Harvard University, 1995, A.B., Social Studies
University of Oxford, 1999, D. Phil., Yiddish Studies
Jeremy Dauber grew up in Northern New Jersey, the oldest of three boys. Before heading to college, he studied abroad for a year at a yeshiva in Israel. He is currently an associate professor in the Germanic Languages and Literatures department at Columbia University, where he is also the director of the Yiddish studies program and director of the university’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. He has written Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature and co-edited and co-translated (with Joel Berkowitz) an anthology called Landmark Yiddish Plays. He has also written a television and movie review column for the Christian Science Monitor.
We spoke in August 2008 during the Beijing Summer Olympics.
What you were like as a child? How would you describe yourself?
Basically, as a child, my face was obscured by a book. I spent a tremendous amount of time of reading. My parents used to say that I almost didn’t know my way around my hometown, because we would get into the car to go somewhere and the minute the car door slammed I would be reading. And when the car would stop, then I would stop reading. I didn’t even know where we were going half the time. I grew up as a traditional Orthodox Jew; on Saturdays, which was our Sabbath, we didn’t do a lot of different things. I would spend a lot of that time, especially in the long summer afternoons because the Sabbath ends at sunset, reading for hours and hours.
What were you reading?
I was mostly reading genre fiction, science fiction, fantasy. I wasn’t reading what you’d call good literature, or literary fiction. When I was a freshman in high school, I asked my English teacher for a list of things I should be reading. She gave me a list of the classics of literary fiction. I picked up the Constance Garnett translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and I very clearly remember reading it and saying, “Well, this is stupid. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. These people!” Of course, I came back to it at a much more appropriate time and thought it was a work of huge genius. I wasn’t ready for it then. I was reading for hours and hours, classic science fiction and fantasy authors like Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein.
Did you enjoy other types of activities?
I certainly did. I was at an Orthodox Jewish day school, which meant I had a double curriculum, general studies half the day and Jewish studies the other half. We had a long school day. By high school, we were getting there at seven in the morning and getting out at six o’clock in the evening. And then there’d be organized extra-curricular activities on top of that.
I loved being in drama. I was involved in the newspaper and the yearbook very briefly. In terms of other outside activities that weren’t structured, I majored largely in reading and had a strong minor in television. Sometimes it’s disconcerting for parents who bring their kids to Columbia and say, “I’m sure Professor Dauber didn’t watch a lot of television growing up.” And I say, “Actually…”
Did you go to the day school kindergarten through twelfth grade?
I did. As I was entering kindergarten, my family moved to the North Jersey area. I went to one day school for elementary school through eighth grade, and then a different school for high school.
Were they all Jewish based?
They were all Jewish based. In this country, day schools basically come in a number of different flavors, broken down according to the various movements within American Judaism. There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools. Recently, there are some called community day schools, which is an ecumenical combination. I suspect if that had been available in the late ‘70s when I was going into kindergarten, my parents might have chosen a community day school. But that’s a more recent iteration, certainly in New Jersey.
Where were you born?
I was born in Belleville, New Jersey, but at the time my father took a job at the Department of Justice as an attorney, so we lived in Silver Spring, Maryland for a couple of years. But I have essentially no recollection of that. When I was about five, we moved up to Teaneck, New Jersey. I lived in Teaneck until I went away to Israel for a year of post-secondary study before I went to college.
Did your parents pamper you or were they tough love kind of parents?
I grew up in what I think now is an idyllic community, in an idyllic household. That is to say, I grew up thinking nobody got divorced. Everybody had plenty to eat. I never thought of anyone as rich. Having now experienced more of the world, I realize everybody was at least middle class and upwards. But everybody seemed to be happy, which has much more to do with the myopia of childhood in happy circumstances than whatever the objective truth might have been. So that seemed wonderful. I think my parents did a great job. I’m biased, obviously. They were wonderful parents, because on the one hand, there was always a tremendous amount of love and support and faith and belief in all of their kids. (I’m the first of three boys.) At the same time, there was also the strong sense – from both of them – that you had to work hard. Actually, I remember writing my college essay about this, because it was such a formative experience. This is going to need a bit of background. There’s a Jewish holiday named Succoth; it’s often translated as “the feast of tabernacles”. Basically, Jews build temporary huts and spend a few days in them to commemorate the time after the Exodus from Egypt when they were living in the desert in temporary shelters.
