David Sorkin Biography:
David Sorkin studied with George L. Mosse as an undergraduate at UW-Madison. He received his Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley with a dissertation that George helped shape: “look at journals and sermons and the concept of Bildung.” He began his career at Brown (1983-86) and Oxford (1986-1992), publishing The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 (1987), which won the Present Tense/Joel H. Cavior Literary Award for History. With George’s encouragement he came to UW (1992-2011) as the first Weinstein Professor of Jewish Studies and History. He helped build the Program in Jewish Studies (Director, 1993-1998). While at UW he published Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (1996); The Berlin Haskalah and German Religious Thought (2000); and The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews and Catholics from London to Vienna (2008). At UW he was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities (1998-2003) and Director (2003-2007). After George’s death he worked with John Tortorice to create the Mosse Program. He received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
He was Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center (2011-2014) and is currently Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. His most recent book is Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries (2019).
He is co-editor of Profiles in Diversity: Jews in a Changing Europe, 1750-1870 (1998); New Perspectives on the Haskalah (2001); What History Tells: George L. Mosse and the Culture of Modern Europe (2004); Moses Mendelssohn’s Hebrew Writings (2018) and Associate Editor of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (2002), which won the National Jewish Book Award.
He has twice been a Visiting Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and the Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa). He has also been a Visiting Fellow at the Max Planck Institut für Geschichte (Göttingen); All Souls College, Oxford; the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania; and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (Uppsala).
Tortorice: Okay. I’m here in New York City with Professor David Sorkin. It’s November the eighth, 2019. David, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for the Mosse Oral History Project. I really appreciate it and I think it will be a major contribution.
Sorkin: Well, thank you for coming to New York.
Tortorice: I’m always happy to be here. So David, where were you born?
Sorkin: I was born in Chicago, on the South Side, in what I would call a white flight neighborhood. (laughs) My parents had grown up in Englewood and Hyde Park. And as the African American community moved south and grew, my parents in the early 1950s moved even further south, to 83rd and Kenwood, to a subdivision of about 500 houses in the city. And this was their first house. They bought it in 55, I think. I was two years old. I was born in 53. And that’s where I grew up.
Tortorice: But they weren’t involved with the university down there?
Sorkin: No, no. My father was the first in his family to go to college. His parents, well, his father was a tailor. His mother was a homemaker but also helped out in the tailor shop because my grandfather was colorblind. So in the morning, my grandmother would go down and put the appropriate color of thread on each job so that he didn’t use the wrong colors. And my father started out, went to junior college before the Second World War or early on during the war. Then served in the Pacific for a couple of years. Didn’t see combat. Was also in Korea after the war, in occupation forces. And then came back to Chicago and went to college on the GI Bill and was able to go to Roosevelt University, where he got his BA, and DePaul, where he got an MA. And then he became a schoolteacher. He taught in a school near the stockyards. It was sort of a working class, heavily Irish school, where he taught what was called EMH, educably mentally handicapped. And he taught basic reading and writing skills. He taught shop. And then he eventually took the exam to become a high school teacher, to teach history. And that’s what he did for the rest of his career, although he also became an assistant principal.
Tortorice: And did your mother work outside the home?
Sorkin: She did. Not at, but she didn’t go back to work until, I have an older brother. Not until both of us were out of the house and I was in high school.
Sorkin: Because in those days, my brother and I went to a K to 8. And kids went home for lunch. We were in walking distance of the school, so we would come home for lunch. And then my mother worked as, she got a job working in the office of a local junior college, where she was the transcript secretary. When people would write in to get copies of their transcripts, to apply for something, she would photocopy them and send them on. And her claim to fame is that during the war she worked in an office ordering supplies for the Manhattan Project. And she actually had a letter of citation recognizing that she had been part of the Manhattan Project.
Tortorice: Was she obliged to sign a secrecy—
Sorkin: She didn’t.
Tortorice: She didn’t know what actually she was working on.
Sorkin: She was just ordering office supplies.
Tortorice: Oh, okay. Interesting. Was your family religious?
Sorkin: No. Not in the least. Not in the least. My grandmothers kept kosher homes. But then my maternal, basically my mother never left home. When she and my father got married, they moved in with, my father then just moved in with my mother and grandmother. And then when they moved to our house, they stopped keeping kosher. And we only belonged to a temple because my father moonlighted as a religious school teacher on Sundays and afternoon school, afternoon Hebrew school. And so the temple we belonged to was a complimentary membership for the teachers. But otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have belonged.
There were sort of mild socialist leanings in the family. My grandfather the tailor had been a Wobbly.
Sorkin: At least he had a membership card. I don’t know how involved he was.
Tortorice: And where did he, he lived in Chicago, also?
Sorkin: He lived in Chicago, also. The family had come, my mother’s mother was born in the United States. She was the only one, and the only one who went to school in the United States. She graduated from elementary school. She was born in Philadelphia in 1893. She was exactly sixty years older than I was. So her family had come sometime in the 1880s, or maybe the early 1890s, we’re not sure. My father’s family all came around the revolution of 1905.
Sorkin: From somewhere in, you know, the Pale of Settlement. They actually belonged, my paternal grandfather came from Dvinsk, which is probably a suburb of Vitebsk. And they belonged to the Dvinsk fraternal organization in Chicago. You know, there were all these hometown organizations. And that was their social world.
Tortorice: Were your, it sounds like your parents had an interest in education in allowing their children to have access to education, but that they weren’t—
Sorkin: They themselves were not very well-educated. My mother had an associate arts degree from a junior college. But, yeah. There wasn’t much Culture with a capital “C” in the house. But they encouraged my brother and me to take advantage of whatever opportunities we had. I became interested in learning Hebrew when I was a kid.
Tortorice: Where did that come from?
Sorkin: Well, the one temple that we had started, that we belonged to because my father taught there had an optional Hebrew program. The religious school met from ten to twelve. If you wanted to learn Hebrew, you came at 9:30 for a half an hour of Hebrew. And you learned just to read, not to understand. You learned the alphabet and you learned to read with an Ashkenazic accent. Because there are certain letters that are pronounced differently from the Sephardic pronunciation.
And then I wanted to keep studying Hebrew, so my father taught at a midweek Hebrew school. And so I started going to those classes two days a week. And then I actually had a bar mitzvah.
But having learned to read Hebrew with an Ashkenazic accent actually stood me in good stead many years later because the modern Hebrew literature, and particularly poetry that was written in Europe. For example, Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), was written by people who read Hebrew with an Ashkenazic accent. And so in Israel, students don’t learn that anymore, and they don’t know how to pronounce it. But it’s actually important for the meter. But I knew how to do it. (laughs)
Tortorice: So, did you grow up in a Jewish milieu? Did you have a strong sense of Jewish identity?
Sorkin: Yes, I grew up, the neighborhood that my parents chose to live in was not especially Jewish. There were other neighborhoods on the South Side that were heavily Jewish. But we didn’t live in one of those. My parents’ social milieu, they didn’t have very many friends. They were very isolated people. But of course, the family was Jewish. And, so.
Tortorice: So where did you attend high school, then?
Sorkin: I went to Bowen High School, which was on the South Side of Chicago, also on the South Side, near the steel mills, near the neighborhood called South Chicago, which is an actual neighborhood.
Tortorice: So this was a working class, essentially, area, or?
Sorkin: Well, it was mixed. The high school was about, it had been built in the 1890s. It had always been an integrated high school. It was one of these forbidding, block-long, five-story brick buildings, you know, kind of Gothic looking. And when I was there, I went to high school from 1966 to 1970, the middle class in the school was Jewish. That was about 30 or 35, 40 percent. Then it was about 20 percent African American, about 10 or 15 percent, or maybe 20 percent what in those days we called Mexican, because they actually were from Mexico. Today we’d say Latina. And then there was a kind of southern European, Serbian, Croatian working class. Kids whose parents worked in the steel mills. And that was all beginning to deteriorate in the years I was in high school. The mills were beginning to cut back. By the time, by the last year of high school, certainly, the whole shopping area in South Chicago was boarded up. The stores were closing. Because there just weren’t jobs. You know, in a previous era, if you got your high school diploma at Bowen, you could then just go get a good job in the mills.
Tortorice: Did this, well, I suppose it was a class distinction, resonate as economic tensions rose? I mean, having a Jewish middle class. And then I assume Christian or ethnic—
Sorkin: Yeah, there were tensions. But they were more, I think they were more class tensions than ethnic tensions. I don’t remember hearing specifically anti-Jewish slurs. But then maybe I just wasn’t sensitive to it and didn’t notice it.
I also never fit into the high school socially, because I didn’t come from one of those heavily Jewish neighborhoods. And the kids from those neighborhoods were all organized socially. There were AZAs and BBGs. There were fraternities and sororities. And I had no idea what all that was. And it was only in my senior year that I began to figure it out. So.
