In fall 2016, Marina Zilbergerts joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison community as the Lipton Assistant Professor of Eastern European Jewish Literature and Thought, a joint appointment in the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. Zilbergerts is also a member of the CREECA faculty. She received her BA from Yeshiva University in New York City and her MA from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Just before joining UW-Madison, she completed a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford University.
Zilbergerts’ research focuses on the interplay between Jewish literature and Russian literature, specifically on the development of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Her dissertation was titled “Rabbinic Textuality and the Rise of Jewish Literature in Imperial Russia.” Her forthcoming book, Words that Matter: Materialism and the Rise of Jewish Literature, draws on her dissertation research to explore the productive tensions among literature, science, and religion in the Russian Empire.
CREECA spoke with Zilbergerts about her research and teaching.
What was the focus of your dissertation? How did that subject catch your attention?
I argued that Modern Hebrew literature was first cultivated in 19th century Eastern Europe by a group of people whose background had been as scholars of religious texts. The foremost pioneers of secular Hebrew literature were formerly-religious individuals who believed that texts should be studied only for their own sake, rather than for anything practical – a kind of “art for art’s sake.” At the time when these people were invested in the creation of Modern Hebrew literature, the Russian Empire was dominated by Materialist and Utilitarian ideologies which demanded that literature provide benefit to society. In order for the burgeoning sphere of Hebrew literature to thrive, it had to face the challenge of these ideologies head on, impress everyone with its beauty and quality, and insist on its independent value.
What brought me to thinking about the value and purpose of literature was the ongoing “Crisis of the Humanities” that I strongly felt at Stanford, a university dominated by science and engineering. The struggle of the Humanities to survive in a profit-oriented world is highly resonant in most public universities, where literature departments, especially, must always justify themselves to the university by appealing to their usefulness, productivity, enrollments – whereas the independent need for the literary arts is sidelined.
What research projects are you working on now?
I am currently writing my book manuscript. I am also working to publish my first poetry collection.
What courses will you be teaching next year?
With next year in view, here are some courses students should look for:
“Russia and the Jews: Literature, Culture and Religion” (fall). This is a core introductory course which gives students a rigorous background in Eastern European literature, the many social and literary movements associated with it, and the complex intersections of Jews with the rest of the inhabitants of the Russian Empire.
“Dead Yiddish Poets Society” (fall) and “Dead Hebrew Poets Society” (spring). This is a poetry-intensive course sequence, in which students will experience the masterpieces of Yiddish and Hebrew poetry in translation, as well as in the original. (Elementary language knowledge is preferred but not required.) This course will allow students to experience poetry through creative writing and performance, and will also take students to local poetry venues.
Lastly, I invite students to join my course in literature and religion, titled “Struggling with God in Literature” (spring). This course explores the human struggle with injustice in the world, and the desire to transcend it. We will study masterpieces of world literature, such as the biblical Book of Job, works by Dostoevsky, and important Jewish writers as well.
What do you like about Madison?
I enjoy everything about it! Madison is a perfectly-sized place, with great cultural opportunities in art and music, and a friendly environment. I enjoy water activities on Madison’s abundant lakes – kayaking in the summer, and skating in the winter.
What do you have planned for the summer?
I’ll mostly be working on my upcoming publication, but I’ll be sure to take some time off to reflect and enjoy life.