What time of the year is this?
It’s in the fall – but the point of my story isn’t about the holiday per se. In first grade, I had this homework assignment to design a diorama of the inside of a succah – this temporary shelter. Apparently, at that point I was very interested in letting other people do my work for me. I would start homework and basically ask my mom to finish it up. But this time, she put her foot down and said, “No, I’m not going to do this. This is your job. This is your work. You have to do this.” I probably sulked for half an hour, then I went and finished it. I got a gold star or sticker from the teacher for doing a good job. It was a silly thing, but it was an incredibly formative experience, as it turned out.
That is an incredible example of the way my parents were. We were incredibly lucky in that respect. The provision, the support, the faith didn’t translate into coddling when it came time to putting in the work. I don’t mean this in a pushing way. They balanced it well with faith in what we were capable of. And as a result, none of us ever skimped on our work. It was a good ethos.
Besides working hard, did they try to pass down any piece of wisdom or advice that has stuck with you?
A few things. Family has always been incredibly important to my parents; not just the immediate family, but family as a whole. We do a lot of family gatherings. Those connections remain very important to all of us. You can see as I’m talking – I realize I do this naturally –I often fall back into the collective. It’s our values. I’m speaking for all the three brothers. I assume they don’t feel differently.
One of the interesting questions in Jewish thought is the connection between morality and the law; the medieval philosophers argued about this. In other words, are you good because God has commanded you to be good, but absent that commandment, maybe you wouldn’t have to be? Or should you be good because one should be good, and the commands come later? I’m not sure one way or the other. But in the schools and in our home the questions of how to behave rightly were always very live questions. It was something we were taught to think about a great deal, not only in the normal way of “don’t hit your brother”, which was certainly there –and we did not always rise above temptation– but also what’s right or wrong about all sorts of situations. I remember that being an important part of what we were doing in school.
How much about older are you than your two brothers?
I’m two and half years older than one and five years older than the other, which meant my parents were raising three little boys. Despite my sedentary reading nature, we still ran around, got into things, beat each other up. I’m sure we were a handful.
Who do you think was the biggest influence on you growing up?
I remember the other thing I was going to say. Although we grew up in an Orthodox Jewish setting, almost none of our extended family was Orthodox, so we learned from a very early age that different people do different things and that’s fine. That sense of pluralism was very much from our parents’ house. We did our thing, but they did their thing. All that was fine.
In terms of biggest influence, I’d give the nod to my parents. It’s the Olympics. I’d give them both the gold. I’d have them share that. A lot of academics are often the children of academics or they have someone in the family. We never did. My dad’s the more conventionally intellectual type, but my mom is much more the communal type–very clearly in the world with other people. The combination was important.
And she’s an interior designer?
That’s right. While we were growing up, she worked what she called “school bus hours.” She had that flexibility, so when we got home she was there. I think she somewhat incorrectly, but comically recalls most of those years as simply preparing constant amounts of food in the afternoon for constantly ravenous boys. The amount of food our house must have gone through was unbelievable.
Did your family travel a lot?
Yes. We did travel quite a bit. My parents were very big fans of working to live rather than living to work. We were always interested in going to new places. It wasn’t only broadening in the way experiences with different cultures are generally broadening, but also because my dad is a museum rat. So from an early age we were comfortable with walking into museums and treating works of art, or works of culture, not as sacred. It was a heritage that you could use. It’s the same way there are some people who treat books like sacred objects and others who treat them like they’re books. You read them, you love them, you work with them, you do what you do with them. Going to a lot of museums and cultural sites at an early age helped to be able, even now for example, to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and not get frustrated. There’s more than anyone can see at one time. So you go, pop in, and take a look around. You enjoy a couple of canvases. You head out. You know you’ll be there again.
Were the trips road trips or travel abroad?
Did you travel abroad a lot?
We did do a good bit of travel abroad considering that there were three school age boys.
Where did you go?
My father’s parents lived in Israel for a large chunk of my childhood. So we did go to Israel quite a bit to go see them. But we went to England and the northern countries. I went to France in college. We went to Egypt once.
That must have been great for boys.
