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Impromptu: Max Greenberg

Max Greenberg illustration

Max Greenberg (he/they) joined Goucher College as the Esther Ann Brown Adler Professor of Judaic Studies and Justice in Fall 2023. After completing a Ph.D. at UCLA in 2021, they served as the Friedman Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

By Molly Englund

How did you become interested in your field?

I think what drives me is offering up some histories around being a Jew in the United States that I would have wanted to be exposed to going through school.

I am squarely between American, religious, and Jewish studies. My training as a doctoral student was in Chicano/a and Central American studies. The field really puts an emphasis on bridging the artificial divide between the academy and the “community” by encouraging scholars to consider the impact of our research across multiple publics, and not just academic audiences. In other words, who is our work for? And how can our work be in reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationships with our broader communities who are not working within the university space?

Like so many Jewish Americans born in the second half of the 20th century, I inherited a dominant narrative of the Jewish experience that too often homogenized the multiracial, multicultural, and transnational histories that have shaped “Jewishness” and Judaism over time. Currently, a challenge for many of us working within Jewish studies is how to complicate the inherited, often colonial, tropes and clarify for ourselves and our students that Jewish history is full of generative contradictions that hold resonances for many different groups navigating safety and survival under global colonial systems. To my delight, it was in my training in Chicana/o studies, and its focus on geographic and conceptual borders, that I developed a vocabulary for studying how identity categories and hierarchies of difference are manufactured, reinforced, and resisted. It gave me a lot of tools to unpack Jewishness in a place that had shaped what Judaism was for me.

My introduction to Chicana/o studies was through the book Borderlands/La Frontera, by Gloria Anzaldúa, who was a working-class Chicana, lesbian, feminist writer, thinker, poet. It’s about growing up in the U.S.-Mexico border region and gets into the intricacies of the borders that we hold inside of ourselves and moving between different communities, audiences, geographies—how vulnerable that makes people but how it’s also kind of a superpower to be border crossers.

My lived experience couldn’t have been further from that of Anzaldúa’s, but, nevertheless, the text hit me on a very personal level and began to transform my own understanding of borders inside myself. I’m trans and I’m gay, and when I first read the book, I was in multiple closets. It got me thinking about what it means to not fit in alignment with the identity categories I’d been told I fit into. I associated that book with Chicano/a studies, so when I was looking to grad school, I went toward this discipline that had changed my life.

After seven years in the program, I learned a lot more about why Chicano/a studies was a perfect space for me to explore Jewish history. As part of ethnic studies, the discipline is rooted in a critical analysis of power and trains us to see how institutions create hierarchical categories of race, religion, gender, and class. While these are socially constructed categories, they have profound material impact on people’s lives that determine access to resources and safety. My writing and teaching have largely been about applying the critical toolkit of ethnic studies to understand Jewish history in the American West. I’m interested in how modern Jewish settlement and Jewish cultural memory works in service of U.S. empire, specifically along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

I grew up in Northern California, but it was such a blind spot for me about how place shaped parts of my identity. Mainstream Jewish histories will give you a history about Europe, about the contemporary State of Israel, and then when it comes to the Americas, if you’re outside of New York City, there’s not a whole lot of content to unpack. What is the history of Jewishness in this place and time if I’m not from New York City, Europe, or have no attachments to the State of Israel?

What’s the Jewish history of the U.S.-Mexico border?

The U.S.-Mexico border region, the contemporary American Southwest—and I would include Northern Mexico in there—is one of the oldest points of settlement for Jews in the Americas. In the decades following 1492, when Spanish colonization of the Americas began—for Mexico, 1521 specifically—among the Spanish colonial forces were people who forcibly converted, or converted for safety reasons, from Judaism or Islam to Christianity. So, there were many European settlers in colonial Mexico with Christian, Jewish, and/or Muslim ancestry.

The region we now call the American Southwest or Northern Mexico was located far from Mexico City, which was the site of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and the center of power for the Spanish colony in that region. There was a religious diversity there that for a variety of reasons gets overlooked.

The Southwest was geographically isolated enough that historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have argued that Jewish ritual, Jewish practice, was part of the way of life for Spanish colonial settlers living in that region. Judaism shows up in a variety of interesting and often contradictory ways in colonial Mexico. One of those ways is social and cultural and tells a story about how Jewish identity is negotiated in the context of religious suppression. For example, there is evidence of some Spanish settlers in Northern Mexico enduring persecution for secretly practicing Judaism (or Judaizing). However, Inquisition records show that the charge of Judaizing was used in much greater numbers to criminalize Mexico’s enslaved Afro-diasporic population. Judaism and Jewishness operates as an unstable racial and religious category that cut across both colonizer/enslaver and colonized/enslaved populations.

Beginning in the 19th century, we see these different migrations of Central and Eastern European Jews converge in the American West because we’re starting to bring in the U.S. context as it’s colliding with the Spanish and Mexican context. It’s a rich site for thinking about religious and national diversity of the American Jewish experience.

The U.S.-Mexico border region, while it’s never had a demographic density of Jews, is most certainly a crucial origin point for a timeline of Jewish American history that predates the Ellis Island, New York City, story (which begins in the 1890s) by several centuries. That’s my pitch for why the border region is important.

