Bringing history to life for decades
Prof. Jonathan Sarna was named a University Professor
“American Jewish history for me was not a job, it was a career. It defined me,” said Professor Jonathan Sarna (NEJS) who, after decades of writing, publishing and teaching, has been named a University Professor.
Joining a “very select group” of faculty, including Prof. Anita Hill (Heller), Sarna is currently spending the year researching future projects and pondering new courses while abroad in Israel and South Africa.
“One of the nice things of being a University Professor is the opportunity to introduce some new courses without going through a lot of bureaucracy, and now I might take advantage of [that]. I’ve certainly been thinking about the possibility over the next few years of teaching some new things,” said Professor Sarna in an interview with the Justice.
One new course might explore the little-known Soviet Jewry movement of the 21st century, an especially appropriate topic in light of Brandeis’ focus on social justice.
“I consider it really the most successful human rights movement of the post-World War II era. And I think it would be interesting to really look at how this happened. How did people around the world mobilize to save the persecuted community and eventually succeed in bringing out such a large number of Jews, and really anyone who wanted to leave, and looking at the fabulous impact,” said Sarna.
Sarna explained, “More than two million jews [emigrated] from the Soviet Union to Israel, to the United States, to other countries and there’s nearly no literature to teach that subject.”
Such a course, which Sarna would teach as a seminar, would likely be the first ever given on the topic and have relevance beyond the classroom: Sarna himself actually participated in the movement, as did many at Brandeis. Sarna described Brandeis as the “center” of the movement.
“We served as the administrative center of the Soviet Jewry movement. It was very much a student movement and Brandeis made space aside, I think it was actually the basement of the chapel, where recent graduates worked really full time to try and free Soviet Jews.”
Sarna is publishing an article within the next month on his experiences many years ago visiting the Soviet Jews, dubbed Refuseniks, who were not allowed out of the USSR. He was “able to bring out of the Soviet Union the tape of a secret trial which was the trial of a Jew who had been secretly taped who’d wanted to come to the West,” and continued afterwards to participate in “demonstrations and also wrote letters to several Refuseniks,” as well as bringing a specific Refusenik out of the USSR.
The impacts of the movement have had far-reaching effects for many, on campus and off.
“We’ve had quite a number of Russian speaking Jews on our campus, and I’ve been struck by the fact that though those students are unique here, they are the beneficiaries of the Soviet Jewry movement,” said Sarna, “Russian-speaking Jews could live where they wanted and be free to go into any field they wanted and get any education they wanted. They did everything ... It’s really a fabulous story.”
More than a story, the Soviet Jewry movement has far-reaching implications for future social justice movements. “The Soviet Jewry movement, to me, serves as a reminder of what mass action can accomplish, how a small minority can nevertheless put pressure on a great empire — the Soviet Union — and make life sufficiently uncomfortable for that empire so that they decide to change their policy,” said Sarna.
A seminar would also allow students to divulge their own personal stories, and Sarna hopes that students or others in the community will come forth with their experiences so that they can be written down for posterity.
Another future course might explore the relationship American Jews have with capitalism. “I think it would be a fabulous way of connecting Jewish studies and an interest in business,” said Sarna, adding that some of his own students have made relevant contributions to the field.
Currently on his year-long sabbatical, Sarna has already discovered fodder that he will use for the current courses he teaches. He gave talks in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa and met members of the Jewish community there as he learned about recent South African history. “Inevitably, [that will] be part of my teaching. I teach a course on world Jewry since World War II, and now I will be able to add in more about South Africa,” he said. The role of Jews in the Apartheid was “complicated,” he added, and he said that it is important for Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program students in particular to understand the nuances of the situation.
After his visit in South Africa, Sarna is at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies for the remainder of his sabbatical, where he is studying a 19th century Jewish woman poet and writer, Cora Wilburn.
Many scholars are interested in “one or another aspect of women and gender in Jewish history,” and Sarna has already collected thousands of pages on Wilburn, “much more than anyone knew existed.”
That’s been possible, said Sarna, through new technology that has allowed many old sources to be digitized.
Technology has had a democratizing and equalizing effect on historical research, and Sarna doesn’t think his current book would have been possible without it.
Whereas uncovering information on a little-known figure “would have been impossible just a few years ago,” Sarna said that “second and third-tie br 19th century magazines and newspapers have begun to be digitized and put online, and therefore, it’s possible to discover things that would have been extremely difficult to discover in an earlier day. ... We were able to search digitally for material and find it much more quickly. So I think the point is that new technology is allowing historians to pursue projects that would have been much more difficult, maybe impossible, in an earlier day. [It’s] very exciting, happened in my own lifetime.”
On the subject of his historical research, Sarna said that Cora Wilburn “was deeply aware of her minority status.” His work will commemorate a figure whose output within her own lifetime was soon forgotten.
Sarna said that “Men who wrote as much as Cora Wilburn did are often remembered; their books are known, their names have been found,” whereas “most women are not remembered.”
Ultimately, Sarna said that he has “been very blessed to be able to spend a career doing things that I’m excited about and I love.” He added, “students today should find out what they are passionate about, what they’d love to spend their career doing.
That, to me, is infinitely more important than just asking yourself if I will be able to make a great living in this, or, will I make my parents or grandparents happy. Speak with a passion, and that’ll be better.” Indeed, Sarna’s own life and work are testament to this advice.