On the complexity and history of Jewish friendships
“What does it even mean to be friends?” whispered a voice behind me to the student to their left.
“That’s what we’re here to find out, isn’t it?” the other student whispered in a similar tone, reserved, I felt, only for friends. I considered the matter myself and agreed that this was indeed the reason we were all seated at the Conference on the History of Jewish Friendship. The answer, however, would be more difficult. Historically speaking, what qualifies as friendship is based on an immeasurable variety of political, social and cultural pressures. It is of course also a deeply personal matter.
The decision to use the word “friendship” rather than “relationship” in the title of the conference also interested me. In a telephone interview with The Michigan Daily, Deborah Dash Moore, a history professor at the University of Michigan, explained that the choice was made because “friendship suggests a measure of intimacy and shared responsibility. It is a matter of obligation, free will, trust and willingness to share elements of one’s personality. Professor Dash Moore also noted that it was ambitious of the Eisenberg Institute and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the co-organizers of the event, to cover such a long period. The conference brought together 13 scholars whose fields of study ranged from 1650 to 1950 in locations around the world.
Over two full days of in-depth discussions, the researchers brought their research together to explore the question of “what it even means to be friends” through the lens of a “Jewish” cultural model. The answer turned out to be one of limitless possibilities. It has become clear that friendship cannot and should not be pigeonholed, but a Jewish lens can produce rich possibilities for historical understanding.
For example, although their research deals with distinct topics, friendship was a central issue in both Shachar Pinsker’s research, a professor of Judaic studies at UM, on Jews in coffeehouses in the modern world and in award-winning author Ruth Behar’s research on a group of five Jewish couples. who immigrated to New York in the early 1960s after fleeing Cuba. The intimate relationships explored in Pinsker and Behar’s work enabled sociability and exchange, created a sense of community, and were key to the livelihoods of both groups.
The research presented also lent itself to friendships between Jews and non-Jews. As Professor Dash Moore noted, “One of the aims of this conference is to explore multiple models of Jewish friendship and to suggest how complex friendship can be. They can cross boundaries that we suppose to normally exist and which separate Jews from other groups…and yet, in fact, friendships are formed across these lines.
Mostafa Hussein, Judaic Studies LSA College Fellow, sought a new perspective on Jewish-Arab friendships in Mandate Palestine, particularly the intellectual and cultural intersections between Ashkenazi Zionists and Palestinian nationalists. Steven Green, Ph.D. UC Santa Cruz candidate, researched Jewish and non-Jewish farmers on North Dakota farms, suggesting that their friendship was essential to the success of both groups. Professor Dash Moore noted that “It’s harder to make friendships across different borders, but it’s fascinating when they happen and to wonder why they happen”.
Despite this focus, the researchers recognized that an answer could not be found by looking through a single perspective. Rachel B. Gross of San Francisco State University and Sarah Imhoff of Indiana University have discussed this issue in detail with reference to their joint research project on the friendship of Mary Antin and Jessie Sampter. . They made it clear that if there is an interesting way to approach their subject from certain angles, such as queer theory, a queer lens can be distracting and will only tell us so much.
If there is something the Conference on the History of Jewish Friendship has pointed out, it is that there are an infinite number of models of Jewish friendship and friendship in general. The definition of friendship is determined by individual cultural systems and new definitions will be produced in the future. Friendship shapes who someone is and how they act in the world. Tracing its role through history will therefore always be a rewarding feat.
Daily art writer Jaden Katz can be reached at [email protected]