Tortorice: So if I recall, in high school you already visited Israel? Or you already—
Sorkin: I wanted to study Hebrew. My high school, though, public high school, actually offered Hebrew as a foreign language. So I took Hebrew in high school. Then I spent my junior year of high school in Israel on an exchange program through the reform Jewish movement. It was called the Eisendrath International Exchange program. And we lived with, we were placed with families. We did an intensive Ulpan, an intensive language program in the summer. And then we went to an Israeli high school. I went to the Leo Baeck Gymnasium in Haifa, which was a very rigorous high school. And also a totally different experience than my Chicago high school. My Chicago high school was about 3600 students. The Leo Baeck Gymnasium, we had under 200 students. And you sat in the same class. There were two eleventh grades. One was for people in the humanities, and one was for people who also wanted to take science and math. Because I had to take science and math, I ended up in that one. We sat in the same classroom all day, and the teachers came in and out. So you were with the same 15 or 20 kids all day long. And so it was my best social experience in high school.
Well the other good social experience I had in high school was I went to Jewish summer camps. And I went to Hebrew-speaking programs in the summer. I went to what’s now Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, which was the first reformed Jewish summer camp in the country. And I was there as a camper in the Hebrew speaking program. And then after my freshman year of college, I went back as a counselor as well.
Tortorice: So what were your impressions? What year did you go to Israel?
Sorkin: I was in Israel in 1968-69.
Tortorice: Right after that—
Sorkin: Right after the 67 War. It was a period of great optimism. Because of Israel’s victory in the war, but also because there’d been an economic recession before the war, which the war put an end to. So it was sort of a boom time. You know, we were aware of the war of attrition along the Suez Canal, the so-called Bar Lev Line. We would hear the helicopters passing over bringing wounded soldiers to the hospitals in Haifa. But the whole issue of the status of the Palestinians, two-state solution, that just didn’t appear at that point.
Tortorice: It was really a couple years later that you started to see that become more and more part of the political—
Sorkin: That’s right. Because after all, Israeli Arabs or Israeli Palestinians had been under military administration in Israel until 1966, from the founding of the state until 66. So that had finally been lifted, where they were no longer under a curfew, for example. So there is a moment there when they were full citizens, or at least de jure full citizens.
And the amazing thing was, is that even though Israel remained at war, as it were, you know, life within Israel was very secure. With my friends from the high school, we would go do downtown Haifa and go to a movie and walk back at midnight, and it was perfectly safe. Which was totally liberating after living on the South Side of Chicago. (laughter)
Tortorice: So why did you decide to attend UW?
Sorkin: Well, I didn’t want to go to the University of Illinois, which was where most of the Jewish kids from my high school went. At that point, I wanted to become a reformed rabbi. And my father wrote to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, saying that was my plan and asking where I should go to college in order to be able to continue my studies in Hebrew. And whoever it was in the admissions office or whichever office, wrote back and gave him a list of colleges. Wisconsin was one of them. I applied to some of the Ivy League schools that had good Hebrew programs. And I wasn’t accepted. And so I came to UW.
Tortorice: So you came with the intention of studying Hebrew at the college level.
Sorkin: That’s right. Of doing a BA in Hebrew and going on to become a rabbi. And then I started taking, I took a lot of courses. I started out in ILS, in Integrated Liberal Studies. But I only stayed for a semester, because I didn’t like that we were being spoon-fed excerpts of texts. We weren’t reading whole books. But then I started, particularly beginning in sophomore year, I started taking courses in comparative literature. I started taking courses in history with George Mosse. And I very slowly but sort of irreversibly realized that I was interested in the intellectual life and in academics, but that I actually wasn’t much of a believer. So I decided that I would maybe try to become an academic.
So I did major in Hebrew. I did one major in Hebrew. I did a second major in comparative literature. As a result of studying with George and becoming interested in German history and German intellectual history, I went on the UW exchange program to Germany for a year and studied at Freiburg, at Freiburg University. I went for 14 months. I spent the summer studying German intensively at a Goethe institute. And then went to the university for the year and took courses at the university. And I have to say that I’ve sort of lived off of that year intellectually my entire career. Because I read, I was interested in Marxism at the time. I read Marx in German. I read [György] Lukács in German. I read Kant and Hegel in German. In those days, Jürgen Habermas’ work was very much at the forefront. I read The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in German. It hadn’t been translated yet. And then I actually used that in my dissertation before it had been, before it was well known, and before it was translated and was well known in the United States.
Tortorice: Were there some instructors or people when you were there who really were formative?
Sorkin: Yeah. Well, I ended up, I don’t know why, but I gravitated toward 18th and early 19th century literature and philosophy.
Tortorice: Already in—
Sorkin: In those days, yeah. So I took a seminar on 18th century German literature, especially [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing. I sat in on a course on Kant, in which we spent the entire semester reading the first thirty pages of A Critique of Pure Reason.
Tortorice: In German.
Sorkin: In German, of course. Yeah.
Sorkin: It was really a course about the terminology, and trying to understand the terminology of the critique. I took courses on German romanticism, romantic literature. There was someone who offered an informal reading course in Marx, reading Das Capital in German, which I sat in on and took. So yeah, it was really formative that way.
Tortorice: So that’s when you really were immersed in scholarship and—
Sorkin: Yes, that’s right.
Tortorice: That’s when the kind of spark of what became your life’s work, originally.
Sorkin: That’s right. And then I came back to Madison my senior year and took a senior honors seminar with George. He offered a seminar on the Frankfurt School. And we read, Marty Jay’s book on the Frankfurt School had just been published.
Tortorice: And this would have been seventy—
Sorkin: Seventy-four, seventy-five.
Tortorice: Well, that had a certain resonance in your life.
Sorkin: So I wrote my research paper on Max Horkheimer’s early essays. (laughs)
Tortorice: So by then, George was already teaching at Hebrew University half-time.
Sorkin: Oh, yes. He was gone half a year. Yeah.
Tortorice: And he essentially had given up taking on any new graduate students.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: So there were only some who were still finishing.
Sorkin: That’s right. But I, you know, I went to graduate school not initially in history, but in comparative literature.
Tortorice: Oh, really?
Sorkin: So I went to Berkeley to study. Berkeley had the only program in the country in comparative literature in which you could emphasize Hebrew literature. Because Robert Alter was the person who—
Tortorice: Oh, so—
Sorkin: So I studied, I went and studied with Robert Alter. And I realized after fairly quickly that I was interested in sort of kind of cultural and intellectual history using literary texts. And he was perfectly fine with that, but there was no one else doing it, and I would have been very isolated. And also I realized that I really wasn’t a sort of literary critic. I didn’t have the kind of literary sensibility and sensitivity. But he certainly had and certainly exhibited in his seminars.
Tortorice: Well it seems to me that your work has always had a much broader focus. A focus that connects all kinds of trends and compares to that –
Sorkin: Right. So I’ve never regretted in majoring in comparative literature and doing a master’s degree in comparative literature. It taught me to read texts carefully. And I think because I was in literature, I was also encouraged to study languages. When I got back to Madison from Germany, I also studied French.
So I finished the MA in comparative literature and then switched to the history department. And Marty Jay became my supervisor. I also studied with Martin Malia (1924-2004) who taught European cultural and intellectual history.
Tortorice: But before we switch to Berkeley, I just wanted to ask, who were some of the teachers at UW? We’ll talk about George in a little bit. So you must have known, worked with [Menahem] Monsoor when you first got there?
Sorkin: That’s right. Though I never, Monsoor, Menahem Monsoor, was chair of the Hebrew and Semitics Studies Department but I never took a course with him. He actually wasn’t teaching that much, is my impression. I studied, there were visitors who taught modern Hebrew literature. The person I studied with, Meltzer, I can’t remember his first name, was getting a PhD at Madison in Hebrew and Semitic studies. And he taught modern Hebrew literature. So I took quite a few courses with him. It was actually very exciting when I got there. We really read Hebrew literature. As a matter of fact, one semester we just read. We spent the whole semester reading one of [Shemu’el Yosef] Agnon’s (1888-1970) novels, The Simple Stories, Sipur pashut. It was just really exciting to do that.
In the history department, I studied with David Lovejoy (1919-1999). I took a sophomore honors seminar with him on religion in colonial America. Which, who would have realized at the time, but really influenced me later on when I wrote that book on religious enlightenment, that was sort of the American, that was the background to it.
And then I actually connected up with David Lovejoy many years later. I was sitting in the reading room, in the Bodleian one day and there walked in David Lovejoy. And I thought, my goodness, is that David Lovejoy? Of course, so I went over to him. He didn’t remember me. But indeed, he had just retired from UW. And he had moved to a little village outside of Oxford, because his daughter was living in Aberdeen. So he and his wife wanted to be closer. So we used to socialize. He came and gave papers in one or two of my seminars.
Tortorice: So is that when you met Richard Jacobson, too? Because he was in comparative literature.
Sorkin: He was in comparative literature at the time. He was an assistant professor. But I never took a course with him. I did talk to him once or twice.
Tortorice: I did take a course from him.
Sorkin: Oh, did you?
Tortorice: Yes. He taught part of a course.
Sorkin: Oh, right. Right. Right.
Tortorice: Anyway, so the history department in those years was quite an exciting place. Amazing array of professors and—
Sorkin: An enormous number of graduate students.
Tortorice: Enormous amount of people there. Lots of political ferment in the air and the antiwar movement was in full swing.
Sorkin: That’s right. Yeah. Well, but things, you know, I got there in September of 1970. The bombing of the Army Math Research Center was in August. And I think there was a real change after that. For one thing, I think the real intellectual ferment and the sort of intellectual commitment of figuring out the Vietnam War had already passed. I think that had taken place in the mid-60s and into the late 60s. And by the time I got there, it was sort of well, antiwar demonstrations were just something you did. It was part of undergraduate life. But there weren’t the kinds of teach-ins and things that there had been in earlier years.
