While speaking with Professor Maggie Kirsh over Zoom, it became clear to me that a career as a historian and an educator was tailor-made for her. Kirsh is the visiting assistant professor of Judaic Studies at the College of William and Mary, whose passion for knowledge has led her on globe-trotting adventures. Her love of history, the arts and keeping stories from the past alive leaves each of her students enriched with critical thought about the significance of Jewish identity, remembrance and empathy. While some of the topics we discussed were difficult, Kirsh answered each question with thoughtfulness and eloquence by including her personal experiences into the narrative. The following discussion has been edited for clarity.
Ellie Kurlander: Aside from your long and accomplished career as a historian, scholar and educator, I’d love to know more about your experiences growing up, particularly in a Jewish household. Do you have any funny or memorable stories you’d like to share?
Maggie Kirsh: I’ve always loved school. I was the sort of kid who would play school on the weekends for fun. We had a playhouse in my backyard and my friends would come over to play school. I didn't care if I was the teacher or the student, I just enjoyed being in that environment. I also grew up close to my grandparents who lived in Virginia Beach, and as the only grandchild I was very spoiled. I was particularly close with my grandmother and on my weekend visits she and I would sit out on the back porch and play school together.
As I got older, I became interested in history, particularly my family’s history. My grandfather was a World War II veteran, but he didn't speak a lot about the war. It wasn't until the film “Saving Private Ryan” came out that he started talking about it but, even then, it took a bit of prodding. Aside from playing school, one of my favourite things to do when I went over to their house was pull out old photographs, newspaper clippings and books to see what kind of stories I could jog from them. That was probably my early historian in training. It was interesting to hear the stories that my grandfather told, but as I got older, I was also aware of the stories that he chose not to tell. There was silence around those things and those are questions that continue to intrigue me as a historian and a scholar today.
EK: How did your passion for history evolve as you began your journey into higher education as a William and Mary student?
MK: When I got to William and Mary, I was convinced that I wanted to major in history. It wasn’t until my junior year though that I discovered the religious studies department and I instantly fell in love with the classes. One day I was in office hours with Marc Lee Raphael, who recently retired from the College. I was asking about grad school and where I should apply to get a master’s in Jewish studies and he asked me, “Why don’t you just get your PhD?” That wasn't something that had occurred to me and I was a little taken aback, but the more we talked about it, the more excited I got. There’s a one year master’s programme in Judaic studies at Oxford University so I applied there and right after graduating from William and Mary, I attended the programme. From there, I went on to get a PhD in Modern European Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
EK: I’d love to know more about your time at Oxford. What was life like living in the UK?
MK: It was definitely stressful. Oxford is a very high-stress environment and it was very intensive. You're covering in a one-year period, enough material for two years in the United States, so I did very little other than studying and reading. Professor Raphael is very good at food recommendations and knew the best restaurants to eat at, so I did eat very well. I also made some incredibly close friendships with people from the programme, who I continue to keep in touch with to this day. There’s a lot of bonding that happens when you're in an intensive programme like that.
Overall, it was exhilarating, exhausting and overwhelming. Coming from William and Mary — Oxford is a much more formal atmosphere, which took some adjustment. The programme based in Judaic studies was located in a rural farming community called Yarnton on the outskirts of Oxford. There was a sheep farm across from the dorm where I lived and there was a large picturesque manor house where we would have classes. The atmosphere was amazing. When you go too stressed, you could put on your wellies and go visit the sheep. It was one of my hardest years as a student and not necessarily rewarding in the ways I expected it to be, but I wouldn’t change my time there for anything. I realised, if I could make it through that, then I could do anything.
EK: One thing that I’ve really loved about being here in Williamsburg is that whenever school gets too stressful, I can just go into Colonial Williamsburg and watch the sheep. Something about it just kind of grounds you and all of my stress goes away, so I can definitely see where you're coming from.
In your William and Mary bio, you mention how one of your favourite teaching experiences was when you served as a tour guide for a journey through Jewish Poland. Could you speak more about that experience?
MK: Before moving to Williamsburg, my family and I attended a synagogue called Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. The synagogue was planning a trip to Poland and when I found out about it, I told my rabbi, Danny Zemel, how much I had loved my visits to Poland in the past. This transitioned to him asking, “Well, why don't you come along and be our tour guide?” The trip was incredible and somewhere that I hope to travel to again. The members of the congregation that went ranged from 18 to 70 years old, so it was a very different experience compared to teaching in a classroom. It was rewarding to put together a programme where I hoped the participants would learn more about not only the Holocaust but about the richness of Jewish history in Poland before the Holocaust. I also wanted to show the renewal of Jewish life that has been happening in Poland since then.
