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New Perspectives, Independent Research Are Key to Doyle Seminar Experience, Says Georgetown Student

By: Michael Byrns

December 15, 2021

Students used gender as a prism for investigating Jewish cultural formation and tradition in late antiquity and the modern era as a part of Judaism and Gender, a Doyle Seminar taught by Julia Watts Belser in fall 2020.

Doyle Seminars are small, upper-level classes that foster dialogue on diversity and difference through student research and co-curricular learning. The seminars are sponsored by the Doyle Engaging Difference Program at Georgetown University. 

“I enjoyed writing the research paper for this class because it encouraged interdisciplinary thinking,” says Sarah Kurzweil (C’21, G’22). “It allowed me to think about this theology class in the context of my art history major.”

Centering Gender

The Doyle Seminar centered gender as a lens for examining power, difference, and the formation of identity in Jewish culture.

“When you examine Jewish tradition through a gendered lens, you see how thoroughly traditional notions of Jewish learning and practice place masculinity at the center,” explains Belser, associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown. “In this course, we are looking for ways this androcentricity has been contested and how women and trans and queer folk have articulated their own forms of Jewishness.”

Throughout the semester, students discussed the intersections of gender, identity, and tradition in Judaism. Specific units in the course focused on topics ranging from disability and trans Jewish theologies to contemporary feminist midrash.

“Classical Jewish midrash is a form of biblical commentary and storytelling that adapts and embellishes biblical texts to respond to a changing culture,” says Belser, who also serves as a senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. “In a similar way, contemporary feminist midrash takes a tradition that has been often deeply androcentric and adapts it, reimagines it, and refashions it in feminist and queer ways.” 

Engaged Scholarship

Belser integrated guest scholars into the structure of her Judaism and Gender course. Rather than asking the guest scholars to lecture, Belser facilitated active dialogue between the visiting scholar and the students.

“It made the readings come to life, because you could have a direct interaction with the author,” says Kurzweil. “If you had any questions, they could guide you through their argument in the room.”

Interacting with guest scholars allowed students to engage in thought-provoking discussions on identity and difference. One such discussion came when trans theologian Joy Ladin joined the class to talk about her book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from A Transgender Perspective

“During an intellectually compelling and deeply personal discussion, Ladin spoke about what it means for her to claim a place within Jewish tradition for trans experience, and to do so textually, by using the story of Jonah as a model for thinking about trans identity,” explained Belser.

Refining Perspectives

For her final research paper, Kurzweil wrote about Chloe Wise’s Bread Bags series—a collection of sculptures where designer bags take the form of various kinds of bread.

“When I looked at these sculptures, they very clearly struck me as having Jewish elements and invoking the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess,” explained Kurzweil. “The absence of commentary on these works, especially invoking this stereotype, really interested me.” 

After reading her paper, Belser encouraged Kurzweil to publish her work, placing her in contact with Dr. Michal Raucher, an editor of the peer-reviewed Feminist Studies in Religion (FSR) blog and one of the class guests.

“Dr. Raucher helped me understand the general format and structure of the blogs on the FSR website, and how to write something that is scholarly and public-facing,” says Kurzweil. “The biggest difference was finding the hook of the research paper for the general public.”

Over several weeks, Kurzweil received anonymous feedback from two reviewers and worked with another editor to polish her writing. In April 2021, the FSR blog published her essay, “Negotiating Jewish Female Identity in Chloe Wise’s Bread Bags Series.”

A Second Life for the Article

While most undergraduate essays are never publicly circulated, Kurzweil was able to experience public engagement with her writing.

“It was exciting to hear the conversations that it sparked,” says Kurzweil. “It was fun to share it with my family in particular. My dad’s family is Jewish, and the women on his side of his family really appreciated it.”

Now continuing her education as a graduate student in art history, Kurzweil recognizes how the Doyle Seminar presented her with a unique opportunity: 

“For someone now in graduate school, it was an invaluable experience to see how the editing process works.”