Tortorice: It had a kind of nihilistic feel, as I recall.
Sorkin: Yeah, it did. It did. It did.
Tortorice: It was a chance, I mean, it did, it was occasioned by, well, I’m sure resentment, by frustration with the fact that—
Sorkin: But it had almost turned into what George would teach about ritual and symbols. You know? It was ritualistic. There were symbols. There were chants. There was a strong feeling of solidarity. But there wasn’t that much intellectual content anymore, I think.
Tortorice: And it seemed to me that in those years with the police it was more like cat and mouse.
Sorkin: Cat and mouse. That’s right.
Tortorice: You knew you’d go out there in the streets and throw things and they’d chase you.
Sorkin: That’s right. Or you would bring out old furniture and things and set it on fire.
Sorkin: And then the police would come along or the fire department and put out the fire.
Tortorice: You’re right. It had become much more ritualized.
Sorkin: It had become ritualized.
Tortorice: Less politicized. Yeah.
Sorkin: Yeah. Well, it was politicized. But it didn’t have much intellectual content anymore.
Tortorice: Right. Yes. (laughs) It certainly occasioned a big response, in terms of—
Sorkin: Yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: So what was George like? You took this one undergraduate seminar.
Sorkin: Well, I first took a course with him, I took his, you know that, was it a four-semester sequence that he taught on European culture and intellectual history? I took the, I think it was 1815 to 1870. I took that lecture course with him. And it was an exhilarating, electrifying experience. I mean, his lectures were just so brilliant. And he just seemed to know everything.
Tortorice: He had that authoritative quality. (laughs)
Sorkin: Yes. And he had that you know, relationship to the students, you know, where he would burst the bubble of all kinds of conventional pieties of left and right, of liberalism and conservatism, of Marxists and whether Maoists or Trotskyists.
Tortorice: He was ironic and a bit dismissive of all these things.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: What he was trying to teach was how to think.
Sorkin: But he also knew about them. And he knew their history, and he knew the ins and outs of the differences between them. So, yeah, to a young undergraduate from the South Side of Chicago, he was the European professor. I mean, George was once dismayed when I told him that. He said, “But I was an American professor!”
I said, “No, you weren’t, George.” (laughs)
Tortorice: Yeah. He would say that he was the most American person he’d ever met.
Sorkin: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: Well, okay. He did have, he was right in certain ways. Yeah, I mean, that whole effort to get students to think critically.
Tortorice: That they had come in with so much ideological—
Sorkin: Baggage, exactly.
Tortorice: —baggage from all sorts.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: He tried to just blow that up.
Sorkin: That’s right. Because I also, I never took a course with Harvey Goldberg, but I did go to some of his lectures, which were fabulous performances. But they really were dogmatic.
Sorkin: Here he was giving a Marxist interpretation of the Chinese Revolution or the Russian Revolution. And they were brilliant performances, and sort of an intellectual tour de force. But they were performances.
Tortorice: Well, and in those classes, you basically knew that what you were supposed to do was basically regurgitate back what you had been told was the correct way to interpret these things.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Exactly, interpret. That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: And there was a certain approach. And if you didn’t take that approach, it wasn’t helpful. Where with George, it would have been the opposite, I would think. But.
Sorkin: Yeah. That’s right, that’s right. And George had this wonderful way in lectures. Years later he told me two things about teaching undergraduate lecture courses. He said first of all, if you don’t know the material, you take two textbooks that take different points of view and you put them together. And then he said, you have one or two simple points that you want to make. And you keep repeating them. (laughter)
Tortorice: That was the way that he taught.
Sorkin: And that’s what he did. And it was very effective. There were phrases that you came away with. And those were the key to each of the lectures.
Tortorice: Well, he was a performer, also.
Sorkin: He was a performer, also, but of a different kind. Yeah.
Tortorice: So that question, both Harvey and George were quote unquote “performers.” They were both very influential in that period.
Sorkin: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: Politically, culturally, socially on campus. They were both Jewish and closeted gay.
Tortorice: It’s an amazing phenomenon.
Sorkin: It is.
Tortorice: They both had a high level of charisma.
Tortorice: In some ways, it was a kind of deflection of what would have been a quote unquote, a “normal life.”
Tortorice: And I don’t think we can really comprehend the level of pressure and repression that they were encircled by.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: So this was in some ways their response to that. So.
Sorkin: That’s right. And it was, you know, they were sort of closeted in multiple ways. I mean, George was the first Jew hired in the history department. And Harvey wasn’t long after, might have been the second or third, I don’t know.
Tortorice: Probably the third.
Sorkin: So not just being gay. It was also being Jewish in what was—
Tortorice: A WASP, male WASP—
Sorkin: A very high WASP, Midwestern department.
Tortorice: So, well, we’ll talk a bit about you and George and George’s work and all of that a bit later. But we should move on with where you moved on. And that was to Berkeley.
Tortorice: So why did you decide, you decided simply that you wanted to work with Robert Alter.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: And then switched to—
Sorkin: History. That’s right. And when it came time, and I primarily studied European intellectual history. Eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth century. I studied some German history. And then I did a second field in Jewish history. Which Berkeley didn’t really offer in those days. The only person who taught Jewish history was Richard Webster, who was actually a historian of Italy. But had done his PhD at Columbia and had studied Jewish history with Salo Baron (1895-1989). So he would have, if you were interested in Jewish history, he would have you read his favorite book in Hebrew, which was Yehezkel Kaufmann’s (1889-1963) Golah ve-Nekhar, Diaspora and Alienness [Note: Exile and the Alien Land], which was a big two-volume work from the 1930s, which I read in the course of a semester with him.
And Richard Webster was quite an eccentric. I don’t need to go into the details. But he had very interesting things to say about Jewish history, and I learned quite a bit from him.
But in order to really qualify as an aspiring historian of modern Jewish history, I studied with Amos Funkenstein (1937-1995) who in those days taught at UCLA. But you could study with faculty at other UC campuses. So Shifra and I went down to Los Angeles one summer and I studied with him. And then he was on my orals committee for the comprehensive exams. And then he was my second reader for my dissertation.
And Funkenstein was brilliant, one of a kind. He’d come from an orthodox background, grown up in Israel. He had tremendous textual knowledge of Jewish texts. And then had studied in Germany and specialized in medieval philosophy, and medieval Jewish philosophy, but actually knew the whole history of philosophy from the Greeks to the twentieth century. And he read my dissertation chapters. He gave me good advice and suggestions. Yeah.
Tortorice: So it sounds like you were incredibly lucky in the advisors that you—
Sorkin: That’s right. I was incredibly lucky in having a number of different mentors. And also in, I would say, having a kind of haphazard education. You know, it’s not as if I had a kind of rigorous Jewish education and then studied Jewish history. I had learned Hebrew, which was an important tool. But I didn’t have a really rigorous textual education. But I learned, studied European history and German history. And then because my education was sort of piecemeal and haphazard, I sort of then had to put things together for myself. So I was sort of, I think, freed from a lot of conventional knowledge and wisdom just by having done it on my own. So when it came time to write a dissertation—
Tortorice: With Marty Jay?
Sorkin: With Marty Jay, and Amos Funkenstein as second reader and Reinhard Bendix (1916-1991) in sociology as third reader, I decided I wanted to write about Germany Jewish history in the early, in the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the years that I was at Berkeley, George came regularly to Berkeley because his stepmother was still living there then.
Tortorice: Well then he had known Marty.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: And I think they had talked about his book.
Sorkin: Right. That’s right.
Tortorice: I think Marty has said that George was influential in getting that—
Sorkin: Yeah. And so whenever George came to Berkeley, he would always get in touch with me. We would always get together.
Tortorice: So you mentioned your Shifra. We didn’t really talk about her. How did you meet?
Sorkin: Oh, right. Okay. Well, so, Shifra and I met our first year at Berkeley. I was there as a graduate student. She had started out at University of Chicago, spent two years. And then decided she had had enough of Chicago and wanted a happier and sunnier climate. And so she transferred to Berkeley. And we met in a Biblical Hebrew class at Berkeley. And our first conversation outside of class was about George. Because her brother Allan [Sharlin] (1950-1983) was a graduate student of George’s. And as a matter of fact, once we started dating and seeing each other regularly, Shifra told her brother Allan about me. And Allan went to George to check me out. (laughter)
Tortorice: What’s this character like?
Sorkin: Who is this person? And so actually, what was funny was, in those days, Shifra got a long distance telephone call from Allan during the week. Well in those days, you didn’t make long distance phone calls during the week. They were very expensive, right? If you called home, you know, you would call on Sunday when there were reduced rates. So Shifra thought why is Allan calling? Well, he was calling to say that I was okay. George had said that I was all right. Well, George with his usual hyperbole had said that I was a genius. So I was okay.
Tortorice: Well, he was right. (laughs) obviously. Great. Well, that’s a wonderful story. So you’re at Berkeley. You had decided to work with Marty Jay.
