Literature Scholars in the United States

by Suzanne Klingenstein, updated by Annie Atura Bushnell
Last updated

In Brief

Jewish women have been essential to shaping literary scholarship in the postwar period. Jewish women entered the profession in the 1950s; their early research tended to be “apolitical,” focused on the white Western canon. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Jewish women who entered academe had been inexorably shaped by the women’s movement, and much of their work focused on feminism and identity. The rise of ethnic studies at around the same time led to the emergence of Yiddish and Hebrew studies in secular universities. The nineties saw the advent of queer theory and memory studies, pioneered in part by Jewish scholars. Today, Jewish women are found in all corners of the profession, from feminist theory to administration, critical race studies, and beyond.


Jewish culture places a premium on literacy and learning through textual study, which in some instances persuaded fathers to teach their daughters and husbands to instruct their wives before institutions of higher education were open to women. Nevertheless, the Yiddish aphorism a meydl darf nisht lernen—a girl need not study—is a telling indication of what was once the norm. Until the twentieth century, most Jewish religious leaders understood Genesis to indicate that God designed women to be men’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18). In lieu of receiving an education commensurate with men’s (if the Jewish men in question were privileged enough to receive a formal education), European Jewish women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were expected to relieve men of domestic chores and, in Eastern Europe, often contributed to the family income by working outside the home. For centuries, Jewish women were excluded from colleges and universities on the basis of both their gender and their ethnicity.

Of the academic disciplines into which Jewish women struggled to gain entry, English and comparative literature were deemed some of the more appropriate for women. Literature was seen as a fitting pastime for white women, including Jews, because of its associations with cultural capital, childhood education, and leisure. English and Comparative Literature departments were therefore some of the first places in which women—and Jewish women in particular—made their presence felt on the faculty. The data do not exist to support absolute claims about the representation of Jewish women in the academy; institutions of higher learning tend not to collect information on religious affiliation from faculty, and surveys on race and ethnicity rarely include options for self-identification as Jews of European origin and their descendants, including most of North and South American Jewry.Ashkenazi, Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardi, or Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi. (The subsuming of those categories under other racial categories bespeaks broad cultural shifts around the understanding of Jewishness as a “race.”) The tools at our disposal for evaluating the impact of Jewish women on literary academia are blunt indeed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish women are overrepresented in the field. For example, of the five women who have won the MLA Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement, two have been Jewish (Susan Gubar and Carolyn Heilbrun)—despite the fact that Jews constitute just 2% of the American population.

Gaining Entry into Literary Academia

Women as a group are still underrepresented in the faculty, especially at elite institutions, although the humanities have proven more welcoming than other fields. While women make up the majority of doctoral students in literature, they occupy a smaller percentage of teaching positions, and a still smaller percentage of tenure-track jobs. Jewish women are not excepted from this trend of gendered winnowing, which consigns women disproportionately to lower-paid, less prestigious jobs, or forces them out of academia altogether.

Overall, the integration of Jewish women into literary academia is much more closely linked to the history of women than to the history of Jews in American universities. The sequence of integration runs roughly as follows: White Protestant men of Anglo-Saxon descent grudgingly accepted Catholic men before accepting Jewish men as colleagues and instructors of English literature in the 1920s and 1930s. White women were next in the reticently expanding circle of academic privilege, entering the field largely in the 1950s and 1960s; the exclusion of people of color at historically white institutions began to abate thereafter, although American institutions of higher learning have yet to reach racial parity. The history of Jews in American academia shows both a significant gender bias and an increasing acceptance of Jews as white: whereas Jewish men were discriminated against as Jews, Jewish women had difficulties not as Jews but as women. The first generation of Jewish women professors, especially in the field of literature, consisted of militantly secular women from a variety of Jewish social backgrounds (labor, socialist, Yiddishist, Zionist, immigrant, and mercantile). They had two things in common: a love of Western literary culture and an understandable suspicion of the Jewish intellectual tradition they largely associated with misogynistic oppression and restricted opportunity.