You’re working on a book that came out of your dissertation; what’s it about?

My book manuscript, called “The New Jewish Pioneer: Zionist Geographies in the US-Mexico Borderlands,” explores the function of western Jewish history to the production of a Zionist settler memory and cultural geography in the so-called American West. My research draws from Western Jewish history—the late 19th/early 20th century Jewish settlers in the American West—as well as how that history is remembered in the present moment through things like memorials and monuments. I’m kind of troubling history and memory and points where they collapse.

In terms of the history component, I’m looking at these two waves of European Jewish migration to the Southwest, one primarily of German Jews migrating from the 1830s to the 1850s, and then primarily Eastern European Jews, or Jews in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, migrating post-1850s, and looking at their intimacies with certain economies at a particular time in frontier development and border building in the Southwest.

I look at certain economic niches Jewish settlers filled in and around mining and military towns to see how these microeconomic histories give us a vantage point into Jewish racialization in that moment. How do we look at the history of Jewish merchants in a mining or military town within a broader economic hierarchy of workers? They’re not miners, and they don’t own the mining operation, so what does their position as intermediary entrepreneurs tell us about how they’re being included in a growing white settler society in the Southwest, socially and legally?

I also look at how the American West was seen as a potential site of Jewish nation building or Jewish colonization. While historic Palestine was always a central focus for the political Zionist movement in Europe, there were many other potential “Jewish homelands” that were discussed as potential resettlement sites for Jewish refugees in the late 19th century. These potential homelands were often in the Global South, most famously the “Uganda Plan” (British East Africa) of 1903 that was discussed at the Sixth World Zionist Congress. Much less known is the proposal to create a Jewish agricultural colony in Baja California, Mexico, that would be under this joint protectorate of the Mexican and U.S. governments. Archival sources I found in U.S. and Mexican archives indicated the plan was circulated every five to 10 years, between 1891 and 1938, when there was increased emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe due to state-sanctioned anti-Jewish violence and exclusions. While Baja California of course never materialized as a Jewish colonization project, I value the story for what it teaches us about how strategies of U.S. empire building has influenced Zionism, or the coupling of Judaism with Western nationalisms and the impact on the lands, waters, and peoples already living in on the proposed site of settlement.

So that captures the historical part of the manuscript. I go on to look at a more contemporary story, or how the history of Western Jewish settlement is remembered in the present moment through heritage sites. I particularly look at historically preserved Jewish cemeteries in southern Arizona close to the border wall with Sonora, Mexico. What does it mean to have sacred religious space in a landscape that’s so heavily surveilled and militarized? What does it mean for us as researchers to be in those spaces? Who gets to do research in these kinds of spaces? That covers the boundaries of the book project, more or less.

How did you perform research?

I did a combination of traditional and historical archival work. I visited university archives at UCLA, San Diego State, UC Berkeley, and University of Arizona, and then I did some archival work in Baja California, at a university archive in Tijuana, and in the Mexican National Archive in Mexico City, which is a gorgeous archive. I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who gets a chance to go there. Regarding my work on public memory spaces, I’ve done more ethnography—field site visits to the two cemeteries that I focus on that are in Southern Arizona, just south of Tucson and just north of the border with Sonora.

What’s next for you?

I am working on an article with a colleague; we’re looking to write a contained history of Jewish studies as a secular discipline in the American academy. It’s in part a response to—I’ll say with huge air quotes—the “curriculum wars” that are going on right now and how we see states mandating histories related to “Jewish histories” or histories that we associate with a Jewish past. Thinking about Holocaust education—it’s so often mandated in the same bills or at the same time as Black American studies or Mexican American studies or Arab American studies gets banned. We’re responding to how Jewish history often gets weaponized and positioned and valued while other disciplines are silenced or criminalized or banned.

I’m coming out of a discipline where teaching students how Chicano studies ended up in the university is part of teaching Introduction to Chicano Studies. We teach them that these departments are here because of student protests and students demanding that public universities teach to all of the publics they purport to represent. And Jewish studies does not have a history of self-reflection of the field; it’s important to give students that gift of helping them understand why Jewish studies exists in the academy. What was the original goal or vision of this discipline? Are we living up to that vision? How do we disagree with that earlier vision? Who is this discipline for and how do we make it for us right now? That kind of scholarly work is trying to attend to these very active, public, current questions about who public education is for, whose histories are included, and why.

What are you reading?

I’m reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy—I highly recommend it—and Joshua Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath. It’s also very much about how to do nothing, so it’s connected with Odell’s work even though it’s Jewish theology from several decades ago.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

There’s so much culture around perfectionism among academics, and teaching is such a beautiful container to practice being in process around something and working things out in a space where we can value questions and changing our minds. Academic scholarship can feel so restrictive, and teaching is this mutual exchange of wonder and curiosity. And students teach me so much about different interpretations of a text or an image; they’re coming in with all their experiential knowledge and whatever courses they’ve already taken. They help me change my mind. That fluidity of thought and being in process and questioning—that feeds me professionally but also in a deeply personal way.

This interview is an extended version of what appeared in print and has been revised for clarity.