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26 June 2008

First OSU Ph.D. in Yiddish studies a trailblazer in field

First OSU Ph.D. in Yiddish studies a trailblazer in field
Jennifer Hambrick :: The New Standard :: Other Articles by this author
Posted: Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Colleen McCallum-BonarColleen McCallum-Bonar may be the first African-American ever to receive a Ph.D. in Yiddish literature when she marches in Ohio State University’s spring commencement this month. She believes she is the only African-American scholar currently active in Yiddish literature studies.

“I can count on one hand the other African-Americans doing Yiddish: none,” McCallum-Bonar said. “Maybe there are some others out there and maybe we just haven’t crossed paths, but I don’t know any.”

McCallum-Bonar, 41, is the first student to complete a Ph.D. in Yiddish and Ashkenazic studies in OSU’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures.

Her doctoral dissertation, “Black Ashkenaz and the Almost Promised Land: Yiddish Literature and the Harlem Renaissance,” compares the Yiddish-language poetry of Jewish immigrants to America and the poetry of African-American writers between 1915 and 1935.

“I looked at the different kinds of representations of African-Americans in Yiddish poetry, but also at what Harlem Renaissance authors were writing about Jews during the same time period,” McCallum-Bonar said.

Emily Budick, professor of American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of “Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation,” says McCallum-Bonar’s field of specialization is unique.

“I don’t know of anybody who’s talked about the connection of Yiddish literature and African-American literature,” Budick said. “American Jewish literature and African-American literature have been talked about together, but in the tradition of American Jewish writing, it’s been only recently that people have included Yiddish literature in the category of American Jewish writing.”

Many of the Yiddish language writings McCallum-Bonar researched expressed how European immigrants processed new experiences in a new land.

“They’re writing about their experiences in America, and that American experience includes African-Americans,” McCallum-Bonar said. “It makes sense that they would write about African-Americans because that would be part of their new experience in the New World.”
Yiddish-language and black writings McCullum is comparing emerged against the backdrop of early 20th-century Harlem, a place far more racially-diverse than many imagine Harlem to be today. According to the Jewish Communal Register, a census of the time, Harlem was home to 178,000 Jews in the 1920s. The Register calculated that the community to contained the third largest Jewish population in the world.

Some of the themes that recur in the Yiddish-language writings of authors of the period, such as Jacob Glatstein and Leivick Halpern, include the idea that African-Americans and Jews in America have a mutual understanding of their histories of oppression at the hands of a white majority.

“Authors say that blacks are our brothers in arms essentially, that we have this kind of shared experience in terms of being in the U.S., being poor in the U.S., being minorities in the U.S. and being mistreated in the U.S.,” McCallum-Bonar said.

Side-by-side black and Jewish writers in Harlem also grappled with how to live in a predominantly white society that viewed their minority group with suspicion. African-Americans, including Marcus Garvey, looked to Jews in America for a model to establish a self-sufficient black community, she said. At the same time, Jews saw how American-born blacks were treated by their white countrymen, and struggled to come to terms with the role of race in American life.

Race issues have, of course, by no means been eliminated from American culture. Although studying certain ethnic groups in America may shed light on their histories, Budick also warns that it runs the risk of further fragmenting American society.

“America consists of communities,” Budick said. “What the communities share and what they have to take on as an obligation is that they’re American communities. In the end, the bid for power that goes along with ethnic identification destroys the possibility of American identity, at a cost to the United States. I think the dominance of something called American culture on all of these communities is something that shouldn’t be dismissed as insignificant.”

McCallum-Bonar has felt all too plainly the racial divide that exists even today between the black and Jewish worlds. “You know the saying ‘Siz schwer tzu zein ein Yid?’—It’s difficult to be a Jew? It’s difficult to be a black woman studying Yiddish. There are people I’ve come across who look at me with suspicion, or will have absolutely nothing to do with me,” McCallum-Bonar said.

Though she says OSU’s Germanic Languages and Literatures department and Melton Center for Jewish Studies have given her “nothing but support,” McCallum-Bonar says she is often excluded from informal gatherings of Yiddishists at academic conferences and programs beyond Ohio State’s campus.

She says she first realized her “outsider” status while attending the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies in Oxford, England, one summer while completing her graduate work at Ohio State. A large group had been invited to have dinner, but she and other non-Jewish students had been excluded.

Usually, she says, her colleagues include her at events. But when they don’t, McCallum-Bonar suspects difficulties in negotiating cultural differences are to blame.

“Not being Jewish, and then being black on top of that, maybe it is too much of an oddity,” McCallum-Bonar said.

As an undergraduate at the University of California-Riverside, she studied German and Russian and became interested in Yiddish and Austrian dialect. McCallum-Bonar met Neil Jacobs, a Yiddish linguist at Ohio State, at a conference and came to Ohio State initially to work on Yiddish linguistics. She learned to read Yiddish at the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies the summer before starting her graduate work at OSU, where she fell in love with Yiddish language and literature poetry courses.

“I enjoy what I do, and I think that Yiddish literature is interesting,” McCallum-Bonar said.”If I didn’t enjoy it, I’d be gone because it hasn’t been the friendliest place.”

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