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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 5: Are Jews White?


Jeremy Shere: On the evening of August 11th, 2017, hundreds of white nationalist neo-Nazis and others associated with the far right gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park. Carrying flags with Nazi and Confederate symbols and brandishing torches, the protesters marched toward the park, chanting. 

[Sound of people chanting]

In case it's hard to make out, the marchers are chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Now, like most people you were probably horrified by this brazen display of bigotry, antisemitism, and racial hatred. But for American Jews — at least for those born after World War II — the scene in Charlottesville was also surreal, as though a Nazi rally from an old black-and-white newsreel had sprung to life in full color in the present. Jews will not replace us? Who exactly is the “us”?

Eric Goldstein: The “us” is obviously some definition of white society that doesn't include the Jews. 

Jeremy Shere: This is Eric Goldstein, a professor of History and Jewish Studies at Emory University and author of the book The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. 

Eric Goldstein: It's a narrower definition of whiteness from which they are casting the Jews out — which is not unique in American history, but it is a departure from a kind of longer tradition of including Jews and other groups within the white category.

Jeremy Shere: I think that rings true, especially for American Ashkenazi Jews of my generation, who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and who, for the most part, consider themselves to be fully accepted members of mainstream white American society. And this way of thinking is often reinforced by some on the progressive left, who, as Jewish Women's Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum puts it, often lump Jews of European background in with the white mainstream. 

Judith Rosenbaum: Jewishness encompasses many different things. It can be an ethnicity, it can be a religion. It can be cultural. Some people understand it racially. So instead of people saying, well, obviously there's a lot of intersectionality baked into Jewish identities, instead there's a way in which Jews are often, in intersectional conversations, just placed into the category of white, and anything else about their identities is dismissed or stripped away.

Jeremy Shere: But if you're a Jew, or if you identify as Jewish, it might not seem so simple. First, and most obviously, not all Jews are of European background. If you're a Sephardic Jew and you trace your ancestry to the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal and were expelled in 1492, or if you're a Mizrahi Jew with roots in Arab lands, then you may very well not see yourself as white, or as having benefited nearly as much by dint of being considered part of the white majority.

But even if you are an Ashkenazi Jew and do benefit from being part of the white majority —well, maybe you don't see yourself as only, or simply, white. Maybe you feel that your Jewishness marks you as different, or perhaps you define yourself as a member of a Jewish minority whose collective identity has been shaped by centuries of antisemitism.

And almost certainly, your grandparents, maybe even your parents, tell you about a time in the not too distant American past, when the socioeconomic status of Jews was less certain, and Jews were not yet fully acculturated into and accepted by the white, Anglo-Saxon American mainstream.

Now, before we dive into that history, I want to acknowledge a few things. First, the title of this episode, Are Jews White?, is, in some sense, a deliberate provocation. Because as we've just seen, the answer is obviously no, not all Jews in the United States or elsewhere are white, are seen as white, or see themselves that way. 

But we also need to recognize that by white, we're not talking only about skin tone or physical features. We're also talking about whiteness as access to social, economic, educational, and other resources and opportunities that, until fairly recently, were available more or less exclusively to members of the white, Anglo-Saxon majority in America, and to which Ashkenazi American Jews, especially, have most fully laid claim.

And so exploring how and why American Jews became accepted members of the Anglo-Saxon establishment, and the anxieties and sense of deep ambivalence that accompanied them in that journey, means exploring the social history of Ashkenazi American Jews, a story unique in American Jewish history.

By the last few decades of the 19th century, many American Jews whose families had come to the United States, mostly from central and Western Europe, particularly German Jews, were fairly well integrated into white Anglo-Saxon society. 

Lila Corwin Berman: You do have, at least the slice of the Jewish population that's living in the United States, that’s gained some real socioeconomic comfort, that has integrated into a lot of the kinds of business and cultural and political spaces, the civic life of the United States.