Sorkin: That’s right. And when it came to a dissertation topic, I decided I wanted to work on German Jewish history. And I met with George. George and Marty, actually, at Allan’s apartment. And George said to me, “Great, that’s a good period to work on. Read sermons and think about the concept of Bildung.” Because this was when George was working on German Jews beyond Judaism.
And so for my next seminar paper, I actually wrote on Wilhelm von Humboldt and the concept of Bildung. And that then became, that was my last seminar paper. And that became my first published article in the Journal of the History of Ideas. And so I followed George’s advice. I got a fellowship from an organization that no longer exists, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which was supporting early career academics in Jewish studies. And Shifra and I went to Jerusalem for the year. And I sat in the Hebrew University and National Library and read sermons and journals and other things.
And George was there for one of the semesters. We saw George regularly. We also met this nephew that year. His nephew came to Israel to visit. And our oldest child, Phoebe, was born that year at Hadassah Hospital.
Tortorice: Hmm. Yes.
Sorkin: And George would take us to, he always took us to restaurants in East Jerusalem. He had a famous, now I can’t remember the name of it. There was an Arab restaurant he would take us to during the week for dinner. And then on Sundays, he would take us to the American Colony Hotel for brunch.
Tortorice: Which is really an experience.
Sorkin: Yes, it is. It is.
Tortorice: Yeah. Wonderful. Well, it was very different in Israel in those days in terms of where you could go—
Tortorice: Security. You could go to Jericho.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: It was very different.
Sorkin: This was 79, 80. Yeah.
Tortorice: A very pleasant time, in many ways.
Sorkin: Oh, it was. Yeah.
Tortorice: That must have been a wonderful experience.
Sorkin: It was.
Tortorice: It sounds like this gave you a lot of your research for what became your dissertation?
Sorkin: Actually, George arranged for me to give some sort of little seminar at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem as well.
Tortorice: He was always very aware of how he could promote the careers of students that he felt were—
Sorkin: And he definitely, he did that when I left Berkeley and went to Brown. And then when he urged me to leave Oxford and to come to UW.
Tortorice: So he was really a very crucial, important part of your life and career.
Sorkin: Yes. That’s right. That’s right. Because in the years I was in Oxford, from 86 to 92, George was a regular visitor at Cambridge. And I would drive over to Cambridge to have dinner with George. I invited him to give a seminar at Oxford. I would also see him in London when he came. I would visit him at the Wiener Library. He would always take me to lunch at the, what is it, the British Architecture Foundation?
Tortorice: Mm hmm. He loved that building.
Sorkin: Which was in walking distance of the Leo Baeck Institute in those days, which was in Portland Place. No longer there. Yeah, so I saw George regularly.
Tortorice: Well, that whole London part of his life is something that is not very well documented, but was a really huge and crucial part of his life.
Sorkin: Yeah. And he felt entirely at home in London.
Tortorice: He did. And he had so many scholarly contacts there with the German Jewish exiles who ended up there.
Sorkin: That’s right. That whole exile/émigré world.
Tortorice: And the journal, of course.
Sorkin: And the journal. And Walter Laqueur. And he had been offered, he was offered a job at the University of Redding, which he—
Tortorice: Yes. He turned down a number of jobs.
Sorkin: Right. That and NYU.
Tortorice: I’m going to just take a short break.
Tortorice: Okay. So we’re back. So you’ve received your PhD and you talked about your graduate advisor and who was on your committee, and how you decided to work on what became then The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840. So this book is often mentioned as a transformative book in the field. Can you give us a bit more information on what you were trying to do, what your thesis was and how it’s been received?
Sorkin: Well, I was trying to offer an alternative to what was then, and in many circles still is, the sort of conventional or accepted interpretation of German Jewish history. Which was that the struggle for political emancipation had led to the assimilation of German Jews. That German Jews had renounced their Judaism, stopped being religiously observant, had adopted German language and German culture in place of Judaism. And what I tried to suggest was that German Jews had adopted German culture but they were able to amalgamate it with different forms of Judaism. And in so doing, they created a kind of German Jewish subculture, in which they were using German culture in a slightly different way than other Germans were using German culture. And so what it suggested was that Jews in fact hadn’t assimilated, but, if you take assimilation as a pejorative, but rather had found a way of creating a German Jewish culture which allowed them to be both Germans and Jews.
And I think what was, what I also tried to do in the course of the book, was to show how this ideology of emancipation around the notion of Bildung emerged not just as a set of ideas, but then I also tried to show how it informed a set of institutions, secondary associations, etcetera.
And that’s something that I had learned from George. One of George’s important innovations in The Crisis of the Germany Ideology was to show not just the emergence of the ideology, but then how it became part of so many different German institutions. And how it was institutionalized and normalized.
Tortorice: So George would have been pleased that you wrote this book. And his response must have been very positive. It sounds like you were on the same wavelength.
Sorkin: Yes, George felt that I had interpreted the German Jewish use of Bildung differently than he had. Because after all, in German Jews Beyond Judaism, he was primarily concerned to show how German Jews adhered to this humanist notion of Bildung after Germans had abandoned it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for various forms of nationalism, irrationalism, fascism, Nazism, etcetera. So my interpretation was first of all chronologically narrower. But I never thought that, you know, I think my overall emphasis was different. But I always thought that what I was doing complemented what George had done.
What was also different about the work, the book The Transformation of German Jewry from a lot of Jewish history written at the time is that I had an introductory chapter about German history, in which I traced the emergence and development of the concept of Bildung and then showed the role that it played in the emancipation process. So that I contextualized German Jewish history in German history in ways that most historians weren’t doing.
Tortorice: And George would have been an influence on doing history that way, I guess.
Sorkin: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: So to just for a minute, to go back to Berkeley, Marty Jay has had an incredible group of graduate students that have ended up in all parts of the world, really.
Tortorice: A huge number. But he must have been a very effective graduate trainer.
Sorkin: Marty was a model in two ways, I would say. First of all, he was a model advisor. If you wanted to talk to him, he was available. When you had a dissertation chapter to show him, he read it and gave you comments. He was always conscientious, prompt, and involved. As a matter of fact, he told me at his retirement party that he had this strategy that when students would hand him a dissertation chapter, he would hand write notes on the manuscript that they wouldn’t be able to read, so that they’d then have to come in and talk to him about it. (laughter)
Tortorice: Ha! What a great idea! He’d just scribble something.
Sorkin: He would just scribble something, and you couldn’t—and the other, Marty was a model as a scholar. He was always onto something new. He was always reading prodigiously. Marty, like George, read everything. I don’t know how he did it. Especially given how many dissertations he was supervising. And not just in history, but also in critical theory, in the rhetoric department. So, yes, Marty was, you know, Marty was a model advisor. When I think of myself as a graduate student advisor, I always think of Marty.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. Well I think the important thing is that sense of engagement with the student, which I’m finding it’s not that common.
Tortorice: I mean, I’m hearing stories, both in these interviews and in personal stories, that and this could cause a great deal of stress.
Sorkin: Sure. That’s right. That’s right. No, I follow Marty and also George. You know, when students need a letter of recommendation, I produce it quickly. You know, or when they need advice, you know.
Tortorice: Yeah, you always have been very much on top of things.
Sorkin: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: Okay, so you’ve left Berkeley and you’ve got your degree and you are on to your first job, which was at Brown.
Sorkin: Brown. So this was a rather odd position. (laughs) Because it was a new position and basically a new program. Jacob Neusner (1932-2016) had been in the religion department. He was a megalomaniacal narcissist. He couldn’t get along with his colleagues. And in order to keep him happy, the administration created a separate program in Judaic studies and gave him two new positions, one in modern Hebrew literature, and one in modern Jewish history. So I was hired for the position in modern Jewish history. Neusner had a very bad reputation and track record as someone who deliberately set out to destroy the careers of junior faculty. He hadn’t tenured anyone or voted to tenure anyone in at least a decade and a half.
So I was sort of aware of these things. But, you know, being young and ambitious, I wanted to go to an Ivy League university. I could have gone to the University of Washington, Seattle. But I went. Against people’s better advice. I think George even told me not to go. My brother-in-law told me not to go. Because he knew Joan Scott. And Joan Scott was there in the history department. She advised against it.
I mean, indicative of what the situation was, the job I applied for was advertised as a joint appointment between Judaic studies and history. When I was there for my interview, there were these odd tensions with the people in history. When I actually got there, my position was exclusively in Judaic studies, because it turned out that Neusner had advertised it as a joint appointment without ever consulting with the history department. (laughs)
Tortorice: Good lord. And they probably didn’t want anything to do with him.
Sorkin: They didn’t want anything to do with him because basically as one of the senior historians, I became friendly with Gordon Wood (b. 1933) said to me, is we would have a colleague that we wouldn’t be able to protect. From Neusner.
So the three years at Brown were, in one respect, they were quite awful. Because Neusner really wanted to undermine my career. He undermined the career of the person in Hebrew literature and the person actually left academia.
Tortorice: How would he do that? Just by, not to get into—
Sorkin: Oh, he asked me to give a seminar for the faculty. Which I did. And then he wrote me a letter saying this was intellectually one of the most egregious performances he had ever seen. But as an historian that was, you know, wedded to documents—and he wrote me all kinds of crazy letters like that—I kept all of them.
