Interview with Past AAJR President Robert Chazan
In February 2018, Miriam Bodian and Magda Teter asked Robert Chazan to reflect on the history of the AAJR and on his role as President (1995-2000) in adapting it to changing circumstances.
Interviewer: The AAJR plans to commemorate its centennial in 2020. Todd Endelman recently suggested to us that, by the 1990’s, the organization had become rather moribund, and you were convinced to take things in hand. Along with a group of younger scholars, including Todd, you initiated a program of reform. Is that a fairly accurate way of characterizing it?
Robert Chazan: Yes. Let me take matters back in time. The AAJR was an important pioneering organization for Jewish scholarship in the States. Most of the leadership was European born and trained. It was a small organization. The leading fellows were concentrated in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. I can remember the situation in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when I was at JTS and then at Columbia as a doctoral student. The Sunday AAJR gatherings were the high point of Jewish scholarship in the States. My recollection is of the really major players getting together Saturday night for dinner; it was their chance to see each other. The Sunday sessions were really a big deal. All the major figures were there; it was the venue in which you gave your first paper. One more aspect of this. I don’t know the details, but it seems that Salo Baron, who came from a wealthy business family, and Saul Lieberman were both very good at investing the funds of the organization. So the AAJR had piled up some real money. The major way they used it was for subventions for publications, which was again a very big deal.
In the late 1960’s, all of a sudden the new phenomenon of universities either receiving chairs in Jewish studies or funding positions exploded. This situation played itself in my own life. I graduated from Columbia in 1958 and I was a philosophy major. There was a senior seminar and the professor who taught it was really very warm and nice. There were maybe half a dozen students in the seminar. He had each of us come in and he would ask: “What are you planning to do after graduation?” I was a little abashed, but I said to him: “I am going to go up the street to JTS. I don’t want to be a rabbi, but I want to use their facilities for studying Bible and rabbinics and Jewish history. Then I would like to do a doctorate in Jewish studies and teach.” I thought he would say: “You’re a lunatic.” I learned subsequently that Ismar Schorsch had said the same thing to his professor of history in 1957, and the professor told him, “You are a lunatic. There will never be a job like that.” But the professor I met with said, “What a great idea.” He further said: “If you were finishing now, there wouldn’t be a job available for you.” But he added: “The American campus is going to change over the next decade and by the time you finish, because you are talking about two programs, there will be positions.” He was prophetically correct. It was when I was working on my dissertation that Jack Neusner was able to find a position on a university campus, as did Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. I finished my dissertation in 1967, right at the point that a new program had been created at Ohio State, and I secured the new position.
Interviewer: Do you remember who the prophet was?
R.C: Justus Buchler of the philosophy department. The big factor was being in New York on the Columbia campus, which was beginning to feel the changes at an early stage.
Interviewer: And Columbia had a position, right? Salo Baron’s chair.
R.C: Yes. Now Salo Baron and [Saul] Lieberman and all the old guard of the American Academy for Jewish Research—with all great respect for them—were European born and trained. The American university scene was alien to them. By 1968, there were the beginnings of a younger group of Jewish studies scholars on general campuses, not just at JTS, YU, or HUC, and there was some agitation. A meeting was set up at Brandeis in 1968, from which the Association for Jewish Studies emerged. Basically, the American Academy leaders stayed away. Thus there were two very different bodies from 1968 on. AJS was much larger and more open, whereas the American Academy was focused on fellows. I went to Ohio State and came back to New York in 1981. I became a fellow pretty quickly, and maybe in 1984 or 1985 I was put on the board of the AAJR. I came on the board as young Chazan, and I was in fact younger by a lot. By that time, Baron wasn’t involved anymore. But there was something like the afterglow of the early period. I remember Isaac Barzilay, who was by no means at the Baron-Lieberman level, became the president for a while. Then Arthur Hyman became president. He was a serious scholar of the next generation. And then David Weiss Halivni got hold of me in the early 1990’s and said: “Hyman is finishing his term as the president and you have to take it over. It needs to be in the hands of the next generation.” I said, “No way, I have just come to NYU.” I was chair of a new department, and I was involved in creating a college-wide core curriculum. I was busy. But Halivni did one of the great guilt trips of my life. He said “Look, you were there during the great days. You have to take it over.” And he was successful. I agreed to become president. I quickly discovered there was a lot of money in the AAJR account. Thus the idea was: Let’s put together a younger group to talk about how to utilize the stature and the funds of AAJR in a constructive way. Out of that emerged some of the new programs.
Interviewer: And what was the money used for before you became president?
R.C: To a very large extent it sat there. I would say the major utilization was for funding publications.
Interviewer: So, subventions.
Interviewer: And the PAAJR, right?
Interviewer: And the yearly conference.