Jeremy Shere: This Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of History and Jewish Studies at Temple University. And as she suggests, while not all American Jews in those days were so fully acculturated, many were. In fact, by the late 1800s, Jews began to socialize with non-Jews and marry into non-Jewish families to such an extent that some Jewish leaders began to worry that American Jewry would assimilate completely and disappear. 

To preserve Jews as a cohesive group, some prominent Jews highlighted the distinctiveness of Judaism and Jewish ritual, and some used the language of race as a way of expressing Jewish difference. 

Eric Goldstein: Usually when Jews described themselves as a race, it was a way of praising their background, praising their heritage, making certain claims about the contributions that they had made.

Jeremy Shere: For example, in the late 1880s, prominent banker Jacob Schiff helped fund the Semitic Museum at Harvard to document the history and cultural contributions of the ancient ancestors of the Jews. Around the same time, another prominent Jew, reform rabbi David Einhorn, used racial language to argue against intermarriage.

Eric Goldstein: He believed that Jews were innately religious and that they had this task of spreading ethical monotheism to the world, and he saw intermarriage as a threat to that mission. And he says intermarriage, in his words, was “a nail in the coffin” of the Jewish race with its lofty mission. 

Jeremy Shere: Now, to be clear, not all Jewish leaders or American Jews generally thought or talked about themselves in racial terms. Many Jews of the period characterized Jewish difference in religious terms only. But the notion that Jews constituted a distinct race was not uncommon, both among Jews and Gentiles. Race was a newly coined scientific term used to explain perceived biological differences among people from various countries and regions of the world. African-Americans belonged, in the nomenclature of the time, to the Negro race, the Chinese constituted a race, as did the Irish, and nearly every other group.

But the new science was also used as a way of ranking racial groups, with the white race at the top. And so, as Corwin Berman notes, when Jews described their difference in racial terms, they did so in part because they felt secure enough in their social status. 

Lila Corwin Berman: And so I think that does afford some sense of comfort, to be able to then say, how can we still maintain a sense of what it means to be Jewish, while still firmly committing ourselves to being Americans. And I think that this kind of language of racial pride is attractive, because, first of all, other groups are using that kind of language. It's a very imperial, colonial type of language. And that particular kind of language doesn't seem to be necessarily marginalizing those Jews who are using it. It's often being used in ways that are different from anything that would validate antisemitic tropes, which are also being used at the same time.

Jeremy Shere: That sense of comfort began to fade toward the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, as hundreds of thousands of Jewish and other immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe poured into the United States. Unlike the Jews from central Europe who derived decades earlier and had made significant strides in joining the ranks of white society, the newcomers appeared alarmingly foreign. Most were desperately poor and lived in overcrowded Jewish enclaves in big cities, such as new York's Lower East Side. Religious Jews wore beards and sidelocks. Nearly all spoke Yiddish and brought with them Old World customs and manners. But at the same time, Jews were also seen as emblematic of new and troubling modern trends.

Eric Goldstein: They were seen as a people that was particularly urban, that were concentrated in mercantile fields that were related to capitalism. And so because of their particular history and their social and economic profile, they were a convenient group to use to think about this larger set of problems. So they're both more visible, more numerous, and then they provide this mechanism for thinking about some of the struggles that American society was going through at that time.

Jeremy Shere: The central problem for the white Anglo-Saxon majority was that the massive waves of immigration and changes associated with modernization were perceived as a threat to their sense of stability and self-confidence. And because Jews came to represent some of the most troubling aspects of modernization, they came under a special kind of scrutiny.

Eric Goldstein: Sometimes there's a move to compare them to African Americans. It's not unlike what the people in Charlottesville were doing. If white Americans traditionally had found a sense of stability and confidence in the idea that their society was divided into the stable categories of black and white, and if Jews could kind of be worked into that system, then that system could be preserved, and their sense of confidence that they could meet these challenges of the modern age could be preserved. 

Jeremy Shere: And so to a certain extent, Jews felt pressure to distinguish themselves from African-Americans, a pressure also felt by other immigrant groups.