When we got the itinerary, the very first stop was a trip to Treblinka, which was one of the death camps and one of the last places we went to was Auschwitz Birkenau. There’s this heavy emphasis on Holocaust suffering, and as a Holocaust historian that’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. But that’s not the whole story, and I think it does a great disservice to European Jewish history to focus solely on the Holocaust without also explaining what that world was like before the Holocaust.
EK: How did that experience in Poland help you develop your teaching style when you began teaching at the university level?
MK: One of the things I did for that tour group was assign lots of suggested reading. Every day of the trip, I assigned a reading associated with the site we visited. We would look at poetry that was written on a certain street in the Warsaw ghetto while standing on that street. I think that interdisciplinary nature is something that I carry over into my classes here at William and Mary. I’m trained as a historian, but I always include poetry, music and short stories into my classes as well. It’s incredibly powerful to be at those places and if I can't take my students there in person, then you have to get more creative about conveying that landscape in the classroom.
When I teach my class about the Holocaust, one of the assignments that I’ve given students in place of a final exam is to pick a site that’s connected to Holocaust history and to get to know it. I ask them to think about what that place was like before the Holocaust touched it. What kind of Jewish communities lived there before? What was their relationship like with non-Jews in the region? What happened during the Holocaust in that spot? What does it look like today, and how can we reconcile what happened in the past with the landscape that exists today? And what kinds of stories are being told in those places through tour groups, memorials or museums. Is that story getting told, and if so, who is telling it? What versions of that story are getting silenced? So those are questions I continue to think about, and I think are really relatable to students attending William and Mary. Some of those stories get told and some don’t.
EK: Your point about which stories get shared is a good segue into speaking more about Holocaust education as a whole. During a recent nation-wide survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, it was discovered that more than one in 10 participants surveyed did not recall ever having heard the word "Holocaust” before and among those surveyed, Gen Z and Millennials had the least amount of knowledge. As a member of Gen Z who has grown up in a Jewish household, this surprised me but also concerned me. What do you believe the long-term impact of decreasing Holocaust knowledge will be?
MK: It’s hard to say. It certainly is distressing, and it’s somewhat surprising for educators because we did have this intense period in the 1990s, for example, when the Holocaust Museum was built in Washington, D.C. We also had films like “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful” that were connecting movie-going audiences with Holocaust history. There was research done that even talked about “Holocaust fatigue” because we may be over-exposing students to Holocaust education. One of my mentors from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Simone Schweber, has published extensively about Holocaust education. So, I don’t think it’s from lack of trying.
I don’t know what the long-term implications of that will be. One of the things that I caution my students against particularly in the Holocaust courses that I teach, is that there’s this thinking that we hope to be true, that if you study the Holocaust, and you keep that memory alive, then it won’t happen again. You hear the chant “never again” a lot and we teach the past to the present so that this won’t occur again, but it’s not that simple. We do a disservice to ourselves if we have that approach.
The same year that the Holocaust museum opened its doors, we had a genocide raging in Rwanda. That part of history hasn't been overcome. I think that it’s a little disheartening and goes against this happy narrative of “if only we can teach people about the past then it won’t happen in the future” but the reality is much more complicated. Just knowing about the Holocaust isn’t enough, and that statistic that you presented, shows that we don’t even have the basic history. Now that someone knows about that history of genocide, the question then becomes, “So what are you going to do? How is it going to change how you move about in this world?” It does have this domino effect, once we learn about this genocide that happened in the 1940s. I believe it makes a person more sensitive and aware of other injustices and hopefully encourages them to become more empathetic and involved citizens.
EK: Going off that point you made about Holocaust education potentially leading to higher rates of empathy, how do you think the decreasing amount of Holocaust knowledge today is contributing to rising rates of anti-Semitism throughout the world?
MK: Some scholars have called it “the longest hatred.” Anti-Jewish thought is something that has been around for an incredibly long time. It changes its nature from generation to generation, so it doesn't always sound the same, but it is the same. For example, if you look at European Jewish history, it’s not until the 19th century that we see the rise in the word anti-Semitism. There's an emphasis on the hatred of Jews as members of a so-called “race” instead of hatred of Jews as members of a religion. During the 20th century, Jews are not identifying themselves as members of a race, but anti-Semites are.
