly multidisciplinary. We teach courses in Jewish languages, Jewish history and culture, both in Europe and Latin America, and the United States. We teach courses in Israel studies, Hebrew and Semitic studies. There are courses in art. We have a faculty member who was teaching a course in water use in the Middle East and water politics in Israel and the Middle East. So we really kind of run the gamut. It’s a pretty tremendous intellectual group of people.
What does the center offer for undergraduates?
We have an undergraduate major, then we have a minor or sometimes called a certificate program. At the moment we have 10 majors, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 32 or 33 certificate students. There are graduate students who take courses offered by some of faculty who teach graduate level courses in Jewish studies, in say Jewish history or Hebrew and Semitic studies, but we don’t have a graduate program as such.
In any given year, I’d say we probably reach somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 [non-major and non-certificate] students. We offer between 20 and 32 courses in any given year. One of the things we’re especially proud of is that somewhere in the neighborhood of about half of our students are not Jewish. So our courses are attractive across the board.
What are your plans for the coming school year?
We have a number of symposia and speakers who are coming to the university through the center. We are working with the Jewish Museum Milwaukee and the [Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center] to do some programs together. We’re working with the Jewish Home and Care Center to do some part of their 18th anniversary celebration. We’re putting together something with them in February.
We will be doing the Conney Conference on Jewish Arts in the spring. We also have grand plans for the future. Our goal is to reenergize the center by adding some faculty positions in areas where we have not had offerings or where we have had and faculty have left; for example, in Jewish American literature and culture.
The Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture came on board a year-and-a-half ago, and we’re looking to expand in Yiddish language and Yiddish culture and the arts. We have long wanted a position medieval Jewish history, and we’re working to try to add a position there. We have strengths in Israel studies and in Holocaust studies that we’re also hoping to augment with additional faculty.
This is a long term goal, but we would love to expand into graduate studies, and to have enough faculty to offer either a master’s or Ph.D. program. And we’re hoping to augment our fellowships and scholarships for the exceptional students that come to the center, both at the graduate and the undergraduate level.
Here’s the other thing I would like to be able to do for the center — make it financially self-sustaining. We have been very fortunate in that we have a number of donors and friends who have made it possible for us to do the kind of work we’re doing right now. We have been fortunate in that we have not faced any cuts.
But it’s also true that like most universities, we’re not going to see any increases in funding and over time our funding from the state is decreasing. In order to make up the difference, and beyond that in order to grow the center into what it could become, we are going to need support from friends and donors, both alumni of the center and people who value what we do at the center for Jewish studies.
Many American Jews perceive a pervasive anti-Israel or anti-Zionism sentiment in academia. Are there any issues along that line that you have been facing?
I would say not. I think one of the great traditions at the University of Wisconsin is its sifting and winnowing tradition, the idea that we take issues on in an objective way and in a way that scrutinizes things critically. I think because we’ve been judicious in the way we’ve approached questions about Israel and its place in the Middle East, for example, we have not really run into the kind of objections and political morasses that have faced some centers and academic units across the country.
I think partly we’ve been very lucky in that our faculty are balanced and treat things in a scholarly and an objective way. I think it’s also true that because we are an academic institution and because we take seriously our academic mission, which is not either political or religious, that we try to approach things from a scholarly perspective. And so we have tended not to fall into some of the debates that have embroiled I think some of other academic institutions.