A rabbi calling from the dark

Norman Finkelstein honored for 40 years contributions to Jewish studies

By Kevin Thomas | Editor-in-Chief

Newswire photo by Kevin Thomas
Dr. Norman Finkelstein thanks those who came to honor him for his 40 years of contributions to Jewish studies at Xavier and in Cincinnati.

A consortium of faculty, staff, students, scholars and creatives from Xavier, Hebrew Union College (HUC) and the Cincinnati community convened in the Conaton Board Room on Tuesday to honor English professor Norman Finkelstein, Ph.D., as he completes his victory lap after teaching at Xavier for almost 40 years.

The event, a culmination of Finkelstein’s work in the field of Jewish studies at Xavier, was called “A Scribe turned into a Scribe” and was organized by Xavier’s Jewish Studies program, which Finkelstein helped to start and was the first director of.

Christine Thomas, Ph.D., the current director of the Jewish Studies program, said that she wanted to honor him because of the immense contribution he has made to both the Xavier community and the field of Jewish studies.

“As soon as I set foot on campus, it was very clear to me that in this wonderful group of people committed to Jewish studies, Norman stood out as someone really trying to building community on campus, bringing poets and Jewish thinkers to campus and in his teaching Jewish American literature,” Thomas said. “…It became clear to me from the beginning of last year that I wanted to do something to celebrate his work.”

This aspect of Finkelstein’s tenure at Xavier has been one of his favorites.

“One of the things that I’ve always really liked about being able to work here, both in Jewish studies and in poetry, I’ve had the opportunity to bring wonderful poets to the campus,” Finkelstein said. “When we inaugurated the Jewish studies program, we brought Jerome Rothenberg in to do a reading… and I was absolutely thrilled with that. It meant so much to me to be able to bring him in and have him read and have his figure as a sort of symbol for what we wanted to do with the program as it began.

The event began with Timothy Quinn, Ph.D., chair of Xavier’s philosophy department, recounting being invited to a party at Finkelstein’s house shortly after joining the philosophy department at Xavier. He also addressed Finkelstein’s pedagogy, and the way that Finkelstein complicated Jewish identity through questions of racial and political justice.

This theme of complication was one that was present in all discussion of Finkelstein’s pedagogy.

Thomas said that she believes Finkelstein has done a great job educating students on what Jewish identity means and then problematizing what it means.

“I hope (Finkelstein’s legacy) continues with this kind of passion for and interest in Jewish literature,” Thomas said, “but also willingness to problematize what Jewish identity means.

Finkelstein’s work has been more than just in the Xavier community. In the bookshelves lining the walls of the Conaton Board Room, there is a carefully curated display of copies of books written by current Xavier employees. With the publishing of his most recent book, Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry and the Jewish Literary Imagination, on Monday, a dozen of these spots now belong to Finkelstein.

This new book is Finkelstein’s sixth book of literary criticism, and his second book to be released in the last year. The other book, which was released in fall 2018, was his seventh collection of poetry, From the Files of the Immanent Foundation.

The next speaker, David Aaron, an HUC professor and the co-chair of the Editorial Board for the HUC Press — who published Finkelstein’s most recent book — examined the talents Finkelstein brings to the academic world.

Aaron’s speaking on Finkelstein was somewhat atypical — instead of reading a speech he had written about his longtime friend, he instead read an anonymous letter written by a reviewer praising Finkelstein’s writing.

Finkelstein had nothing but gratitude at the prospect of being honored for his contributions.

“I’m very touched,” Finkelstein said. “I was a little surprised when Christine Thomas proposed that we do this, but I’m deeply honored. It means a tremendous amount to me.”

In typical Finkelstein style, he ended the event reading two of his own poems, including the one from which the event got its name: “Scribe.”