And so what happened was, towards the end of my second year and the beginning of the third year, I came up for renewal. Which in most instances is fairly pro forma. I had very good teaching evaluations. And I was making good progress turning my dissertation into a book. And usually that’s—but of course, Neusner wanted me out. So he engineered a process in which he said, the only manuscript you can submit for our scrutiny is a manuscript that is actually in a publisher’s hands. You can’t just give us chapters you’re working on.
Well as a matter of fact, I was far enough along that I was looking for a publisher at that point. I did submit my chapters to Judaic studies. Neusner in his inimitable way got all of the other faculty to vote against my renewal. I protested to what was then called ConFrat, the Committee on Faculty Renewal and Tenure. And I submitted all the copies of all of these crazy letters Neusner had written to me.
The Committee on Faculty Renewal and Tenure then called each member of Judaic studies before it and interviewed them about my manuscript. Including Neusner. And it became obvious to them that these people hadn’t read the manuscript. And so the Committee on Faculty Renewal and Tenure voted unanimously not to accept the recommendation of Jewish studies. Well, not to accept the recommendation. The provost, who then sort of sold me out, gave me a one-year appointment in the history department.
But in the meantime, I had gone on the job market. There were two jobs in Jewish history, one at Indiana and one at Oxford. I went to the interview at Oxford. The search committee or the electing board was sort of a bit overwhelming. It was Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), Sir Raymond Carr (1919-2015), Harry Shukman (1931-2012) from Saint Antony’s College, David Patterson (1922-2005), who was president of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and a couple of other people. And in the Oxford practice of those days, a job interview was half an hour. All of the candidates were interviewed the same afternoon, and the job was offered to someone at the end of the day. So I was offered the job at the end of the day. And I went back to Providence. And Shifra saw when I emerged from the taxi that I was smiling. And she said, “Okay. We’re going to Oxford.”
Tortorice: Well. Brown missed the boat on that one, I have to say. And Neusner stayed on until he retired?
Sorkin: No. This was the beginning of the unraveling of Neusner’s career at Brown. Because Judaic Studies had applied to become a department. And there was an outside visiting committee, which I think may have recommended departmental status. But the administration turned it down on grounds of abuse of junior faculty.
Sorkin: Neusner immediately resigned as co-director of Judaic Studies. And within a few years he left Brown and went to someplace in Florida. He did have a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he thought his one-year appointment was a permanent position. (laughter) And he also argued with the chef. But then he went to Florida. And after he retired from Florida, he went to Bard. But he had, you know.
Tortorice: He stayed around. So some good came out of this.
Sorkin: Some good came out of it.
Tortorice: Well, and you met some great people at Brown.
Sorkin: I had some wonderful colleagues.
Tortorice: Yes, you did.
Sorkin: And yes, I had wonderful colleagues in the history department. Mary Gluck in European intellectual history, and Tom Abbott Gleason (1938-2015) in Russian history. They were sort of my intellectual community. I first read the manuscript of Mary’s first book, which was on György Lukács and the Sunday Circle. And she read the manuscript of my book and made very helpful comments.
And then I had two colleagues in Judaic studies, Alan Zuckerman (1945-2009), who was a political scientist, and Calvin Goldscheider, a sociologist, who were writing modern Jewish history at the time, called A Transformation of the Jews, I think. Came out with University of Chicago Press. In which they tried to use the methods of sort of behavioral political science and sociology to explain modern Jewish history. And I found myself writing in opposition to them as I wrote my book. And that was very helpful.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. I could see where that would be.
Sorkin: Because I wanted to show that yes, these issues of demography and contact are very important, but culture also played a role. So it helped me to formulate and articulate my own ideas more clearly.
Tortorice: And Joan Scott was there in those years.
Sorkin: Yes. I didn’t get to know Joan at all.
Tortorice: At that point.
Sorkin: At that point. No.
Tortorice: All right. So, now onwards to Oxford. You were there for about ten years.
Sorkin: Six years.
Tortorice: Six years.
Sorkin: Six years. Six years.
Tortorice: Okay. And what was that experience like? What were you doing there, for instance?
Sorkin: Yeah. Well, I was teaching modern Jewish history. Obviously Oxford has its own very odd institutional organization. I taught undergraduates through the Oriental Institute. That’s where Hebrew language, all non-European languages were. So Jewish studies was also in the Oriental Institute. And then I taught graduate students through the faculty of modern history.
There were a couple of things that were formative about Oxford. First of all, I had a very light teaching load. So I spent lots of hours reading in the library. After I finished The Transformation of German Jewry, I wanted to write a book on what I then came to call The Religious Enlightenment. So I started reading for that. But I really, it really, I didn’t have the background to write that book. Because it involved learning Catholic theology, Protestant theology. It just involved a tremendous amount of background. So I started reading in those years, and I wrote a sort of comparative article comparing the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, to the Catholic Enlightenment in the 18th century. And that was sort of an agenda for the larger book. So I spent a lot of time in the library.
The other thing that was formative was that European history was taught very differently at Oxford. You know, in the United States at Madison, but also at Berkeley, people studied a national history. And we were very much siloed in national history. There was also much more emphasis on intellectual and cultural history. I mean, that was true for George, it was true for Marty, it was true for much of the Berkeley department.
Oxford, people were primarily interested in political and diplomatic history.
Tortorice: Not even social history.
Sorkin: Not even social history as much. And also, they took a broader view of Europe. People didn’t just study one country. They studied the Hapsburg Empire. They studied Czarist Russia. So my interest broadened across the continent.
So in a way, it was sort of a reeducation in history. I was sort of flailing around, trying to figure out how to write this second book. And then I was commissioned by a small press in London, Peter Halban Publishers. Peter Halban is Isaiah Berlin’s stepson. And he had a series called Jewish Thinkers, which was modeled on the Past Masters series. And he needed someone to write the volume on Mendelssohn. So I thought writing on Mendelssohn would be a good first step towards writing this book on the religious Enlightenment, because Mendelssohn would be either a major Jewish figure or the Jewish figure in that book.
So I accepted, I signed a contract to write that book. I started writing it I think the last year we were in Oxford. And then I finished it in Madison. And that became a very important book for me. Because I tried to do two things in writing about Mendelssohn. First of all, like The Transformation of German Jewry, I tried to locate him in the larger context of German thought. And I knew enough at that point to write about the Protestant and Catholic enlightenments, and to see what Mendelssohn was doing in relationship to those. Because, for example, Mendelssohn read deeply in ecclesiastical law theory. And used that in his work. And some people had pointed to that, but they never really worked out what that meant.
And the second thing is, I started reading Mendelssohn’s works chronologically, sitting in the Oriental Reading Room at the Bodleian, and all of a sudden realized that there were all these works of his in Hebrew. And when I looked at [Alexander] Altmann’s authoritative biography and other studies, well, they mentioned these works, but they didn’t really analyze them. So I decided to sort of flip the way people wrote about Mendelssohn. People wrote about Mendelssohn primarily using his German works, and would relegate the Hebrew works to the margins. So I put the Hebrew works front and center, and then showed their relationship to the German works. And organized the study chronologically according to the Hebrew works.
And so that’s actually had a big impact on the scholarship on Mendelssohn since then. Because since that time, anyone who writes responsibly about Mendelssohn, has to take into account the Hebrew works.
And then with a colleague of mine, Eddie [Edward] Breuer, who now teaches at Hebrew University, Eddie wrote an excellent dissertation and first book on Mendelssohn’s Bible commentaries. As a Harvard PhD. We then decided to produce a volume of Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings in English. We thought we could do it in three years. We were in a conference at Tel Aviv University together. And you know how flights out of Israel leave during the middle of the night. So we shared a taxi to the airport. So at three in the morning, or four in the morning, I said to Eddie, “Why don’t we do a volume of Mendelssohn’s Hebrew works? Translate them?” And so in this middle of the night reverie, we thought, we can do this in three years. Of course, it took us fifteen years. Because translating those texts is incredibly difficult. Involves all kinds of technical knowledge.
Tortorice: And you did the translation?
Sorkin: Eddie did the translations of the text. I would then check the translations. I would draft an introduction. And we annotated the translations together. He annotated for rabbinic sources. I annotated for 17th and 18th century philosophy. There’s an introduction to each text. I drafted the introduction and he would rewrite it, then I would rewrite it. So we wrote together. And then I drafted the introduction to the volume, and of course we rewrote it together. And that appeared, finally, in 2018 in the Yale Judaic Studies series published by Yale University Press.
Tortorice: I remember when Eddie came as the Mosse visiting scholar.
Sorkin: That’s right. Yes, that’s right.
Tortorice: He was at the Hebrew University [at that point?].
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: So we’re back after a short break. So you’re still at Oxford. And you had written another very influential book with a unique thesis.
Sorkin: Well, the Mendelssohn book didn’t come out until, I didn’t finish it until I was in Madison.
Tortorice: Yes. But you started the research there.
Sorkin: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: Because I remember you working on it.
Tortorice: And in particular, on the religious Enlightenment book.
Sorkin: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: Reading all those obscure sermons. (laughs) Piles of things that you went through. But, anyways. So you’re at Oxford. Did you have interactions with Isaiah Berlin?
