Fresh Faculty: Adi Gordon
Issue   |   Wed, 09/23/2015 - 02:05

Five College Assistant Professor of History Adi Gordon has previously taught at Hebrew University, Tulane University and the University of Cincinnati. He is currently working on a biography of Hans Kohn, a Jewish-American philosopher and historian.

Q: Your teaching interests include modern intellectual history and modern Jewish history. Could you talk a little bit more about these topics?
A: Absolutely. So I guess I’ll start by taking one step back, and say I am a new faculty, but I have been teaching at Amherst as a visiting professor in the last two years, and I’ve taught courses in both those fields. You know both my fields of research and interests are in a way split up — put in another way, they merge both Jewish history and old age on the one hand, and intellectual history, primarily European intellectual history. As far as courses are concerned: I taught a course called European Intellectual History [in the] 20th Century that dealt primarily with the role of public intellectuals — so this is something we explored last spring. And this coming spring I’ll be teaching a research seminar on nationalism, and much of it is going to be dealing with nationalism.

As far as Jewish history is concerned, I am teaching now a survey of more than Jewish history actually, beginning really really early. We begin in the late 15th century, which is quite a bit of a stretch, but we do bring it all the way to the 21st century. And last year, I also taught a course on Israel, which attracted quite a few students. I had almost 70 students in that class.

Q: So you mentioned a lot about the merging of the different horizons, the merging of Jewish history with the context of history. How did you get interested in this kind of phenomenon? How did you get interested in combination of ideas?
A: Good question. You know, if I’m looking, if I’m going to the very beginning to my years in undergrad. I actually was not focused at all on Jewish history. I was, in American terms, a double major of German studies and history. And when I say history, at least in that setting, it did not mean Jewish history. It was European history. It could have been also American history. But in my case it was European history, German studies. And gradually, the Jewish protagonist within this European context, sort of came to the fore, and so, I respond by example.

You asked how I got to the field. My first book dealt with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who came to Palestine, which was a state in the making, to a society in which Zionists wanted to create future Jewish state, but those refugees actually thought of themselves as Germans, who happened to be Jewish, and definitely not as Jewish nationalists. And here this merger of the horizons forced itself upon me. The long version says, if you look at this as part of the pre-history of the state of Israel, then those people do not fit in. If you see Jews in Palestine before the establishment of the Jewish state, so I’m talking about the 30s and 40s, then you think of them as people who are ideologically motivated and are committed to the idea that Jews should have their own state and should establish it in Palestine. This is not the case for the German refugees. They are culturally, emotionally, intellectually, bound to Germany, though Germany does not want them. Germany kicks them out. Going back to the point, so they do not fit the paradigm of Jewish historiography, or the way Jewish history is written. But they also do not fit the story of German history, because of the Jewish state in rest — they are not just refugees who left Germany and came to any other place. They are Jewish refugees who came to a place where other Jews are trying to come up with some other alternative to the course of Jewish history.

I’m still very much interested in central European, German-speaking Jewish intellectuals, and see the various roles they play, beyond central Europe, and beyond even the Jewish horizon. So, the one person whose biography I write now, a founding father of nationalism by the name of Hans Kohn, comes from this setting and begins by asking very “Jewish questions.” But the last chapter of his life, he is a Cold War intellectual, very much interested in the role of America, the U.S., during the Cold War, in the wake of World War II — and he brings many ideas from the central European setting. He never acknowledges that he brings it from there, but he tries to apply them to the American setting — and the role that is played in Cold War America by people from very different background with originally very different questions. That stuff interests me to no end.

Q: Why did you choose to teach at Amherst?
A: This is an interesting story. Well, first of all, I am part of an academic couple. My wife is Professor Walker. But I had a position in Cincinnati before that. I had taught in New Orleans at Tulane. And when Vanessa got the offer, I thought that it was a wonderful place to be teaching. I can tell you why I love teaching here. I mean the answer is very simple, it’s the students. You guys redefine the position of the professor, and I know I’m not the first one to tell you this, but it is true. You know, it’s true, there’s a difference between teaching Amherst College students and teaching students anywhere else. I have always had very bright students, always enjoyed this. But there is certain focus and commitment that allows us, professors and students alike to dig deeper. I always appreciated, and still very much appreciate, the fact that I have students that are obviously not going to grad school as historians. They do not have a plan of becoming historians. But, they want to take and make the most out of the courses in history they take. They’re not trying to make their lives easier. I do not know if I had that chance when I was their age, to learn history proper, and to understand this before moving on and doing something else. Some of them may become grad students and historians, but at this point in time, most of them know or assume that they are not going to be, and I admire that.

Q: Finally, are there any advice or any words last words you’d like to leave behind to students or potential students considering taking a class in history, or one of your classes?
A: I guess a good history class, a good history lesson, is one that on the one hand takes you not only to a different time but also to a different place and allows you to come back with some fresh and relevant insights. So, I hope it doesn’t sound like a platitude. I believe it.