Until the early 1930s, white Protestant men dominated the study of literature. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a few white Protestant women, often educated at elite women’s colleges, struggled into the field. They achieved recognition and full professorships in the early years of World War II, as their male colleagues either volunteered for or were drafted into the army. At the same time, a handful of Jewish men were finishing their dissertations in literature. If these Jewish scholars secured jobs at top schools during the late 1930s, their appointments were due to special circumstances. More Jewish men were hired either in the early 1940s to fill vacancies created by America’s entry into the war or right after the war to help satisfy the enormous demand for college teachers created by the GI bill.

Among the soldiers returning from the European and Pacific theaters were Jews who had started college in the late 1930s and become interested in literature, but who graduated without much hope of being able to pursue an academic career in the humanities. Drafted into the United States Army or Navy upon graduation, they now returned to American campuses to find that a few Jews had broken through the ethnic barrier to become professors of English and American literature. Encouraged by these appointments and convinced that the equalizing experiences in trenches and on battleships had undermined the prejudices against Jews they had encountered during their college days, they enrolled in graduate English programs. As teachers, they attracted the third generation of male Jewish literary critics entering college in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the first Jewish women were enrolling in graduate literature programs and the first sizable number of young Jewish women were starting college. While the men of that generation, receiving their doctorates in the late 1950s and early 1960s, secured jobs without too much resistance, their female colleagues faced many problems, not only as women in academe, but also in the culture at large, as middle- and upper-class white women were expected to focus on domestic work as wives and mothers.

Case Studies from the First Generation: Heilbrun, Kessner, and Smith

The diverse group of women scholars who fought their way into the academy in the 1950s and 1960s were often only children, eldest daughters, or part of all-female sibling groups. One of the most prominent members of this group was Carolyn Heilbrun. Born in 1926, Heilbrun was the only child of affluent parents who did not identify with their Jewish past. Early on, Heilbrun was interested in other people’s identities and turned often to the biography section in the local branch of the New York Public Library. Heilbrun received her BA from Wellesley College in 1947 and went on to pursue graduate studies in English literature at Columbia University with Lionel Trilling. She received her MA in 1951 and her PhD in 1959. After a brief teaching stint at Brooklyn College, she joined Columbia’s School of General Studies, the university’s adult extension school. Throughout the 1960s, the School of General Studies was the only gateway for women scholars to academic careers at Columbia.

Until the women’s movement gained traction in the early 1970s, women did not figure distinctly in Heilbrun’s scholarship or detective fiction, which she published under the pseudonym Amanda Cross beginning in 1964. Feminism enabled Heilbrun to name and analyze the problems she had faced throughout her career at Columbia. These insights transformed her literary criticism and mystery novels, and Heilbrun became an early outspoken feminist in literary academia. Unlike feminism, Jewishness played no explicit role in her writing, with the exception of a few remarks about her descent and some oblique allusions in Theban Mysteries and A Trap for Fools.

For Carole Kessner, by contrast, her Jewishness was as important as her femininity. Born into modest socioeconomic circumstances in Jewish Brooklyn six years after Heilbrun was born in New Jersey, Kessner’s role models were firmly anchored in Jewish culture. According to Kessner’s account, her athletic American-born father raised his two daughters like sons in almost every respect but maintained orthodox beliefs about gender roles in Jewish ritual life. Kessner did not pursue her Jewish education and abandoned observance. “I could not go to an Orthodox shul,” she remembers, “because the fact that it was not egalitarian turned me off, and I simply could not deal with my father’s ‘Don’t rip the paper on shabes! ... God will punish you.’” Kessner, who eventually found her home in the Reconstructionist movement, identified as a secular cultural Jew. In 1949, she enrolled in the second graduating class at Brandeis University, where she grew close to her English professor Marie Syrkin, a writer and secular Zionist.