Sorkin: I did. Because, you know, he hired me. He was on the electing board, the search committee. And Isaiah Berlin was a master of conversation and loved conversation and loved to talk to people. So I was overwhelmingly intimidated by him, of course. Here is this great icon. But he invited me to visit. I visited him in his rooms at All Souls and we talked about Jewish history. He invited me to Headington House, where he lived. Of course the butler brought in tea for us. (laughs)
And then one day, I don’t know how, he came to one of my lectures.
Tortorice: That’s great.
Sorkin: And then I would see him, he was involved with the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. We were once at a fundraising dinner at the Guild Hall in London. And as people entered the room, there was someone dressed as a Beefeater announcing people. And Isaiah Berlin went around the back of this guy so he wouldn’t have to be announced. (laughter)
And then we were actually on an electing board together. We were hiring someone in East European Jewish history, and we sat on that committee together. And of course, clearly he had recommended me to his stepson, Peter Halban, to write this Mendelssohn book. And when I applied to the job at Madison, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me.
Tortorice: That’s great.
Sorkin: He told me I shouldn’t leave Oxford. He had never left Oxford. That’s where he felt at home. George said the same thing. George said, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t leave Oxford. But if you’re going to leave Oxford, come to Madison.” (laughs)
Tortorice: So, he really embraced the English gentleman and the elite life.
Sorkin: Oh, to the T. To the T. You know, he, first of all, he had sort of the quintessential Oxford career. A double first in greats and in PPE. A five-year fellowship by examination at All Souls. A tutor at New College. Right? And then he became head of house, he was the founding president of Wolfson College. He was president of the British Academy. You know, he was totally at home there. He belonged to a number of the best clubs in London. He was on the board of Covent Gardens for music, the philharmonic. Yes, he really was—
Tortorice: Do you think his work is comparable to George’s? Not in terms of influence, but in terms of relevance. In terms of—
Sorkin: Well, I think the way their, his approach was much different. He came from philosophy. And really wrote about history of ideas and personalities. Whereas George was much more of a historian. But I do think both of them, and especially both of them coming of age in the 1930s and having firsthand experience on the extreme politics of the 1930s. After all, Isaiah Berlin witnessed the Russian Revolution. His family left after the revolution. He saw people on the street being hauled away to be murdered. Both of them tried to champion a kind of humane version of liberalism. And George’s version came from the German tradition. Isaiah Berlin’s was rooted more in French thought, Russian thought. But it was a similar project.
Tortorice: And they both really reinvented themselves in very different ways.
Sorkin: Clearly. Clearly. Isaiah Berlin reinvented himself as an Oxford don, as an upper-class Englishman. He always dressed impeccably. You know, and George reinvented himself as an American.
Tortorice: Well, that’s right. And, you know, at one time, George was very tempted to reinvent himself as an upper-class English scholar and gentleman. (laughs)
Sorkin: Yeah. Well, he could, he’d spent those years in boarding school in Yorkshire. He was an undergraduate at Cambridge. He felt entirely at home in London. He could have done that.
Tortorice: I think it would have been a disaster if he had ended up living his whole life in England. Given what happened with his cousin. And the kind of–
Sorkin: Yeah. Oh, with Werner [Mosse] (1918-2001).
Tortorice: And I don’t think the English ever truly accept outsiders.
Tortorice: Anyways, but as you know, Arie Dubnov wrote this critical book on Berlin [Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal (Palgrave, 2012)], which really was attacked in particular by his students and people that just feel it’s not appropriate to even criticize him, it seems to me. It’s interesting. He has that kind of position still amongst those that –
Sorkin: Hmm. That’s right. Well as a matter of fact, I just sat on a panel at Yale sponsored by the Center for the Study of Political Representative Institutions about Isaiah Berlin. And I think he’s clearly not beyond criticism. But I do think that his impact on political thought is being revived and is being revered or appreciated more than perhaps in the past.
Tortorice: Well, that’s good.
Tortorice: Yeah. Okay. So, and you found, you had some graduate students at Oxford. And you found it overall to be a very positive, but you left, I think, because it was very difficult to have a family there.
Sorkin: We left primarily for family reasons. My lectureship was tenured. I could have stayed. But we were there at the end of the Thatcher years and the beginning of the John Major years. Our kids were in state schools. The schools were starved for funds. Phoebe in middle school had to share a mathematics textbook with three other kids.
Tortorice: Oh, for God’s sake.
Sorkin: That was the state of the schools. And then, what also happened is we were living in East Oxford, which is the wrong side of the tracks. In Oxford, it means the wrong side of the plain, the wrong side of the river. And East Oxford had a wonderful elementary school. The middle school was not so great. But when we bought our house there, the kids could go to high school in North Oxford, which had an excellent high school which would prepare them for university. The district was redrawn the last two years we were there. So our kids would no longer be able to go to that high school. And the high schools that they could have attended wouldn’t have prepared them adequately to go to university. The high schools didn’t offer enough of what were called A levels, A level courses.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. They really do tracking there.
Sorkin: Oh, you’re really tracked. And it’s an inflexible system. So we really felt that we needed to come back to the US. Here I was in this very privileged position at Oxford. And if we stayed, we wouldn’t have been able to give our kids the kind of education they deserved for them to attain whatever it is they wanted.
Tortorice: Well, and I think they don’t really pay much there, so you couldn’t have sent your children to private school.
Sorkin: No, no. We couldn’t afford to send them to private schools. And we also couldn’t afford to move to North Oxford, where the schools were better. We didn’t have family money. And we were always (laughs) we were always living on overdraft in Oxford. I needed, we finally sort of got it down to a system where I needed two good gigs a year. Either a very well-paid lecture or a well-paid commissioned essay in order to clear off our overdraft. And that was no way to live.
Tortorice: No, that’s stressful, I mean to, yeah, always have that hanging over your head. So, the position in Madison opens.
Sorkin: The position at Madison opened. George first told me about it over lunch in London. I told him I wasn’t interested. He was disappointed. Then Ken[neth] Sacks, who was chair of the history department came to Oxford to give a lecture. He got in touch with me. I invited him to lunch at Saint Antony’s. Ken was, I’m sure still is, a fabulous salesman. And he sold me on Madison.
I went home and Shifra and I talked about it. And we realized that Madison would solve all of our problems. It was affordable. The public schools were good. It was an excellent opportunity for me professionally because it was an endowed chair. I would come as a full professor. And I was being asked, or given the opportunity, to create a Jewish studies program from the ground up.
Tortorice: Little did you know what you were getting into. (laughter) Just kidding. No, it was a great life, I’m sure, in Madison.
Sorkin: Yeah. It was a great opportunity. What I think people don’t quite realize is that when I came to Madison, I came without any fundraising experience whatsoever. Though I had watched people fundraise. I’d watched Neusner fundraise, I’d watched David Patterson, the head of the Oxford Center fundraise. But I had not done it myself. Plus, I felt that I had been offered this position sort of prematurely. You know, I had a book. I had an edited volume. I probably had 15 articles. But I hadn’t written a second book. So I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to produce a second and a third book in order to really qualify to be the Frances and Lawrence Weinstein Professor of Jewish Studies.
Tortorice: I wish more of our faculty felt that way. (laughs) I shouldn’t say that. Anyways, so you really started from scratch in terms of building Jewish studies.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: And I imagine that came about really during Donna Shalala’s—
Sorkin: It was Donna Shalala. And there were two circumstances that made fundraising for Jewish studies easier, or made it possible. First, the university made it an official fundraising mission. You know, there are people who have tried to fundraise for Jewish studies or Judaic studies at various universities, kind of as a rogue operation on their own. That never works. You have to have the university’s endorsement and the university’s resources through its development office. In this case, the UW Foundation. And the Foundation devoted a great deal of man hours to fundraising for Jewish studies. I certainly didn’t know how to do it and couldn’t have done it without them.
And second, the timing was right. Because the university had just finished a major capital campaign. And there were standing committees of alumni in cities across the country. And the Foundation people just went to those committees and said, “Is there anyone here who would be interested in continuing working and now fundraising for Jewish studies?”
So we immediately had groups in New York and Los Angeles, in Chicago. And so we didn’t have to start from the ground up.
Tortorice: So how did you go about organizing? How was that done? Was it done by a committee? I assume George was—
Sorkin: George was involved. George and Lawrence Weinstein were involved as advisors. We brought on other alums who could also be significant donors. Harvey “Bud” Meyerhoff. We started having events. George’s inaugural lecture as the first visiting research professor at the Holocaust Museum. We also organized events in Los Angeles.
Tortorice: And George went on the road, too.
Sorkin: And George went on the road as well. We had events in Chicago. We had sort of parlor events, where I would come and talk about Jewish studies in Palm Desert in California. And eventually what happened is Bud Meyerhoff, who had been a major, came from a family of philanthropists in Baltimore and had been one of the major fundraisers for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and had also funded the Jewish studies program at the University of Maryland, said to us, “Look. I could write you a check for the whole thing.” We wanted five or six million dollars. “But I’m not going to do it. I’m going to make you work. I’m going to give you a one-million-dollar challenge grant. And you’ll get it when you raise two million dollars.”
So that gave us a deadline. It turned up the heat in an unpleasant way. But that was the impetus. And so we worked really hard and we found, in fact, three other one million dollar donors. I mean, we had an anonymous donor, which was George. We had a donor from Los Angeles, and then one from Chicago. So we actually had four one million dollar donors. And those became four junior faculty positions. And once we had hired those faculty members, we then had a sufficiently comprehensive curriculum that we could have a Jewish studies major. So we first introduced a certificate, a minor in Jewish studies, and then a major.