Lila Corwin Berman: In the case of Jews who came to the United States, particularly if we're talking now about the early 20th century, that same kind of dynamic is important. To say that one way that we might say that we fit in is by saying, look, at least we're not this group that is seen as still very, very marginal to being able to have access to resources and privilege in the United States. 

Jeremy Shere: This was certainly the case in the South, where Jews felt extra pressure to endorse racist stereotypes of African Americans. For example, when in 1906, Booker T. Washington compared the lynching of blacks in the American South with pogroms against Jews in Russia. An editorial in the New Orleans Jewish Ledger opined that “to compare the Jew, who occupies the highest pinnacle of human superiority and intellectual attainment, with the Negro, who forms the mud at its base, is something only a Negro with more than the usual vanity and impudence of his race could attempt.”

The case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory foreman in Atlanta who was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old female employee in 1913 and lynched, two years later, when a court declined to administer the death sentence, fed Jewish fears of being placed in the same category as African Americans.

Eric Goldstein: It was a great threat to Jewish confidence that they could successfully integrate and that they would be accepted as part of the white population, because it was such a departure from the normal acceptance that Jews had felt, being welcomed as part of the white majority, among themselves. 

Jeremy Shere: Many Jews struggled with how to maintain that acceptance without giving up everything that made them distinctly Jewish. Intermarriage remained a major sticking point.

Lila Corwin Berman: It becomes so important precisely because it seems like it would lend itself so easily to being evidence in favor of a theory that either, if Jews start to marry non-Jews, once and for all, we know that Jews are not racially different from non-Jews — or if they don’t, that seems to be indicative of the fact that they are . 

Jeremy Shere: The debate among Jews about whether to identify strictly in religious terms or to cling to the notion of Jews as unique race took on a new urgency in the early 1900s.

Simon Wolf, one of the first Jewish lobbyists for the B'nai Birth and other Jewish organizations in Washington, DC , testified before Congress in 1909 that Jews were only a religious group and that therefore the census bureau should not start counting Jews as a race, as it had proposed to do. But many of the Jewish scholars Wolf called on to support his argument contradicted him.

Eric Goldstein: That of course, Jews are race, and he was criticized in the Jewish press for denying what many Jews considered the obvious nature of Jews as what they called a race, a collective that was tied together by biological and historical ties. 

Jeremy Shere: So while publicly, many Jews of the period minimized Jewish difference and tried to stay clear of racial language, in private many felt that they were held together by a common racial heritage.

The sense of unease with modern life that many Americans felt during the first decade of the 20th century morphed into something closer to social panic after World War I. The horrifying death and destruction of the war, combined with the rise of Soviet communism and widespread instability throughout Europe, gave the Anglo-Saxon majority a sense that their civilization had been wrecked and infiltrated by foreign elements, most prominently Jews, who had stubbornly refused to assimilate completely into the dominant culture, even as they gained prominence in many areas of American life. And so the Jew became the focus of a stream of books, articles, and editorials concerned with what many European Enlightenment thinkers defined as “the Jewish problem.”

Lila Corwin Berman: The problem was, what about a group like Jews? What about a group that seems to have such strong kinds of loyalties to one another, that seems to be perceived as so strongly different from other people? Can even that group fit into this Enlightenment liberal idea of individual citizenship and the nation-state?

So, the Jewish problem is an extension of that same-long standing question about, at the end of the day, can this American democratic experiment extend itself so fully that even groups that seem really quite different from the imagined center of the United States — that even those groups can participate fully in what it means to be American?

Jeremy Shere: There was no simple answer to that question, partly because Jews didn't fit easily into the racial hierarchy that played such a central role in shaping how the Anglo-Saxon majority thought about what it meant to be a real American. 

Eric Goldstein: It partially had to do with the fact that it was harder and harder in this period, because of Jews’ rising social status, but also because they were still very distinctive and segregated socially from the mainstream white population. They could no longer easily be compared to African Americans, because their social status was so different, but they also couldn't easily be seen as kind of a group that would simply vanish into white society. So they started to be described as a kind of special problem that needed to be focused on and worked out.