So, there’s this hyper-intensive focus on Jews as a race from the 19th century and into the 20th century. You don’t necessarily hear that racial language used so bluntly anymore but a lot of those stereotypes continue to persist today. It’s largely based on a lack of education and knowing about Judaism and Jewish identity. Whenever we’re living in an unstable time, it’s easy to play on people’s fears, and to use that fear as a point of connection. I believe that’s what we’re seeing now. The pattern is not new and it’s an incredibly difficult pattern to break. When I was a kid in elementary school and we were learning about history, there was this sense that it’s always getting better, that in every generation things are improving, and at some point, that narrative gets broken and you realise that there is a lot that we have not overcome yet.
EK: I’m glad that you brought up this tactic of fear that many hate groups use to disenfranchise Jewish people because that hits very close to home, particularly in Virginia. During the 2017 "Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, white supremacists were seen chanting “Jews will not replace us” among other anti-Semitic rhetoric. What was your reaction to reading about, and watching footage of the protests? Are we seeing an increased emboldening of hate groups, particularly against Jews?
MK: We’re certainly seeing these white-supremacist groups being increasingly emboldened in their rhetoric. Again, this rhetoric and this thought has always existed, so it’s not that this is new, but I think it’s becoming more socially accepted in a lot of circles to say things that in previous generations had not been displayed as blatantly. Part of this is thanks to the internet and social media. It’s easier to get that message out to bigger groups of people. It doesn't seem like they're so much on the margins anymore and it seems to be moving more mainstream. When I heard those things, it was obviously horrifying to be hearing them so close to home. I can only speak from my experience, but it’s been easier in the past as an American Jew to not feel as much of the hatred. In Europe for example, when I go into a synagogue there are armed security guards. Your bags are going to get x-rayed and searched. That’s not been part of my experience where I’ve worshipped and where I’ve lived in the United States. I think it [Charlottesville] was a rude awakening that the implications of that rhetoric are not as far away as we have been lulled into believing.
A few years ago, I was in Scotland for a conference and afterwards my mom and I went to attend a synagogue service for Shabbat. I found what time services were from the internet, so we took a cab out there, but they were alarmed when we knocked on the door. The reason it had been so hard to find service times was because they don't widely advertise that information. To attend services, you are supposed to RSVP in advance with your ID, so they can confirm who you are before you worship with them. That was something that hadn't been part of my American Jewish experience. Anti-Semitism has always existed in America, but it’s been a very different relationship between Jews and the state in the US compared to Europe. It’s unsettling, but not surprising.
EK: Like you mentioned, it was definitely an awakening where I thought to myself “wow, this really hasn't gone away as much as we would have hoped and expected.” I know you spoke a lot about this idea of “Holocaust fatigue” within classrooms but do you believe that contemporary anti-Semitism is getting enough acknowledgement in the mainstream media and within the activist community?
MK: I do think that the number of anti-Semitic incidents is certainly up in our country and I don't necessarily believe that all of those events are getting a lot of coverage. It takes a bit of digging, but you can find lots of examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. The examples are there, but it’s not always going to land on the front page. We’re also living in a very turbulent time in our country and there’s a lot of other things that are happening now that are also competing for these headlines. It’s probably not getting as much coverage as you would think or expect, but I think given our country’s emphasis right now on Black Lives Matter it’s understandable that the stories have shifted in terms of what we’re talking about. We still hear about these instances of anti-Semitism, but it’s very quiet and very subtle some of the time.
EK: I’m sure you’ll have an interesting perspective on this topic as an educator on a college campus, but I would love to talk about anti-Semitism within a collegiate environment as well. Obviously, there’s a strong activist community on college campuses and American Jewish students — regardless of their opinions on Zionism — have been targeted and harassed on campuses for presenting as outwardly Jewish and have been tasked to essentially choose a position. How might students open up a healthy dialogue surrounding this topic in such a way that does not cross into anti-Semetic rhetoric?
MK: It’s a very loaded topic, and I think that debate is most successful when happening in small-scale circles where there’s this relationship of trust and this willingness to listen. It’s hard because people have incredibly strong feelings about this either way. On the other hand, I feel there is a lot of misunderstanding and it's very easy to sort people on to one side or the other, but there’s also a lot of grey area in-between as well. You can be very supportive of the idea that a Jewish homeland should exist and call yourself a Zionist in that regard, and in the same breath, you can also be incredibly critical of the state of Israel. The best way that I've personally been engaged in with this topic has occurred in a very personal and small-scale group. When people are willingly engaged and are active listeners while also allowing their own voice and perspective to be heard, I believe that’s when we can best achieve a common ground.
EK: I think you are spot on with your response and how we should approach these difficult conversations. I thought it was important to include that question for potential readers who are very involved in the activist community on campus and who do want to open up healthy lines of dialogue.