Tortorice: And Fran and Lawrence had already given money to—
Sorkin: Fran and Lawrence had given the money for my position.
Tortorice: Right. And that was even earlier.
Sorkin: That was even earlier. That was also a one million-dollar gift. So that’s how it came about. Plus at those events we also raised money for the library. There was a Jewish fraternity, which George had actually advised in the 50s and 60s. And the fraternity members raised money for a library endowment, for acquisitions, which made a big difference.
Tortorice: Which they never continued. They just spent that down.
Sorkin: Yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: And they didn’t really continue.
Sorkin: But we bought, for example, we bought the nucleus of the Yiddish library from the National Yiddish Book Center. I think we bought twelve hundred books, and other things like that. So that’s really what created the program.
And I, looking around at the world of Jewish studies, it became clear to me that there were some people who had developed Jewish studies programs, done the fundraising. For example, Alvin Rosenfeld (b. 1938) in Indiana. And who then stayed on for the rest of their career as director. And I didn’t want to do that.
So I tended my letter of resignation after five years. But the person who was going to come on as the next director needed another semester, so I stayed for another semester, so it was five and a half years. And by then I had been appointed to a five-year senior fellowship at the Institute for Research and the Humanities at Madison. And so that’s where I went.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. But you stayed actively engaged.
Sorkin: I stayed actively engaged in Jewish studies. I always felt responsible for the program. But I wasn’t involved in the day to day operations in the same way.
Tortorice: So what was your vision? What was the vision of the early organizers? How did you see the program functioning with in a secular university, and within a field that in some ways can veer towards more sectarian?
Sorkin: That’s right. Well, look, by the time we were building Jewish studies at Madison, we were latecomers. There were already clear models of how to organize Jewish studies at a public or state university. Because the first Jewish studies program at a state university was at Ohio State. That was in the 1960s. So we’re doing this almost thirty years later. So the model at a state university is not to have a separate department of Jewish studies, but to have an interdisciplinary program in which the faculty members have their tenure home in their respective disciplines. So my tenure home was in history. When we hired Tony Michaels, his tenure home was in history. The person in Jewish education had her tenure home in education. The person in Israel studies was a political scientist. He was located in political science. Etcetera. So you create an interdisciplinary program, which has funding, which runs activities. But which is integrated into the larger university curriculum through its faculty. Whereas at some private universities, you have separate departments of Jewish studies. It’s true at NYU. Or you have departments of Jewish studies that are in a Near Eastern Studies Department. That’s the case at Harvard, for example, and Brandeis.
Tortorice: Well in, I think there are now some faculty lines that are directly attached to Jewish studies, for various reasons. That’s a later development.
Sorkin: That’s a later development. That’s because the Hebrew and Semitic studies department was dissolved.
Tortorice: Right. We won’t go into all of the details, but yes. So you came to Madison in—
Tortorice: In 92. And so I know you and Shifra were very much in contact with George all the time, inviting him for dinner.
Sorkin: And you as well.
Tortorice: Yes. Well, that’s true. Yes. And that he continued to discuss Jewish studies with you. History. And that this was a great resource.
Sorkin: Yes, yes. And George played a major role in developing Jewish studies. It was his scholarly standing, his gravitas which made Jewish studies possible. Because after all, his courses in Jewish history, or his course in Jewish history, was the first course in Jewish studies offered at the university. So he was the pioneer.
Tortorice: And in a way, the way he taught Jewish history, which I think started in 70 or 71, I think it has to have been one of the first of that kind of course, anyway. But I don’t know.
Tortorice: But it seems to me that that’s early.
Sorkin: It is early. It is early. And I didn’t take that course for credit, but I did sit in on it. I audited that course.
Tortorice: Oh, you did.
Tortorice: It was really more about German Jewish history.
Sorkin: It was more about German Jewish history. It was about the Holocaust. But you know, that course has stayed with me, and the things that George taught.
Tortorice: And it’s amazing, the undergraduates that were in that course, and graduates, who went on to careers—
Sorkin: That’s right. In Jewish history.
Tortorice: Yes. Jewish studies, and really pioneered the field.
Sorkin: Yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: I mean, some of these people like Nancy Green and—
Sorkin: Yeah. That’s right. And I would say that this book that I just published on Jewish emancipation is actually a realization of George, the vision of Jewish history that I learned from George. I mean, I don’t think he would have written this book in the same way. But it’s my understanding of the things he taught.
Tortorice: And so, what do you mean by that?
Sorkin: Well, for example, George was vehemently critical of the ways in which American Jews had come to rely on the Holocaust and Israel as the pillars of their identity. And he thought that that was mistaken, and that they needed to find alternative views. Well, that’s exactly what I try and do in this book by placing emancipation front and center is to argue that the struggle for citizenship and equality is really what the modern Jewish experience is all about, and that it hasn’t ended. That it’s an interminable process, and that we should still be struggling for equality today. And that Israel needs to do the same thing. American Jewry needs to do the same thing.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. Well, that certainly sounds like something George would agree with. And I think he did see the dangers in the kind of sanctification, I suppose you could call, of the Holocaust.
Tortorice: And felt that it really did need, I don’t suppose you could say, to be transcended, but to be put in its proper perspective—
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: –and not be used for nation building and identity.
Sorkin: Not be used for political legitimacy. Not be used for, as a warrant for privilege.
Tortorice: So you were at Madison and made a huge contribution there, and taught courses. And I remember you were a great undergraduate teacher because you, at least in those early years I recall you telling me that you would correct the papers of the students and give them back at least five times in the course of the semester. (laughs)
Tortorice: Which is so rare. You were trying to teach them to write.
Sorkin: Well this is George’s direct impact on me as a teacher. Which is when I would lecture, try to lecture, I would hear George in the back of my head. And I knew I couldn’t do it as well as he did. So I actually stopped lecturing and I ran my courses as discussion courses. Even with sixty or seventy students. Because I also felt that in the Madison undergraduate experience, students sat in too many lecture courses and their learning was too passive.
Tortorice: They just sat there.
Sorkin: They just sat there. And they took it in or they didn’t take it in, but they weren’t actively engaged. They only engaged actively in the discussion sections. So I wanted it to be part of my, the actual lecture hall that the students would participate. So I went over to having discussions where for each class they were assigned primary sources and secondary sources. And in class we would discuss mostly the primary sources but to a certain extent the secondary sources as well.
I also felt that students at Madison didn’t get sufficient opportunity to rewrite papers. You’d write a paper, you’d hand it in, you’d get a grade with some comments. And that was it. So I required students to rewrite every paper. Or at least a number of the papers. And I would build into the course various models of criticism for them to learn how to rewrite. With one paper, I would give them comments and they would rewrite. With another paper, there were undergraduate writing tutors who would give them comments and they would rewrite. And then for still another paper, we would do peer review in class in which their classmates would give them criticism and then they’d rewrite. So that they’d have different experiences of criticism and rewriting and figure out which was best for them. Yeah.
And so I enjoyed doing that. Because teaching at Madison, and since I had been an undergraduate there myself, I always felt that a big part of teaching undergraduates was empowering them. Giving them the sense that they had the right to opinions, to new interpretations, and to be actively engaged.
Tortorice: That was what George was about, too.
Tortorice: He was kind of sparking them to wake up.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right. So I, you know, I had to find my own way of doing that. And teaching my courses as discussions and having them, all of my courses carried writing credit, as writing-intensive courses. And I would use undergraduate writing tutors. And the students really appreciated that.
Tortorice: I bet. I mean, to come out with a history degree with that ability is one of the key reasons that a person should take history.
Sorkin: Exactly. Exactly.
Tortorice: I mean, you can’t ignore that. That should be right at front and center.
Tortorice: And then you had the vast experience of teaching graduate students, and were well respected as a graduate trainer.
Sorkin: Mm hmm. I had some wonderful graduate students who’ve gone on to excellent careers.
Tortorice: Including some of our Mosse Fellows from Israel–
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: –who’ve done very well.
Sorkin: And the American students were also on Mosse Fellowships and were brought to Madison on Mosse fellowships. Ethan Katz, Sarah Wobeck, Josh Shanes. And they’ve produced some excellent books.
Tortorice: Okay. So I don’t want to get to the point where we can’t talk anymore. (laughs)
Sorkin: Should we take a break?
Tortorice: Well, we could. Yeah, that’s a good idea.
Sorkin: Let’s take a break.
Tortorice: Well, we’re back, back here in New York City with Professor David Sorkin. Thanks again, David, for joining us today. So we broke off with you being in Madison, having established Jewish studies undergraduate, graduate teaching. Tell me about your involvement with George’s bequest to the university and the establishment of the Mosse Program. I recall that George was interested in keeping the graduate student support along with, frankly I don’t think he realized how much his estate would be worth.
Sorkin: Mm hmm.
Tortorice: And so I think we were all a bit surprised by how much money there was. And the question was, how to really fulfill his wishes, but also make something that was vibrant and would enhance his field of interest in history. So had you discussed with George at all his bequest? Or with the Foundation? Or did this come as a complete surprise?
Sorkin: No. I think what was remarkable was the contrast between how much funding there was and how little George actually left in terms of directions.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes.