Jeremy Shere: Attempts to solve the “Jewish problem” gave rise to the harshest period of antisemitism in American history, in the early 1920s. To prevent Jews from becoming too prominent, many of the country's best universities — Harvard, Columbia, Yale and other Ivy league schools — created quotas to limit Jewish enrollment around the same time. Automobile magnate, Henry Ford republished the antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 

Lila Corwin Berman: He republishes it in his company town newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, that has a broad circulation. And this sense of really saying that here's this group of people that's getting a lot of the opportunities and resources from the United States, but when it comes down to it, we don't believe they're fully vested in the American experiment. And so it ends up that if they're not fully vested in it, if they're not fully committed to it, then they are really sapping the resources for their own aims and not for the good of the whole.

Jeremy Shere: The advent of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s only intensified anti-Jewish sentiment. Tens of millions of Americans tuned into the weekly radio addresses of Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who often laced his fiery speeches with antisemitic language.

This type of overheated rhetoric was not universally supported by the Anglo-Saxon majority, but liberal elites mainly spoke out against antisemitism as a barrier to white unity, and they mostly blamed antisemitism on Jews’ failure to assimilate.

Jews responded to the rise in antisemitism and increasing pressure to assimilate in a variety of ways. One strategy involved asserting the whiteness of Jews, for example, by staging blackface minstrelsy shows at Jewish social clubs. 

Lila Corwin Berman: What's interesting, I think, about Jews putting on blackface is it's Jews stepping into a place of power and authority to put it on and take it off, which is actually not the kind of power and authority that most Jews had in the United States. In many cases, Jews were prey to whatever the perception of them might have been by non-Jews. You know, that they, in fact, weren't Christian. That they were different in this and that and the other way, that they were objects of suspicion. 

Jeremy Shere: In other words, if only whites could put on black face, then Jewish blackface performance was a way for Jews to define themselves as white. The most famous Jewish blackface performance was by Al Jolson in the first “talkie” motion picture, The Jazz Singer, which came out in 1927.

Blackface was a demeaning, racist caricature of African Americans, but Yiddish journalists who reviewed the movie downplayed its racism, focusing instead on how Jolson's performance suggested an affinity between Jews and blacks. 

Eric Goldstein: There's a culminating scene in the movie where he's torn between making his blackface performance and going to be the cantor in the synagogue, because his father is unable to be there.

And he looks in the mirror and it’s only when he has on the blackface that he’s able to connect with his sense of himself as Jewish. And so there's a way in which the blackface both makes this Jewish performer white, but it also is a vehicle for getting in touch with his emotions about Jewishness, that he doesn't feel comfortable accessing as a person trying to fit into white society in real life.

Jeremy Shere: By the early 1930s, the strain of economic insecurity, combined with the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, and fears that Nazi ideology might spread to the United States, in some ways did foster greater Jewish identification with African-Americans. For example, Jews expressed unequivocal support for the Scottsboro boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931.

But at the same time, Jews also felt increasing pressure to position themselves above African Americans in the social pecking order. In the Bronx, in New York city, and also in Chicago, Jewish housewives attended so-called “street corner slave markets,” where destitute, often starving African American women hired themselves out as domestic servants for as little as 15 cents an hour.

Eric Goldstein: So it really points out the middling place that Jews held in American society, where their framework, their goal, was to fit in and be accepted within a white elite society. In the 1930s, most Jews would have seen themselves as outsiders and people scratching to get into American society. And yet from the African American perspective, already at that time, Jews who had stores in African American neighborhoods, or these housewives who were hiring African-American domestic servants at very cheap, exploitative prices, were seen as part of a white power structure already.

Jeremy Shere: A common strategy used by Jews during this period was to redefine the concept of the Jewish race in a way that highlighted how Jewish traits were a boon to white civilization. Jews might have been a distinct race, but they were one that deserved inclusion among the family of white races. 