In 1953, shortly before graduating, Kessner married and quickly had three children. Confined to her home in a New York suburb, she became increasingly depressed. She resolved to go back to school. In accordance with the literary vogue of the time, she studied Milton at Queens College. But Kessner was tepid about her studies until she met the Yiddishist Joseph Landis, who encouraged her to drop the “high art” of Milton for down-to-earth Jewish immigrant novels. This change of topic allowed Kessner to examine her own cultural history. She discovered that her strong, smart, and pragmatic immigrant grandmother was just one in a long line of independent Jewish women. Energized by a gallery of self-reliant, creative Jewish women, from the seventeenth-century memoirist Glueckel of Hameln to Marie Syrkin and Cynthia Ozick, Kessner pursued an academic career in Jewish American literature.

Kessner was not alone in transforming her literary research into an investigation of her cultural roots. A group of other women academics born in the 1930s published their first books on Jewish American literature in the 1970s, including Evelyn Avery, Dorothy Bilik, Sarah Blacher Cohen, S. Lillian Kremer, Ellen Schiff, and Ann R. Shapiro. Interestingly, none of these scholars secured positions at an Ivy League institution, at one of the “seven sisters” women’s colleges, or at a similarly prestigious school. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, “parochial” (i.e., ethnic) research was widely understood at such institutions to be insufficiently intellectually serious; only mainstream scholarship in the Western literary canon proved one’s institutional merit. This tactic continues to reinforce Eurocentric perspectives at institutions of higher learning.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who rose to a position of prominence in literary academia in the 1980s, also hit her stride in the company of fellow Jewish intellectuals. Born in 1932 and raised in the Bronx, Smith believed, even as a little girl, that her “destiny was going to be one of autonomy and intellectuality.” At the age of fourteen, she enrolled at Hunter High School in Manhattan, which was then still largely Jewish and known for accepting only the smartest girls. She went on to City College, where she met Richard Herrnstein. Married in 1951, she followed her husband to Harvard a year later. Having two more years of college to finish, she applied to Radcliffe but was turned down. “Well, you have an excellent record,” she remembered the dean saying, “but I see here that you are married. I am afraid we are only interested in serious students.” Smith then applied to Brandeis University. The brand-new university, founded in 1948 by secular Jews, represented to her a “ferocious, ambitious, unapologetic intellectuality.” She recalls that Hunter High School and Radcliffe College cultivated mellow, elegant, feminine intellectuals who evinced the gendered, classed, and racialized ideals those institutions upheld. Smith found that the expected performance of womanhood at Brandeis was, by contrast, irreverent, pioneering, and exuberant. At Brandeis, “I could be an intellectual,” Smith recalls. “And as a woman I didn’t feel I had to apologize for being smart, or hide it. ... I could be everything I was without worrying.” Jewishness, which Hunter High School and Radcliffe worked hard to downplay in their sizable Jewish student body, stopped being a source of discomfort for Smith.

Smith graduated in 1954, earned a master’s degree in 1955, and in 1962 got a job at Bennington College as she was completing her PhD. She developed into one of academia’s leading literary theorists. Smith was hired by the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, and a few years later the academic iconoclast Stanley Fish invited her to join the avant-garde English department at Duke University. Having come of age intellectually before the rise of ethnic particularism in the late 1960s and of feminism in the early 1970s, Smith is one of a group of prominent Jewish literary women scholars (among them Dorrit Cohn and Marjorie Perloff) whose work did not contend directly with cultural identity or gender. This article emphasizes the contributions of Jewish women who have made careers of investigating Jewishness and/or gender not because Jewish women have not made important contributions in other literary fields, but because they may be less readily identifiable as Jewish and/or less directly affiliated with other influential Jewish women scholars.

The Feminists of the Next Generation

While literature departments in the 1940s and 1950s tended to favor “apolitical” approaches to understanding the Western canon—that is, a white, male canon that was taught in universities to the exclusion of other literatures—political detachment was less feasible for Jewish women born in the 1940s, who were inexorably shaped by the women’s movement that was gaining traction as they were forging their academic identities. These scholars entered academia as energetic assistant professors in the mid-1970s, and many published experimental feminist criticism in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

