Award: Action / $10,173
Purpose: To support a series of public community events, a film discussion and virtual book clubs, in conjunction with a symposium, “Black Americans, Jewish Americans: Historical Intersections, Collisions, and Passings.”
Nancy Sinkoff has a “bit of a fixation” with Philip Roth. The late, great Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s incredible art, New Jersey roots, Jewishness, and politics made him a natural subject of study for Sinkoff, a professor of Jewish studies and history at Rutgers University and academic director of its Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
It was one of his classic works, published nearly a quarter-century ago, that sparked the idea for a slate of programming in 2024 that is deeply relevant to today’s society.
“Shortly after reading Roth’s brilliant novel The Human Stain, I reached out to Distinguished Professor Cheryl Wall (now deceased), who I knew was supervising a dissertation on racial passing narratives in the English department at Rutgers,” Sinkoff said. “It struck me then, and now, that many Black Americans and Jewish Americans have twisted themselves into pretzels to ‘pass’’ or ‘assimilate’ in order to comport with the physical, often racialized, expectations of white, Christian society.”
Wall quickly connected her to then-doctoral student Donavan Ramon, who had recently written an article comparing The Human Stain and Nella Larsen’s Passing. The idea to do programming on racial passing soon started to percolate.
After the murder of George Floyd, the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the rampage of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, they felt a renewed urgency to publicly explore the shared history of discrimination against Black and Jewish Americans.
Sinkoff and Ramon, now an assistant professor of African-American and English literature at University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville and the fall 2023 Bildner Scholar at Rutgers, sought to organize an interdisciplinary symposium that would engage a broad variety of disciplines (literature, history, philosophy) and not sugarcoat the challenges of Black-Jewish relations.
“We talked a lot, wrote up various drafts of programming to engage both the academic community at Rutgers and the public, and ultimately settled on a topic, ‘Black Americans, Jewish Americans: Historical Intersections, Collisions, and Passings.’”
The symposium will gather a diverse group of scholars, including an expert on Roth, plus a substantial slate of public programming, supported by an NJCH action grant.
Public programming will include a moderated discussion of the films Gentleman’s Agreement and Passing on March 4, 2024. Both films are adaptations of novels about racial and ethnic passing.
In addition, a virtual book club will be held with NJCH support. The first session on June 5, 2024, will focus on Roth’s The Human Stain. The second session on June 26, 2024, will focus on Larsen’s Passing.
“We know that the university does its best work when it makes the creativity and innovation of its scholars accessible to a wider public than the students enrolled in our classes,” Sinkoff said. “We also know that the public is saturated with social media, sound bites, and headlines that are often histrionic, in short, a lot of noise, especially about issues surrounding race, antisemitism, and anti-black racism. We feel strongly that making the work of our symposium available to the public would be a social good.”