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.