Feminist criticism, both popular and academic, has been rife with prolific and innovative Jewish contributors. Joyce Antler’s histories of twentieth-century Jewish women have repeatedly illuminated the prevalence of Jewish women in feminist organizing in the United States. Many Jewish women academics found a home for interdisciplinary feminist critique in departments of English, rhetoric, and comparative literature, and they worked to diversify the authors and media that those departments validated. A number of early feminist critics were particularly interested in questions of madness and hysteria, picking up on a Jewish tradition of psychoanalytic approaches that noted the linkage between ostensibly objective medical metrics and identity markers of race, gender, and class. Susan Gubar’s collaborations with Sandra Gilbert, including The Madwoman in the Attic and Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, are classics of feminist literary criticism. Elaine Showalter, who specializes in Victorian and fin-de-siecle literature, also focused early in her career on the disciplinary uses of “sanity” in The Female Malady. Showalter also helped to recuperate and recenter British women’s writing in A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing; later, she coined the term “gynocriticism” to, in her words, “construct a female framework for the analysis of women's literature.” Nina Auerbach worked on gender in Victorian literature, cultural history, and horror; her works like Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction aimed to rewrite literary history, while Our Vampires, Ourselves noted how anxieties about gender find expression in the supernatural.

Other pathbreaking Jewish critics focused on feminist approaches to psychoanalysis, especially early in their careers, in the 1970s and 1980s. These scholars include Jane Gallop, whose later work explores queer theory and sexual harassment; Shoshana Felman, who later focused on trauma and Holocaust testimony; and Elizabeth Abel, who now works on critical race studies and visuality. Annette Kolodny pioneered feminist ecocriticism, while Nina Baym’s comprehensive surveys of women’s literature helped to expand the canon. Judith Gardiner, Florence Howe, Nancy K. Miller, and Naomi Schor also figure among the most influential Jewish women scholars to pioneer feminist literary criticism. Jewish authors did not figure prominently in these scholars’ early writing, but Jewishness became a topic of interest for many of them later in their academic careers; Gubar and Miller, for example, have both published on the role of Jewish culture and Jewish peers in forming their identities as academics. The scholar of American and transnational literature Shelley Fisher Fishkin, whose prolific and wide-ranging oeuvre often returns to themes of social justice and race, co-edited the 1996 collection People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity, which meditates on how Jewishness emerges as a tacit bedrock for many Jewish academics’ ostensibly unrelated research in the humanities.

As women scholars became more established in the academy, other identity categories, including race, class, and sexual orientation, emerged as equally important areas for intersectional analysis. Lesbian scholarship became an especially vibrant area of research, offering opportunities to experiment with radical feminist activism and to reformulate the male-dominated canon. Adrienne Rich was perhaps the most widely read lesbian Jewish writer, offering nuanced feminist essays (e.g., the collection Of Woman Born) and poems (e.g., Diving Into the Wreck). Evelyn Torton Beck took a more specifically Jewish approach to her research, editing the widely cited Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982). Irena Klepfisz, who was born in the Warsaw Ghetto and whose father had been killed in the Warsaw Uprising, is a yiddishist, translator, poet, and essayist; in the essay collection Dreams of an Insomniac, she explores her Jewishness alongside her lesbianism. Today, scholars such as Joy Ladin, who writes essays and poetry as well as scholarship on trans issues, poetry, and religion, continue the tradition of bridging literary scholarship with queer activism and public intellectualism.

Literary Public Intellectuals

Jewish women have also served as public intellectuals with oblique relationships to literary academia. Susan Sontag may well be the most famous figure in this camp. An author of fiction and nonfiction, a playwright and a film director, an activist and a philosopher, Sontag eluded clear-cut roles and institutional affiliations, although her bold cultural criticism and iconoclastic style influenced literary scholarship as powerfully as it did the broader American public’s understanding of, for example, the Vietnam War, photography, and AIDS. Vivian Gornick, a journalist, critic, and memoirist, also belongs to the category of the unaffiliated public intellectual; her work at The Village Voice helped to direct and energize the feminist activism of the 1970s, although she did not hold an academic post. Some Jewish women poets, such as Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, were affiliated with universities but not defined by them. These three, whose scholarly interests cross-pollinated with their poetic ones, readily acknowledged the impact their Jewish parents, upbringings, and experiences (however attenuated) had on their identities as feminists.