MK: When you go and sit down with someone over coffee, you begin to look beyond the ideology and the label you've developed for that person by getting to know their perspective as an individual. I have a friend who’s a rabbi in Washington, DC and I remember her telling me about this conference that she went to. There were going to be difficult topics that were discussed and everybody’s name badge around the table had their name and then the phrase “B’Tzelem Elohim” which means, “In the Image of God.” This served as a reminder that as you come to the table, you must maintain the idea that there is holiness in all people. If you can keep that in mind as you're talking with someone with whom you might disagree with, it helps passions such as hatred not overtake you. That’s a principle that hopefully anyone can try to apply even if they’re not religious. There is this inherent worth in every human being that you encounter. It’s important to acknowledge that, particularly if you're engaged in these difficult conversations.
EK: Thank you so much for that perspective. I think engaging in dialogue, as we are now, is the key to understanding the views of others in a healthy and productive manner. I think we’ll move on now to the tail end of this discussion. What’s the main message you want readers to take away from this article?
MK: In terms of being a Judaic studies professor in 2020, I think one of the cool things about any religious or thought system, particularly one as old as Judaism is that there’s nothing new under the sun — everything has happened before. You can either see that as devastating and depressing or you can see it as a way to build up hope, and I think it helps to do the latter. What can we learn from other people who have dealt with great adversity before? How have they coped and what did their resistance look like? Where did they get their resilience from? In what ways will we be able to emulate some of that and learn from those lessons of the past? In a lot of ways, it is a dark and upsetting time in our nation’s history. The injustice has always been there, but it’s been incredibly visible and palpable these days. It’s easy to be overcome with despair or even become numb since there’s so much hurt in the world, but obviously those are incredibly dangerous responses.
There’s a lot in Jewish thought that teaches about persistence and resilience. There's a legend that over a prayer house in the Warsaw ghetto, there was a slogan that said, “Jews don't despair.” That doesn't mean that you can’t be overwhelmed sometimes, but then the next day you’ve got to get up and do something about it. One of the best ways to do that is to get out and connect with the community. I believe that's one of the fundamental values of Judaism. At Mount Sinai when the Israelites were about to make this covenant with God, and in the Torah, the Israelites answered as one. There’s a lot of commentary related to this story from Exodus. One of the teachings that comes from it is that you can't take on a project that massive unless you're all united as a community. There are certain prayers that you can’t say unless you have a minimum number of people. When you're mourning, there are traditions that force you to get out into your community and be surrounded by people because when you are grieving is what your soul needs. Those truths from the past are helpful today.
That’s what's getting me through these days, by finding ways to connect with the community even though it’s incredibly difficult with social distancing. But we’ve also done really difficult things before and we’ve found ways to work through that situation. And we’ll do it because we don't have any other choice and we have to keep moving forward.
EK: To bring the conversation back full circle, and speaking again about your career as a historian and an educator, do you have any final pieces of advice for students at the College who wish to pursue a career in your same field?
MK: Academia is tough. The job market right now is difficult and it’s probably not going to get better any time soon. I don't say that to be all doom and gloom, but I would encourage students to be flexible. If you're going to pursue a master’s or PhD, then you’ve got to really love that material and be willing to give a significant number of years to that programme. You should also know that at the end of those few years, you may not land the kind of employment that you are hoping for, but that doesn't mean that it’s not a worthwhile undertaking. You just have to be flexible about what it is you might want to do with a PhD in religious studies. You shouldn't see those years as lost years if your job doesn't end up being what you hoped it would be. The years that I was in grad school, I created amazing relationships with people from all over the world. Many of my closest friends don't live on the same continent as me and they have enriched my life in immeasurable ways. The languages that I have been able to learn, the conferences that I have gone to and this constant exchange of ideas makes the struggle worthwhile. If you go into this process with specific expectations, you have to learn how to adapt and create your own path. So, if it’s something you want to do, you have to make sure that you enjoy the journey along the way, even if the end result is not always how we might picture it being.
EK: I think that's the fun part of life, just going through the journey of realising what you're passionate about and how your contributions can fit into greater society. It’s exciting. No one’s journey is linear, and there’s never a clear-cut answer or end-result.
MK: Right. There never is and it can be maddening and frustrating, but also kind of liberating. You get to understand what that certain degree means to you and what kinds of things you want to do with it. The relationships you build, the languages you learn and the critical thinking skills you develop are all invaluable. It’s exciting to think about the many different ways you can use those skills to build a life for yourself at the end of the day.