Sorkin: I think there was only, what was it, one paragraph or two paragraphs?
Tortorice: Right. I mean, he had designated money for certain things.
Sorkin: Right. LGBT and—
Tortorice: Graduate fellowships. The professorship, I think was even—
Sorkin: Right, right.
Tortorice: Fully funding the teaching—
Sorkin: But for the exchange program with Hebrew University, it was really just sort of a few bare sentences of creating an exchange program of graduate students between the department of history at Hebrew University—
Tortorice: That was it.
Sorkin: —and the department of history at UW Madison.
Tortorice: Exchange of junior faculty, sometimes senior faculty, and then graduate students.
Sorkin: But primarily graduate students.
Sorkin: And I think—well, first let me say it was one of my great pleasures of my years at Madison of being able to work with you, John, to develop the Program.
Tortorice: Well, thank you.
Sorkin: I mean, I think that we had this wonderful amicable cooperative relationship where we both had in mind our fidelity to George’s vision and we tried to realize it to the best of our abilities. And we would have these meetings where we would brainstorm. And then you went out and did all the work. (laughs)
Tortorice: Well, thank you, David. But I always felt that you were the wisest person because you always gave the best advice and you seemed to know exactly what was the best method forward. And I don’t think we would have ever accomplished what we did in the program without your guidance.
Sorkin: Oh, well, thank you. Thank you.
Tortorice: And what I liked also is that you kept the direction going in a specific way. I mean, the focus in a certain direction, and not all over the place. And we’re very concerned about incursions from wherever they came into the purview of the Mosse Program. And that was very helpful.
Sorkin: Yeah. But I think, you know, we started out with those few, those two bare paragraphs.
Tortorice: Right. Right.
Sorkin: And then we had to envision what it would mean. And I remember the early negotiations with faculty at Hebrew University. I remember Steve Aschheim saying, “Well, why would our graduate students want to come to UW-Madison?” You know.
Sorkin: And we persevered. And of course, I think it became at least in those initial years, one of the highlights of their graduate program.
Tortorice: Oh, of course.
Sorkin: That these students who normally worked multiple jobs in order to support themselves and continue their studies could come to Madison for a year and study fulltime, and then go back to Hebrew University for a year and study full-time.
Tortorice: Well, it was a huge boost to their prospects.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: And many of them have told me that.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: And they’ve just done very well in both directions.
Sorkin: Yeah. And I think the program sort of actualized George’s intuition. I mean, George had this intuition having gone back and forth between UW and Hebrew University for so many years that each institution had something to offer the other.
Tortorice: Well, and he had seen it with his students.
Sorkin: Exactly. At Hebrew University, there was this kind of intense, committed, vehement intellectual life which would benefit UW students. And UW had to offer strong scholarly traditions, commitment to deep research. And in a relaxed atmosphere with this wonderful collegiality and civility.
Tortorice: And usable, great library.
Sorkin: And usable resources. Libraries that would benefit the Israeli students.
Tortorice: And also got them on a program where they actually had to produce.
Tortorice: Because you know they needed to turn a paper in at the end of the semester.
Sorkin: Right, right.
Tortorice: It’s a very different mindset from Hebrew University.
Sorkin: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: And I think the idea that George wanted Israeli students to experience a pluralistic culture, to give those students an opportunity, which they often weren’t given. There’s very little support for graduate students at the Hebrew University, especially in those early years. But then also to give UW students an idea of the complexities of, and to be on the front line of current political developments.
Tortorice: I think on both sides he saw the benefits. And because he had had a number of students that had done that and that had gotten their PhDs in Wisconsin and studied at the Hebrew University, he saw that as a viable, and I know he was very excited about the whole thing. I just think that he probably should have revisited that in terms of giving a little more direction. On the other hand, we did fine. And I think given the fact that all those people—
Sorkin: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. And I think we had the sense from the start that the graduate program was the focus. Having students going in both directions. And that if there was excess funding, well, then, we could use it for other things. Publishing and postdocs and junior faculty. But it was the students who were the primary concern.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes. And we won’t go into all of the details of how we got it started and got through the bureaucracy at both universities, and you know all of the issues.
Sorkin: Well, you did that, John. You knew the people and you knew how to talk to them.
Tortorice: But I think that your support and the support of the committee was essential, too. And that was very evident. And the fact that so many of the committee members knew George in those early years I think gave it a great boost and legitimacy. So you decided to leave UW. And you had published The Religious Enlightenment before you left?
Sorkin: Before I left, yeah. It came out in 2008. I left in 2011.
Tortorice: And that was really the culmination of many, many years of research and writing that you were doing both at Oxford and at Madison.
Sorkin: Mm hmm. That’s right.
Tortorice: And the book was well-received, I recall it. It was reviewed in The New York Times.
Sorkin: That’s right. And one of the things that was most gratifying is that the book has been put on the required reading list for the history tripos at Cambridge University.
Tortorice: Oh, great! Oh, that’s really great. Well, I don’t know that we need to go into the details. You discussed a bit earlier what you were working towards.
Tortorice: And so you went then to CUNY Graduate Center, and now you’re at Yale.
Sorkin: Mm hmm.
Tortorice: And you’ve just published another groundbreaking book on Jewish emancipation.
Sorkin: Mm hmm.
Tortorice: Which has just come out. And again is a new interpretation. In some ways, using those same, that same template of comparative, new paradigms. Obvious questions that have never been asked.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: It’s a very important book. So what do you think George’s main contribution was to history and in particular Jewish history? What do you think his main legacy is?
Sorkin: Ah. Well for George, history in particular, George’s main contribution was to bring a broader vision. That a lot of Jewish history is written in a very narrow, parochial framework asking internal Jewish questions. Not paying much or sufficient attention to the larger historical context. And that George really brought this broad view to Jewish history. I mean, beginning as early as some of the essays in, now in that collection, what’s it called, Germans and Jews, right?
Tortorice: Mm hmm. That was wonderful. Yeah.
Sorkin: You know, the influence of völkisch ideas on Jewish thinking. You know, where he knew so much about German history, and he knew so much about German Jewish history that he could draw connections. And a lot of Jewish historians just didn’t do that. And he also offered, I think, particularly in German Jews Beyond Judaism, a major alternative to the way Jewish identity in the modern world is thought about. Where he really argued that German culture and the Jews’ attachment to German culture, had become a way of being Jewish. And a legitimate one. And that was really groundbreaking at the time.
Tortorice: And in so many ways, explained his own family history.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: I mean, they were right in the middle. Helped him to understand—
Sorkin: That’s right.
Tortorice: —what his grandfather and father and mother were up to.
Sorkin: That’s right. But I think it also, you talked about how the London segment of his experience has been understudied. I think there was a way that when he was in London, he really was that German Jew in a way that he wasn’t in Madison or in New York.
Tortorice: That’s fascinating.
Sorkin: Or in Jerusalem. There was a certain kind of critical mass in London in which he lived as a German Jewish émigré.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. I think that is very true. As far as I know, [Francis Ludwig] Carsten (1911-1998) was there and then of course Paula Quark, who he had grown up with.
Sorkin: Walter Laqueur.
Tortorice: Yes. Helmut Königsberger?
Sorkin: Yes. His cousin Werner.
Tortorice: And Barbara [Mosse]. You’re right. And he spent a lot of time there in that milieu.
Sorkin: That’s right. Yeah.
Tortorice: So George, he had multiple identities. It’s really true.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
Tortorice: As you know. Because his scholarship was in so many areas. He had these groups all over that he would visit and be kind of a different person. It’s really true.
Sorkin: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: Including the gay group in Amsterdam where he was the first visiting professor of gay history. And was a bit of a guru to that group. And had a different personality. It was always George. But he did take on different attributes depending, and of course Rome and Paris and then Jerusalem. That was a whole other thing. Berlin.
Sorkin: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, there was a German Jewish milieu in Jerusalem as well.
Sorkin: But it was a different kind. Because there it was part of a larger Zionist culture. And with different assumptions and different inclinations.
Tortorice: I hadn’t realized that Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) came to UW in 1967 at George’s request.
Sorkin: Oh, really?
Tortorice: Yeah. And spent a week there. So that was the Jerusalem George having a friend come over.
Sorkin: Yes. That’s right.
Tortorice: I can imagine the conversations those two had. (laughs) It’s hard to imagine. But, and so then finally, what do you think your major contribution has been to the study of Jewish history?
Sorkin: Hmm. Well, you know, I think it goes back to sitting in George’s lectures as an undergraduate. And being irreverent. Not taking on bored, conventional notions, and slogans, and pieties. And being willing to question what’s the assumed truth.
Tortorice: Being willing to think critically.
Sorkin: And think critically and think in new ways. I think one of the things I’ve done in most of my books is either to take subjects that haven’t been addressed, or to address them in new ways. To use sources that other people haven’t used. Or if they have used them, to read them in new ways, read them against the grain. And I think that all goes back to George’s teaching.
Tortorice: Well, I think that’s just a great contribution and accomplishment, and a wonderful way to end our interview. Thank you so much, David.
Sorkin: Thank you, John.
Tortorice: That was great. Yeah. I can see you were very moved by that.
Sorkin: Yes. (laughs)
Total time = 2 hours, 5 minutes, 51 seconds