Eric Goldstein: In using the language of race, they would specifically try to use it in a way that was different than the way it was used in reference to African Americans. In other words, they would argue that Jews were white and yet they had certain character traits, certain innate sensibilities and psychological traits, for example, that made them unique and different. So they tried to spin it into a positive thing that did not threaten their acceptance as white.

Jeremy Shere: In the aftermath of World War II, America became a more open, inclusive place for minority groups of European origin. The full integration of Jews and Catholics into the American armed forces went a long way toward establishing them as members of the white, Anglo-Saxon majority. Plus, in the wake of the defeat of the Nazis and their ideology of race and racial superiority, racial science fell out of favor.

Lila Corwin Berman: How this played out in Nazi Germany was bracing, and made it become pretty unacceptable in the United States to think about racial classification in this way. So it was a massive intellectual shift. There are historians who've really shown how in the period of just about a decade, scientific racism becomes pretty much discredited in the American scientific community and other European minority groups.

Jeremy Shere: The decline of scientific racism helped to pave the way for social integration. During the ’20s and ’30s, Jews may have become Americanized in their cultural behavior, but socially they were segregated. That changed after the war. 

Eric Goldstein: You see a lot of those barriers declining after World War II. So Jews are socially integrating into the larger society.

Jeremy Shere: By the late ’50s and on into the ’60s, American society may have become more welcoming to Jews, Catholics, and other European minority groups, but racism was still prevalent. African Americans, especially, continued to endure segregation in nearly all aspects of life, and, especially in the South, lacked many of even the most basic rights.

Some Jews supported the civil rights movement, most famously Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965. A handful of Southern rabbis openly supported black civil rights. And a significant percentage of Northerners who rode freedom buses south to register black voters were Jews. 

But most Jews in the North and South were still in the process of blending in and cementing their place as part of the majority. And so they were still wary of challenging the racial status quo, as Judith Rosenbaum notes. It wasn't until the latter half of the 1960s that American Jews felt secure enough and had enough social standing to more openly and forcefully support civil rights for African Americans.

Judith Rosenbaum: For many of the Jews who were involved, it did come out of a sense of identification, a sense both of identification with African Americans and a sense of fairness. And a sense also, I will say, of entitlement and power. Like you have to have a certain amount of sense that I believe that I can change the world and that I have a right to be heard and I have a right to speak up. And often those things come along with education that I’m privileged enough that I'm able to take these risks. 

Jeremy Shere: But the more militant elements of the civil rights movement, such as the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and other black nationalist groups, were tricky for Jews who supported civil rights. For many black nationalist leaders, Jews were simply part of the white majority and so part of the problem. Still, many young Jews were inspired by black nationalism, feminism, and other social and political movements to proudly assert their Jewishness in ways that often borrowed from African American politics and culture, and that are still with us today. 

Eric Goldstein: It's no longer something to be afraid of. And they abandoned the tendency of their parents to always want to fit in and be the same. And increasingly in American Jewish society, as they become more and more accepted, their concern and their focus shifts not to, how can we fit in and be the same, but how can we preserve and assert our sense of difference?

For example, if you look at the Soviet Jewry movement, they have the March on Washington and you have young Jews in the Jewish Renewal wearing colorful kippot and wearing their hair in a very curly fashion — you know, the idea of the “Jewfro” — all of these are inspired by the kinds of cultural assertiveness that you see in African American movements.

Jeremy Shere: And so we come full circle to today, when we find ourselves in a strange moment in American Jewish history, a moment when most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States benefit from being fully integrated into mainstream society, but also a time when antisemitism is on the rise across the political spectrum.

And as we saw in Charlottesville and in the horrific massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, when Jews remain the targets of those who want to return to a notion of white America, in which Jews are not included. Thankfully, we also live at a time when white nationalists and white pride racists feel marginalized and despised by the mainstream, while the Jews they fear occupy positions of privilege and are as fully integrated into American society as they have ever been in any country outside Israel.

