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The Pathologies of Jewish Literature

Sun, December 17, 12:45 to 2:15pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Marquis Salon 14

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Recent work in the Medical Humanities has sought to track the cultural manifestation of illness within a variety of literary forms. Of particular interest has been the way authors working in different languages and contexts have looked to disease and the ailing body as allegorical topoi. Many of these authors have also sought to distill the symptoms of disease into a creative, literary form. The papers in this panel contribute to these interdisciplinary discussions by turning their attention to three Jewish writers—two Hebrew, one Yiddish—who engage the metaphorics of illness in work situated at the intersection of art and biology.

In her paper, Roni Henig addresses the pathological dimensions of the project of national and linguistic revival. Through a reading of H.N. Bialik’s 1905 essay, “Language Pangs” (Hevle Lashon), Henig investigates the biological and diagnostic metaphors deployed to narrate the “revival” of Hebrew. Especially important in this discussion is the symbolic complex that Bialik constructs, drawing on the medical discourses of pregnancy, delayed childbirth, and surgical intervention. Further exploring the intersection of medical metaphors and Hebrew literary style, Sunny Yudkoff turns to S.Y. Agnon’s magnum opus, TMOL SHILSHOM (ONLY YESTERDAY). Specifically, Yudkoff examines how one of the novel’s main figures—the rabid dog—compels us to investigate the pathological literary style of the text. As Yudkoff shows, there exists a long tradition of identifying rabies and melancholia as co-related infections. This paper, accordingly, investigates the rabid-melancholic style of the text, pushing readers to reconsider disease not just as a subject of the novel but as its aesthetic mode. Finally, Samuel Spinner mines the imbrication of genre and illness by turning his attention to the Yiddish work of Fishl Schneersohn, whose Berlin writings engage the world of Hasidic Jewry under the guide of the case history. Schneersohn’s psychological studies, as Spinner proves, are central to understanding the author’s subsequent analysis of Jewish mysticism. Schneersohn also mobilizes his work as part of a project to instrumentalize creative writing as a therapeutic technique. Together, these three papers argue for a resignification of literary pathology in modern Jewish literature.

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