Interview with Professor Gershon Hundert
The Royal Society, Canada’s most prestigious academic organization, recently voted to invite three Jewish Studies scholars, including one from McGill, to join its ranks. Professor Gershon Hundert, who teaches history and Jewish studies at McGill, will be inducted into the society this Saturday in Ottawa. Professor Hundert is the Leonor Segal Professor of Jewish Studes and the editor-in-chief of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. He spoke with me about his career, the life of Jewish studies in Canada, and how McGill has changed.
RK: How did you react when you first found out about the Royal Society asking you to be a member?
GH: I was pleased. What’s especially moving about this honour is that you’re nominated by your colleagues, in the History and Jewish Studies departments here at McGill, who put my name forward. That’s the best kind of recognition.
RK: More generally, what does this achievement signal for Jewish Studies as an academic discipline?
GH: Three people in Jewish Studies across Canada were nominated to the Society this year. As far as I know it’s the first time anyone in the field of Jewish Studies has become a member of the Royal Society. So it marks some kind of final maturation, this recognition by the most august established academic body in the country.
RK: When did you join the department, and what major changes in Jewish Studies at McGill have you noticed since then?
GH: Jewish Studies at McGill was founded in 1968, and I joined in 1975. First, it’s much bigger now. We have many more people than we had back in the ’70s. I think there’s a more expansive understanding of what Jewish Studies is about. We were very text-centred at the beginning—we had the sense that Jewish Studies was only about Jewish languages and literature. Nowadays, we give much more attention to other areas of Jewish culture, to an understanding of culture itself as broader than just text.
RK: What do you consider your most significant contribution to the study of Polish Jewry?
GH: I can’t take credit alone for this, but I think that I’ve contributed in a meaningful way to studying Jews in the context of Polish society with all of its variety and dimensions. I published an article in the early ’80s comparing Jews and Scots in Poland, which continues to be cited and had a particular impact. Then there’s a chapter in the first monograph I published titled “Jews and Other Poles,” that people refer to a lot. So I’ve done the comparative perspective in a sense of not studying Jews in isolation, but in the context of broader society. You learn that people are not defined exclusively by the group identity, they’re different. And Jews betray all the varieties that human beings are capable of in their behaviours and in their beliefs and in their ideas.
RK: Despite all the progress that you and your colleagues have made, what’s still missing in our understanding of East European Jewry?
GH: The piece that’s missing in my own work, and that is only starting to happen now, is…the core of Jewish culture and civilization is the study of the Talmud, what happens in the Yeshiva. We don’t have a history of the study of the Talmud. People who study the Talmud don’t tend to think historically. And there was a significant set of changes between, say, the 16th and the 20th centuries in the way the Talmud was studied. And if you’re studying the Jewish culture and Jewish experience, that has to be part of the story. And it’s missing. For the YIVO Encyclopedia, I commissioned an article from a scholar about the history of Talmud study, and as far as I know it’s the only thing available, at least in English, that takes an overview of this subject.
RK: How has McGill as a university changed in your time on campus?
GH: When I first came the James Building had very few people there, mostly academics serving five- or ten-year terms and then returning to their departmental homes. I think there were two vice-principals and a principal, there was a dean and a secretary, not a dean and I don’t know how many associate deans and assistant deans there are now. So the administration has multiplied beyond belief in the 30-something years.
I think that McGill is part of all of the trends that are happening on a continent-wide basis, or even more broadly. This bureaucratization of the university is not peculiar to McGill, it’s happening everywhere. Breaking down of the boundaries between disciplines or between departments—there’s a tremendous emphasis on inter-disciplinarity. Pretty dramatic changes, but I don’t think any of them are peculiar to McGill.
RK: How have McGill students changed?
GH: Probably since the time of Abraham, people have been saying that in the old days students wrote better, they read more, were more intellectually curious. There’s a kind of romanticization of whatever the previous generation did. I’ve never really believed that. I continue to encounter extraordinary people among the students, and I don’t think there’s that much difference.
RK: What has it been like to watch students you taught go on to have careers as scholars in Jewish Studies?
GH: I always say my most my important publications are Daniel, Rachel, and Rena—my children. [Daniel is better known as Leibish, and is the Rabbi at the Ghetto Shul on Park Avenue.] In a certain way, your students are like children, in the sense that you take great satisfaction when they go on to great things. And I’ve had quite a number of people who have made a mark or are beginning to make a mark in the field of Jewish Studies. Glenn Dynner is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College; Jeff Veidlinger is a professor at Indiana; Laura Rabinowitz is finishing a dissertation at NYU; and there are others.
RK: If you could have one super-power, what would it be?
GH: One super-power? Well, I suppose I’d like to be able to read faster.