R.C: I don’t think the conference cost anything much at all. Because it was always at JTS and it was always on Sundays, there was coffee or whatever. The big expenditures were the journal, which was very important, and subventions for publications, which meant much more then than today. Academic presses were not by and large publishing Judaica. The idea was: Let’s bring the American Academy for Jewish Research into this new reality, where Jewish Studies isn’t restricted to a couple of Jewish institutions, but is all over the country. Increasingly, only a minority of Jewish studies faculty is at the Jewish institutions; an increasing majority is in now at general institutions. The group and I felt that maintaining the fellows program would be valuable. It was a certain kind of mark of recognition by the scholarly community, and the sense was that would be useful. Maintaining the publication would likewise be useful.
[Robert Chazan identified the following as figures in the effort to reform of the AAJR under his leadership: Todd Endelman, Paula Hyman, Michael Myers, David Ruderman, Alfred Ivry, Nahum Sarna, Arnold Band, and David Berger.]
Interviewer: Were there criteria for the election of fellows?
R.C: Not formal. There still aren’t, but it was the way most academic fellows programs work. You know what people have done. You have a list of their publications. You have a sense of the seriousness of the publications.
Interviewer: So essentially do you see the work that you did with these people one of reorienting of the AAJR to an expanding American –
Interviewer: And helping to nurture a new generation of American Jewish Studies Scholars?
R.C: There was an awareness that people were doing doctorates all over the country, not at just YU, JTS, Hebrew Union College, Columbia, and Harvard. How about finding ways to bring those disparate students into contact with one another? And so we began thinking in that direction. The discussions were very much oriented towards using the resources of the Academy—two resources, one prestige and the other this backlog of money. There were millions of dollars there, and they were sitting. The question was how can we use them effectively with very targeted programs. That was what we set out to do.
A lot of the impetus came from a sense of the growing numbers of people working seriously as researchers in Jewish Studies, that they were increasingly diffused all around the country, and that the AAJR might be helpful with that. Again, I am saying the AAJR had two resources—one was the money, and the other was the prestige. From that 1968 meeting on, there was always a concern about standards at the AJS. I remember at that 1968 meeting a lot of concern that the Jewish community would want to take AJS over and rabbis would come to dominate this new activity—universities would hire local rabbis to do the teaching. There was fear of that, and the American Academy saw itself as an institution that insisted on certain standards. That’s why there was a sense that the AAJR fellows program, rather than being obsolete, was, because of the expansion, as important or even more important as a way of identifying academic leadership for the field.
Interviewer: Going back to what you said about the fear that rabbis would dominate. I assume that the appointment of rabbis at universities was one of the things that was happening?
R.C: I did not see much of it. I think it was much more a fear than a reality, because the expansion of Jewish Studies in universities took place largely through disciplinary departments rather than separate Jewish Studies departments. When I went out to Ohio State, I went into the history department. They wouldn’t have hired anybody who didn’t have a reputable doctoral degree. In 1967, Ohio State was hiring, for the first time, people in Far Eastern history so they were using the same standards that they had used for hiring people in American history to these expanding areas. I would say in the case of a place like Ohio State, it never would have crossed anybody’s mind to hire anyone other than somebody who had a doctorate from a reputable institution.
Interviewer: How do you account for the fear that rabbis would dominate?
R.C: First of all, inherent Jewish paranoia.
Interviewer: AJS had the same conversation.
R.C: Yes, AJS was very concerned about that, and AJS was concerned about fending off community support. I remember that in the 1968 foundational AJS meeting at Brandeis there was a lot of discussion about going to Jewish community organizations for funding. There was a strong sense that would be a bad idea. The people there were very heavily younger people. The meeting was filled with enthusiasm, and I often think back on the fact that the enthusiasm didn’t begin to match what became the reality. In other words, if you would have said then that there would be so many universities and colleges teaching Jewish Studies and so many faculty and so many new doctoral students every year, people would have said: “Don’t go crazy. Nice things are going to happen, but not like that!” This was an instance where the reality outran the expectation.
Interviewer: Did these young scholars feel excluded from the American Academy and were they therefore looking to form another organization?
R.C: AJS signified recognition that there was a field called Jewish Studies. By that time the AAJR was heading on to half a century. It would have been nice if the AAJR fellows had broadened out, but they were not going to do it, so essentially [the younger scholars] had to do it.
Interviewer: Interesting, but it’s also a statement that it’s not just a reality, it’s an American reality. Because this has always been a serious field in Israel.
R.C: Oh, in Israel for sure.
Interviewer: And then in Europe there was the Wissenschaft tradition.
R.C: There was the Wissenschaft tradition, but those European scholars didn’t make their way into Europe’s universities. When I went out to interview for the Ohio State job, I met resistance that was in no sense nasty, but I did get questions like this: “Is there really a discipline of Jewish History? I teach French history and I always have a segment on the Jews” or “I teach English history,” or “I teach Polish history.” And it really wasn’t ill-willed. The answer always revolved around Salo Baron. Everybody knew about him. Here was a scholar whose area clearly was the history of the Jewish people. Look at the quality of his scholarship, and Columbia University’s distinguished department of history recognizes this as a legitimate area of study, so if it’s legitimate for them….
