Interviewing the Students of the Jewish Studies Department

Hey everyone. Last year Ian Becker held a few interviews with students in the Jewish Studies department asking them about their time there.  He compiled them all together and the result is great, so we’re finally posting them here for everyone to enjoy.

Thanks again to all the participants.


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.

Photo by Tim Boxer,

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.


Interview with Jascha Nemtsov

Jascha Nemtsov is a world-renowned pianist and scholar of European Jewish and Russian composers from the inter-war period. Through his performances in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, on more than 26 CDs, and in many academic works, Jascha has brought the forgotten works of these persecuted composers to the world’s attention. Tonight, he will present “In the Exile: A Concert of Jewish Music,” in McGill’s Redpath Hall. He spoke with me before the performance about why these composers are of particular historical and musical significance, and what drew his interest to them in the first place.


Interview with Dr. Yuval Sinai

On September 19th, Dr. Yuval Sinai – director of the Centre for Practical Application of Jewish Law in Israel – delivered a lecture on the history of pluralism in the Jewish legal tradition and the contemporary role of Jewish law in a multicultural society. After the lecture, sponsored by the Department of Jewish Studies and hosted by the Faculty of Law, Dr. Sinai spoke with Jewish Studies student Ricky Kreitner about the occasional tensions between Jewish law and secular law, and offered his own opinions as to how reconciliation of the two can best be achieved.

You showed the many examples in the Jewish canon of legal pluralism. But would you consider those exceptions or are they indicative of the general character of the Jewish legal tradition?

Legal pluralism is one of the central features of Jewish law. I think I illustrated it very interestingly by the way that enterprises of codification did not exist, because the Jewish people didn’t want one clear-cut situation. The Shulchan Aruch [the most authoritative Jewish legal code, written in Israel in 1563] has all different opinions, Ashkenazi and Sephardic opinions, and it’s flexible. You can find any opinion to reflect your tradition, and only because of its flexibility, because of its legal pluralism and multicultural character. This is why it was accepted.

You mentioned some 19th century Orthodox rabbis who were reluctant to incorporate Jewish law into state law because they were so intent on pluralism, and they thought that crystallizing the law in such a way would betray that commitment. Is there any continuation of that tradition today within the Orthodox community?

This is a fascinating question, and maybe I could give another lecture about that. The Haredic world – the ultra-Orthodox world – they’re more in favor of the decentralized model for incorporating Jewish law into Israel law. They traditionally want to live their lives the way they live in their community, and they’re not concerned about the state of Israel anyway – they look at that as a secular state, not a religious state. On the other hand, the religious Zionist Orthodox usually look at the institutes of Jewish law, and the great rabbis of the religious Orthodox in Israel, they look at the state and see a religious dimension for the state of Israel, and therefore it’s important that the institutions reflect Jewish law.


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