Again with the myopia of childhood, we didn’t realize other people didn’t do that. Our feeling was, “Of course, people do this, because we’re doing this and therefore that’s what’s done.” When you’re nine, that’s how the world works. It was only much later when I started talking to people that I realized it wasn’t actually the case.
With the road trips, where did you go in the States?
By definition, by road trips, we mostly stayed around the Northeast. My mother’s parents lived in South Carolina, but we would fly there. We went to Florida a couple of times. We went out West once, I think. Again, maybe the sign of a happy childhood is that many of these things are a blur, so I’m sure if my parents saw this, they’d say, “We went here and here. Don’t you remember?” I just don’t remember.
Do you think you stood apart as a teenager?
It’s a funny story. I was very good at a lot of things, it’s not worth being falsely modest about that, but there was a kid in my elementary school class who was truly extraordinary in math. It was one of those things you could tell at that age. He even went on to represent the United States in the Math Olympiads. He really was a one-of-five-people-in-the-country kind of person. On that front, I certainly just couldn’t compete. There was no question.
Now this can be told. I actually stole a math book from my second grade classroom, so I could try and catch up to him. This is just preposterously embarrassing on a lot of levels. On the one hand, I had stolen something, which was terrible. On the other hand, it was a math book, so I could be better at math. What can you really do with that? I felt really bad and I learned that I shouldn’t steal things.
But it was that sort of inferiority complex, of realizing there are people who are truly extraordinary in certain areas, and there are different levels of excellence. It’s good to be able to recognize what you’re very good at and to really develop those skills. It’s good to realize what you can get better and better at and work at. It’s also good to realize there are certain things in which, no matter how hard you work, you’re not going to be that person. When I got to Harvard, I had placed into the top math class for people who weren’t the extraordinary types, the Mozarts, in math. I was interested, but I decided there were other things to work on and focus on. Math was never going to be more than an interest of mine.
The things I’ve become really interested in—the questions of literature and culture—are much more late breaking. So, you don’t stand apart in quite the same way early on. You don’t develop the wisdom, in the very narrowest sense of that word, and the analytic capabilities to be able to look at literature in this way early on. You just don’t develop those tools until later on. It’s funny, because I teach freshmen literature; and the freshmen who are at Columbia College are amazing students. They’re wonderful, but you can see as freshmen they just don’t have the knack yet, whatever it is. Some of it can be taught and some of it can’t, but even for the best of them, it’s something you develop later in life than say, a mathematical or athletic talent.
Did you excel in math by regular standards?
Yes. I was the valedictorian of my class. If we weren’t talking during the Summer Olympics, I’d probably be using a different set of metaphors, but the person who wins the all-around competition doesn’t have to be the best in the world in everything. I had to be the best in my high school in a couple of things, then just very good at the other things. It took a little while longer to find the things that I really was the strongest at, as opposed to just being very good at the academic thing in general.
When did you find those things?
In college when I started looking at literature in a very different way. In that sense, the person who has been the greatest intellectual influence on me was a professor I had in college. Professor Ruth Wisse really introduced me to the substantive study of Yiddish literature, which is what I teach now at Columbia.
A lot of students associate resume padding with excellence as a response to tremendous pressure to succeed. Did you feel any of that? What drove you to go beyond the average teenager?
I wanted to do the best job I could on whatever I set out to do, so I wouldn’t be disappointed in myself. I’m sure this was built into me – in the best possible way – from my family life. If it was something I didn’t know and never learned it, that would be one thing. That was okay. That wasn’t really the problem. But if I had it in my notes and I knew I could have studied an appropriate amount more and learned it, but decided not to do that because I just didn’t feel like it, that wasn’t an option for me. I would have felt very disappointed and upset with myself. It’s fair to say that’s not easy, but it was the right thing to do for myself.
I would add that once I graduated from high school, the double curriculum that I had talked to you about was very, very useful, insofar as it had been a tremendously demanding high school curriculum. We were working very hard all the time, since there was always another paper or midterm or final for one course or another. By contrast, in terms of the amount of hours you had to put in for college where you’re only taking four courses as opposed to the eight or nine I was taking in high school, the workload was much more manageable. I think that’s some of it.