Literary Studies and Jewish Identity

As Bonnie Zimmerman, a specialist in lesbian fiction, writes, some Jewish feminists and queer women found themselves in antagonistic relationships to Jewish tradition because of its misogynistic implementation and associations with patriarchal cultural replication. Zimmerman’s description of her own intellectual development is representative of that of many young Jewish feminists. Born in 1943 and raised in Chicago in a secular family hyperconscious of who was and who was not Jewish, Zimmerman confessed that she, too, took pride in Jews who shared her political commitments:

I am proud that so many of the world’s greatest intellectuals and artists have been Jewish.... I am pleased that so many of the founders and stars of the women’s movement—Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Andrea Dworkin—are Jewish.... I remember when I first began to notice the disproportionate number of Jews in every feminist or lesbian group of which I have ever been part....

But as a feminist and lesbian in the 1970s, it never occurred to me that being Jewish might mean something more than a cultural curiosity, that it might matter to my politics and my scholarly work (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, pp. 205–206).

Although Jewish figures dominated her feminist world, Judaism remained for Zimmerman a symbol of oppression:

To me, brought up in a strongly cultural, but not religious, Jewish family, Judaism represented the ties that bound me to family, the traditional role of women, compulsory heterosexuality, and the structure of patriarchy. To a certain extent, I had become a feminist and embraced my lesbianism in order to break those ties and establish my own adult identity. Judaism reeked of the past, of childhood, of strangling bonds and expectations. Judaism represented the secondary status of women (p. 207).

While some feminists identified Judaism with the oppressive, patriarchal social structures in their personal environments, others identified it with the materialism and hypocrisy of their wealthy 1950s suburbs. Marjorie Garber, for instance, grew up in an affluent area on Long Island and rejected the vacuity of the people in her neighborhood. “I was surrounded by extremely well-dressed, wealthy people,” she recalls, “who read the transliterations on the other side of the Reform prayer book. With the passion of a rebellious sixteen-year-old, I declared this to be hypocritical. I was an absolutist and wanted nothing to do with it.” She experienced her parents as “culinary Jews,” since the activities that defined her home as Jewish were “Passover and other celebrations that had food attached to them.” Garber understood Jewishness to be utterly divorced from intellectualism. “It took me a long time,” she recounts, “to free myself from the feeling that the world of the Jews was an anti-intellectual world and to realize that the world of culture and scholarship was full of Jews.”

Other feminist literary scholars felt indifferent to their Judaism and Jewishness, Nancy K. Miller explains, as their gender-related activism and theory eclipsed other vectors of their identity:

With my conversion to feminism in the early 1970s, the aimless questing about “who I was” and “what I would do” shifted away from the marriage plot and moved into the new categories of “theory.” Being “different” stopped being a matter of personal anguish and became a question about gender and sexual politics. Suddenly there was a language for understanding the malaise of identity.... At the same time, the Jewish question disappeared from the horizon. To the extent that it had always been tied to the wars with my parents, and that my prolonged adolescence seemed finally at a close, Jewishness no longer figured among my conscious concerns (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, p. 161).

As this excerpt suggests, Miller and other scholars later researched and wrote about the Jewish identity that they recognized as once having “disappeared from the horizon.” These instances of Jewish forgetting also demonstrate the race-based privilege that white Jewish women enjoyed. Women of color, including Jewish women of color, rarely describe their ethnic identities fading from consciousness, even when they embrace gender-based forms of activism.

