Simon Bronner wanted to tell a story not about Judaism, but about what Jews do, feel and think.
Bronner, who is the dean of the College of General Studies and a distinguished professor of social sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has introduced classes on Jewish studies and focused on the subject as a research area. As Bronner’s career progressed, he decided to compile his research and teachings in a book called “Jewish Cultural Studies,” which will be published next year.
Growing up, Bronner said, he studied sacred Jewish texts in school, learned the Haftarah and observed the Jewish holidays. But he didn’t get to ask about the cultural differences among Jews.
“It was always very localized or given the impression that we’re all Jewish, we’re all based upon the scriptures of the ancient period,” Bronner said. “In my travels, actually being a folklorist and an ethnologist, along with studying other groups, I would always ask questions about Jewish practices around here, and there’s quite a great diversity, and I didn’t find this as much written about.”
He wanted to look at what unites members of the Jewish community, as well as how Jews are different, yet they still have a Jewish identity. The book is organized in three sections: conceptualization, ritualization and narration. Bronner explores what Jewish individuals do at home and within their families, as well as outside their home or online.
Although he has previously edited volumes on the subject, the upcoming book is the first to feature his own work. “Jewish Cultural Studies” also includes some of Bronner’s personal experiences. For example, a chapter digs into his time as the chair of a Holocaust memorial committee.
“That’s not the usual thing that you put into a scholarly work, if you will,” Bronner said. “Usually, we study others. I was forced to talk about my own experience and the politics that occur in something like choosing a memorial design.”
Bronner said he anticipated when writing the book his sections on the bar mitzvah ritual and online joke telling would be sensitive. He was surprised, though, by sensitivity around Jewish representation in politics.
“This idea that being Jewish is something that you keep private rather than in a society in which we supposedly value inclusivity and diversity, that there are still barriers that seem to be there about including Jewishness within multiculturalism,” he said.
When he started writing the book, Bronner said, he expected the audience would be those who are researching and teaching Jewish studies. But as he continued writing, the anticipated readership grew to become a more general audience that includes anyone with questions about Jewish culture and its role in America.
Bronner said he wants readers to walk away with an appreciation for Jewish culture and its significance to identity.
“It’s not about going to synagogue,” he said. “It’s actually about experiencing that cultural and social connection, and the question is how that is expressed and how that is changing, especially within a majority culture like the United States and what that position means for us.”
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What: Simon Bronner to speak: “The Rise of Adapted Home Traditions: Simhat Bat and Other Jewish Ceremonies for Newborn Girls”
When: Tuesday, Jan. 12, 7 p.m.
Where: On Zoom, with Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha
How to go: Contact the synagogue at (262) 547-7180.