Interviewer: One of the things you mentioned that I found interesting was the importance of the first generation of the American-trained scholars in their understanding of American academic life. Can you say more about that?
R.C: Look, the major great figures of the American Academy didn’t have the experience of studying on American campuses. That’s significant. Even in the next generation, you have somebody like Nahum Sarna, who didn’t have the American experience; you also had somebody like Gershon Cohen who did. Then the generation after that – Jacob Neusner, Yosef Yerushalmi, myself, David Ruderman, Paula Hyman, all these people. All of us were trained in American academia and knew what it was all about. There was, in that 1968 initial AJS meeting, an element of annoyance with these European-trained people. I didn’t feel it personally. I had studied at JTS with Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shalom Spiegel, I knew who they were, and then I had studied with Baron.
Interviewer: And you attended the Sunday meetings?
R.C: Oh yes, but the Sundays were transitional. Because the Sundays encouraged young American-born, American-trained scholars. I gave my first paper ever there, and it was a warm experience. It was the senior people being supportive. I remember I then submitted the paper to Abe Halkin who was then the editor of the AAJR Proceedings. I was very nervous about it. I called him up and said: “Did my paper arrive?” He laughed and said: “Yes it arrived, and it is now on its way to the publisher. Very nicely done.” That’s warmth from the older generation to the younger generation. Abe Halkin was one of those who had been born in America, and he was very special in that regard. There were people in 1968 who were annoyed that the senior people didn’t show up. I didn’t feel that. I said, “You know, you have to make allowances for who people are and where they come from. This is all so new to them and so hard to believe.”
Interviewer: How would you describe the differences?
R.C: The American campus was so different from the European campus in every respect. The range of people studying, the nature of the course work, the doctoral work, the position of the professor, the kind of openness and chumminess that we all think has to be part of one’s profile as a professor. In Europe, professors were these regal figures that one approached with fear and trembling. You know, you’d never call Abraham Joshua Heschel and say: “How are you, Abe?” The JTS people, by the way, retained a lot of that European style in their relation to students. Baron lived on the Columbia campus; he was not a warm hail-fellow-well-met person, but he related very respectfully to students. Again, I don’t want to overstate it. [Baron] was not a warm person, but he was respectful and cordial in a well-mannered way. You know, you weren’t a lowly student. You were a scholar in the making. It was very nice. I always felt that that was because of his many years at Columbia, which had a different ambiance.
Interviewer: He was quite young when he got to Columbia, and also…
Interviewer: He didn’t have that European experience. I mean, he was trained in Vienna, but he didn’t have that depth of experience.
R.C: And, you know, after twenty years at Columbia you change. And he did change, but basically the leadership figures in the American Academy were not in a position to really cope with this incredible change that was taking place in American higher education and in Jewish studies in American higher education.
Interviewer: Would you say that part of it has to do with the kind of research that American scholars engage in? I feel this strongly even today—that there are differences between Israeli scholarship, European scholarship, and American scholarship.
R.C: To a certain extent, yes. On the other hand, American-Jewish academic scholarship got so large, I mean there are so many people. Some of them do very Europeanized kinds of things, others go off in directions that were unimaginable. So… To a certain extent yes. But the whole thing – the kinds of discussions that went on in that Brandeis meeting in 1968: If somebody like Baron had shown up – or Lieberman as a better example – they really wouldn’t have understood many of the issues that were floating around in the new group.
On the other hand, the perspective I am giving you is that it was just a wonderful thing for the explosion of Jewish studies that there was a European dominated American Academy before the explosion took place. I felt that way all along and I still feel that way. The extent to which the American Academy has continued to play a role despite the existence of the younger, larger AJS –-I suppose people could debate that. That essentially was the issue that I was kind of tasked with in accepting the presidency of AAJR at the urging of Weiss Halivni. Halivni’s sense was that the changing circumstances necessitated a useful transition figure. You can see the list of people that I turned to. They were all people completely immersed in the American academic ambiance and prepared to do what could be done with the organizational framework that was in existence.
Interviewer: So that leads to the question of how you see the current role of the AAJR, given that the AJS plays such a large role.
R.C: I think there is continued value in the fellowship standards and identification of people who have achieved a certain level in the field—in the same way that I feel this is true for medieval studies and other academic specializations. I think this continues to be valuable. The separate annual AAJR meetings have gone their way; the separate publication—the PAAJR—has gone its way. Nonetheless, I think that the various AAJR activities that have emerged over the last twenty years are useful. They are not earthshaking, but they are useful. What you have essentially is a group of people identified by the group itself as academic leaders trying to figure out how they can help the field in a modest way. That’s good.