Queer Theory

In addition to authoring many of the foundational texts of feminist literary criticism, Jewish scholars—trans, nonbinary, and cis—were pivotal contributors to queer theory, which exploded onto the academic scene in the 1990s. Jewish literary scholars including Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, Gayle Rubin, Marjorie Garber, Lauren Berlant, Janet Jakobsen, and Judith Butler have shaped the field. Rubin’s work grew out of her engagement with the Ann Arbor Radicalesbians, and with Samois, the exclusively lesbian BDSM group she helped to found in 1978. Rubin’s essays “The Traffic in Women” (1975) and “Thinking Sex” (1984) helped lay the groundwork for queer theory. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet centered the homo/hetero divide as foundational to Western culture since at least the nineteenth century, reformulating a minority politics of gayness as a universal discourse in which all Western subjects are implicated. Lauren Berlant’s “Sex in Public” (which she co-authored with fellow queer theory pioneer Michael Warner) and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City critique the privatization of American models of citizenship. Judith Butler is perhaps the most notorious Jewish trailblazer in queer theory; their 1990 book Gender Trouble, which leveled a critique of the “woman” presumed to be the subject of feminism, became required reading in feminist and queer classrooms and popularized the concept of gender performativity. Butler’s later work takes on matters of race, citizenship, violence, and statehood; among other projects, they have also mobilized Jewish philosophy in critiques of Zionism and of state-sanctioned, race-based violence in Israel. While early works of queer theory by white authors such as those listed above tended not to focus on questions of race or ethnicity (and were critiqued on those grounds), their Jewishness, like that of feminist academics focusing on women’s literature, sometimes received more sustained attention later in their careers, as Butler’s example illustrates.

Holocaust Survivors

For Jewish literary scholars who survived the Holocaust, questions of gender and social justice never erased a preoccupation with Jewishness and Jewish experience. Although leftist politics occupied the foreground of their academic careers during the 1970s and 1980s and Jewish issues were less overtly discussed, survivors and second-generation survivors remained intensely aware of their direct and indirect experiences of the Shoah. During the 1990s, as this generation of scholars entered their fifties and sixties, some of them began to unpack the past in writing. Most notable are the memoirs of Ruth (Angress) Klüger and Susan Rubin Suleiman. Klüger’s weiter leben: Eine Jugend (1992) describes her childhood in Vienna and her deportation first to Theresienstadt and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suleiman’s Budapest Diaries: In Search of the Motherbook (1996) recounts her childhood in Budapest and her wartime survival, hidden by Christian farmers in the Hungarian countryside. Jewish women scholars have also elaborated crucial frameworks for understanding Holocaust literature, including through memory studies and trauma theory. These scholars include Sara Horowitz, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Federika Clementi, Jessica Lang, and Marianne Hirsch.

Yiddish and Hebrew Studies

Another group that attended closely to matters of Jewish identity were professors of Yiddish literature, such as Ruth Wisse and Anita Norich, who helped to establish Yiddish studies as an academic discipline. Wisse’s books were instrumental in disseminating academic work on Yiddich culture to a general readership, while Janet Hadda had the distinction of becoming, in 1979, the first woman to be a tenured professor of Yiddish in the United States. Yiddish was spurned by many academics in the 1970s and 1980s as a parochial backwater and the domain of nostalgic amateurs, but today it is a flourishing area of research in which a number of Jewish women have made crucial contributions in teaching, translation, recuperation, and criticism. These women include Cecile Kuznitz, who wrote a history of YIVO, and scholar-translators including Marcia Falk, Kathryn Hellerstein, Jessica Kirzane, Ruth Murphy, Ellen Cassedy, and Faith Jones. In Geveb is a hub of much of this important Yiddish scholarship. Academics including Allison Schachter, Debra Caplan, and Rachel Rubinstein have published comparativist and historicist work on Yiddish in global context.

Jewish women have also been leading scholars of Hebrew literature. Besides her scholarship at the intersection of Hebrew literature and women’s studies, Anne Lapidus Lerner is remembered for being the first woman to serve as a Jewish Theological Seminary vice chancellor. Naomi Seidman works on Hebrew, Yiddish, and issues of gender more broadly. Chana Block was a Hebrew translator and a poet herself in addition to teaching in the English department at Mills College. Chana Kronfeld, Naomi Sokoloff, Esther Fuchs, Yael Feldman, and Nehama Aschkenasy have also helped to shape the study of Hebrew literature in the United States; many also work on Yiddish.