One measure of the sense of security of American Jews is the extent to which many young liberals Jews are mobilized around issues of racial justice.

Eric Goldstein: In Jewish organizations, Jews are coming to terms with the idea that Jews have white privilege. You didn't see that 10 or 15 years ago. And I see Jewish organizations like HIAS, for example, organizing around refugee issues, and Jews are a visible group within movements for racial justice and actively associating their own history with the plight of groups who are the victims of white nationalism today.

Jeremy Shere: Increasingly, members of some of those groups are also Jews and are changing the racial makeup of American Jewry in significant ways. 

Ilana Kaufman: We’re talking about Jewish people in the United States who are also Latinx, Native, multi-racial, Black, African American, Asian Pacific Islander. 

Jeremy Shere: This is Ilana Kaufman, Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, and as she notes, these Jews face many of the same types of discrimination and prejudice the Jews of the 1920s and ’30s faced, not only from American society at large, but from the Jewish communities to which they aspire to belong. And so American Jews who enjoy the privileges of being part of white society, she says, have an obligation to not just welcome Jews of color, but to truly appreciate their struggle.

Ilana Kaufman: It means that those Jews who've appreciated and experienced the privileges of whiteness have a burden and an invitation to be more conscious about their relationship with their own race, their relationship with people who have races that are different than them, and to really understand racism in the United States, power and privilege in the United States, and how their own white identity gets informed, not only by internal pressures of this country around race, but also informed by the experiences of those who are people of color in the United States relative to their own white Jewish experience. 

Jeremy Shere: Ashkenazi American Jews may benefit from being considered white, but despite their success and acceptance, Jews remain a distinct group in America, part of the mainstream, and yet still a part from it.

Eric Goldstein: You have liberal spokespeople pointing to the Holocaust and the Jewish refugee issue of the ’30s as a talking point, in terms of describing the urgency of the situation at the border. And at the same time, you have the Trump administration pointing to Israel and the barrier on the West Bank as an example of why we need a wall on the southern border. And it's so interesting that Jews are still this kind of liminal group that disturbs and confounds an easy racial divide.


Episode Guests

Lila Corwin Berman

Lila Corwin Berman, PhD

Lila Corwin Berman, PhD, is Professor of History at Temple University, where she holds the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History and directs the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. She is completing a book called The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multi-Billion Dollar Institution and is author of Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (2009) and Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (2015). Her articles have appeared in several publications, including the American Historical Review, Journal of American HistoryAJS Review, Jewish Social StudiesAmerican Jewish HistoryReligion and American Culture, the Washington Post, and the Forward.

Eric Goldstein

Eric L. Goldstein, PhD

Eric L. Goldstein, PhD, is the Judith Evans London Director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University, where he is also Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies. He is the author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (2006); and, with Deborah R. Weiner, On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore (2018). From 2007 to 2012 he was editor of the scholarly journal American Jewish History. His current project is a history of the reading culture of Eastern European Jews in America during the era of mass migration.

Ilana Kaufman

Ilana Kaufman

Ilana Kaufman is the Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, a national project housed at the Leichtag Foundation. Previously she was the Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director, East Bay for the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco. As a guest on NPR’s Code Switch, with pieces featured in eJewish Philanthropy and The Foundation Review, and an ELI Talk titled “Who Counts? Race and the Jewish Future” with 16,000 views, she is passionate about all things at the intersection of Jewish community/racial justice/Jews of color/education/philanthropy. She is a Senior Schusterman Fellow who received her BA in sociology from California State University-Humboldt, and her MA in educational pedagogy from Mills College.

Judith Rosenbaum

Judith Rosenbaum

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change. A writer, educator, and historian, Judith earned her doctorate in American Studies from Brown University. She teaches and lectures widely on Jewish studies and women’s studies and serves on the faculty of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

Episode Host


Jeremy Shere, PhD

Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.

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