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Reassessing Maurice Samuel

Sun, December 17, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Catholic University Room

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


This roundtable reassesses one of the premier Jewish humanists at mid-twentieth century, the Rumanian-born, English-educated, lecturer and author, Maurice Samuel. Samuel’s fame rested on four seemingly unrelated contributions. First, Samuel introduced many American readers to the Yiddish luminaries in accessible renderings such as THE WORLD OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM (1943) and PRINCE OF THE GHETTO (1948). Second, after a brief and unsuccessful Aliyah, Samuel traveled frequently to Mandatory Palestine from 1929-1939, presenting the Zionist cause and the Arab-Jewish conflict in HARVEST IN THE DESERT (1944) and LEVEL SUNLIGHT (1953). Third, Samuel conducted years of radio conversations with Columbia University’s Mark van Doren over the Bible’s literary qualities in an era in which, “the Bible as literature” represented a given component of the Western canon. Four, Samuel was a polemicist, a proponent of Jewish culture against genteel norms, and a defender of Jewish tradition against those who considered it vestigial. Whether aiming at popular culture (THE GENTLEMAN AND THE JEW) or the academy (THE PROFESSOR AND THE FOSSIL) Samuel argued an essential Jewishness antagonistic to gentile culture, which he distinguished sharply from Christianity as preached in Church. Samuel was a public intellectual without being an expert, or even a college graduate. Gil Ribak (Arizona), focuses on Samuel’s anti-antisemitic trilogy: YOU GENTILES, I THE JEW, JEWS ON APPROVAL; Joan Friedman (Wooster) examines the work of Edith Samuel, especially her editorship of children’s monthly, KEEPING POSTED. Judah Bernstein (NYU) discusses Samuel’s early Zionism; Francois Guesnet (University College, London), discusses Samuel’s account of the Beilis Trial; and Alan Levenson (Oklahoma) who addresses Samuel’s uniquely non-rabbinic yet Jewish take on biblical figures. Mark Dunaevsky will serve as moderator. All roundtable panelists will grapple with Samuel’s contributions and address the question implicit in his career: does the Jewish generalist have a role in the twentieth-first century?

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