Some American women scholars moved to Israel. Hana Wirth-Nesher and Emily Miller Budick built distinguished careers at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, respectively. Budick and Wirth-Nesher are part of the generation of women scholars born in the late 1940s and 1950s who attended college at a time when the first generation of male Jewish critics, including Trilling, was at the zenith of its power, and a second generation of Jewish men, who were less guarded about their Jewish identity, was beginning to establish itself in literary academia. Scholars including Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, John Hollander, Stanley Fish, and Sacvan Bercovitch spoke openly about Jews in their literature courses. Budick’s testimony, summing up her post-1960s college experience, is particularly illuminating:

The ethnic revivals of the 1960s and 1970s, galvanized by the Civil Rights movement and black power, might themselves have forced me to rethink my Jewish identity. But it was Bercovitch, sensitive to the ways in which ideology constructs the sociopolitical sphere of everyday discourse (let alone literary texts), who returned me to a specifically Jewish American consciousness, a consciousness, that is, of the inseparability of my American and Jewish identities, as if America were, indeed, the only promised land there ever was, or was ever meant to be (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, pp. 221–22).

In later years, Budick explains that she gradually began to understand Bercovitch’s skepticism about the seductive machinations of American ideology. Skepticism, “mistrust of national authorities,” and distrust of established social structures and traditional values characterizes the generation of literary scholars who were born in the postwar era and entered early adulthood during the 1960s. According to a survey conducted by Susan Gubar, many of her Jewish academic peers considered themselves as being “by definition and by blood, on the side of the oppressed,” defined Judaism as a “passionate moral outrage at injustice,” and thought of being Jewish as being “positioned by ... heritage already on the left” (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, p. 27). This identification of American Jews—and American Jewish women in academia—with the left has been challenged not only by the increasing affiliation of Jews with the American right and by the visibility of Jewish conservative figureheads, but also by a complicated understanding of what constitutes the “left” in the first place. Many Jewish academics who have understood themselves as being on the left—including Jewish feminists—have nevertheless come under fire by others on the left, especially for issues surrounding race (e.g., Marjorie Perloff, Ruth Wisse), sexual harassment (e.g., Jane Gallop, Avital Ronell, Laura Kipnis), and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Who Counts in Literary Scholarship

Jewish women can be found in departments of English, American studies, comparative literature, and foreign languages. They are also key contributors to Jewish Studies, a secular academic domain that is as institutionally young as the feminist struggle for women’s inclusion in the professoriate. They have not just participated in but indeed defined a number of literary critical fields, finding common cause in research both related and unrelated to their self-identifications.

Although we do well to remember how radically Jewish women’s experience has changed over the past century of American history and how formative Jewish women have been in shaping contemporary American literary scholarship, the reader should be cautioned against understanding the list of scholars mentioned in this brief entry as exhaustive. It goes without saying that it would be impossible to give every notable scholar her due in so brief a text.

Perhaps less obvious is the danger of defining literary scholarship by its most cited authors. To overemphasize individual accomplishment in the publication of groundbreaking works devalues the under-recognized labor of mentorship, teaching, diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and administration, among other forms of academic support that are systematically undervalued and often unremunerated, even and especially at elite institutions. To tick off those exceptional Jewish women who have achieved institutional acclaim risks repeating a misogynistic failure to recognize community-oriented and reproductive work as labor. We rarely extol, for example, the adjunct teaching staff that bears an ever-increasing burden of teaching at American institutions of higher learning. Our celebration of individuals’ scholarly success should be tempered by a recognition of other forms of academic labor on which that success relies—labor that Jewish women, like women across the board, have disproportionately absorbed. Although this entry does name individual Jewish women who helped to define their respective fields, these women are exceptional—in the literal and figurative senses of the word.


Klingenstein, Susanne. “‘But My Daughters Can Read the Torah’: Careers of Jewish Women in Literary Academe.” AJH 83 (June 1995): 247–286.

Klingenstein, Susanne. Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930–1990. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Klingenstein, Susanne. Jews in the American Academy, 1900–1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Ozick, Cynthia. “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question (A Vindication of the Rights of Jewish Women).” Lilith 6 (1979): 22.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey, and Shelley Fishkin, eds. People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

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How to cite this page

Klingenstein, Suzanne and Annie Atura Bushnell. "Literature Scholars in the United States." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 28, 2024) <>.