I think also my parents were very good on this stuff. I picked up the lesson from them to never feel like you should do extracurricular things that made you unhappy, or didn’t like to do, just for the sake of doing them for some external measure of achievement. What had helped then – and it’s much harder now – is that we were more sheltered.
In terms of expectations: it’s a funny story. My father had gone to Harvard Law School, but the reason he had gone was simply because his pre-law advisor had told him he would never get into Harvard Law or any top law schools, even though he did very well at Rutgers, where he went to college. And my grandfather, who did not have a higher education, said to him, “Why aren’t you applying to Harvard?” He said, “Dad, they said I didn’t have a shot.” And my grandfather said, “I’ll pay for the application. What will it hurt?” So my dad applied. He got in. And I’m very happy about that, being that my mother was in the Boston area.
But we didn’t really know anybody who had gone to Ivy League schools for college. We didn’t have that sense of, “Oh my God, it’s so important to go.” That helped with the pressure in a certain way. Even when I got to Harvard, I assumed I would just do very badly. It was like that old joke. What do you call a person who graduates last in their medical school class? They call them doctor. So I thought I would get C’s and be a Harvard graduate.
For the admitted students weekend, I asked to room with people who were active in the Jewish community at Harvard in order to see what it was like. Let me say this first: the growth of intellectual sophistication at college is enormous. That curve goes up, up, up. You come in, visiting, as a senior in high school and you’re pretty naïve. And by the time you’re a junior or senior in college, you’re just so much more sophisticated intellectually, or at least, you can pretend to be very effectively.
With that said, I was placed in a room that became famous in Harvard lore, because the same room had two Rhodes Scholars that year. I bring that up only because of the nature of our conversation. So I came to this room and I talked to these guys who were very nice guys, great guys, but they were juniors, so no one knew they were going to be Rhodes Scholars. I didn’t know anything about them, so I was just figured, “Wow, everybody is like this.” And I thought, “Well, I’m not. They made some mistake. I’ll get my mediocre grades or below mediocre grades, but I’ll have a good time. People seem really interesting here and I’ll be fine. I’ll be a Harvard graduate I suppose.”
Even though I thought I would do terribly, Harvard did feel then like a much more natural place to be for me. People seemed interested in intellectual things. They talked about literature. They had more interesting conversations than the one or two other schools I had visited, so I just had a good feeling. I said, “Okay, so I’ll go.” As it turned out, things didn’t work out that way, but that was my assumption going in. So that was also less pressure at the beginning.
Let’s talk about the year you took before you went to Harvard.
It was fairly common in the Orthodox Jewish community for students, before they went off to college, to spend a year of post-secondary study of traditional Jewish texts in a place in Israel, a yeshiva.
The first thing that’s very interesting is the ethos, which is in its own way still very continuous with the ethos of traditional Eastern European Jewery, old world rabbinic learning. These are people whose aim–not everybody does this–is to spend literally eighteen hours a day learning traditional text, the Talmud mostly. Ego, drive and whatever as it’s applied there, as it is everywhere else, is to learn more, spend more time studying, but what one is studying is essentially for its own sake.
It’s not a real rabbinic seminary in the sense that we normally think about it. You’re basically not getting a degree; and even in the rare cases when you do, it’s really a byway of simply of being there and continuing to study. It’s really for the fulfillment of a religious ethos or mandate and for the intellectual stimulation. I don’t know how much you know about the Talmud–it’s essentially the basic Jewish legal text of Jewish history. So people are studying this book and its commentaries and the commentaries on its commentaries for eighteen hours a day–an incredibly rigorous and demanding intellectual exercise or intellectual project. “Exercise” sometimes implies that there’s no value to it. Certainly the people who are doing this don’t feel that way at all. There is nowhere that I’ve ever been that is as purely and rigorously dedicated to the life of study. In the university, we all have other things we have to do. I know there are a number of people who would love to spend many hours a day (maybe not eighteen) in the library working, but in the life of a professor these days you just don’t do that.
The other thing I should say is that I was there during 1990-1991, which was the year of the first Gulf war. So I spent a good part of my year in sealed rooms wearing a gas mask against chemical warfare.
What part of Israel were you in?
I should first say that as it turns out, I was never in any danger. The Yeshiva was called Sha’alvim. It’s near a town called Ramla in the middle of the country. In the years since I’ve been there, it’s moved substantially to the right politically. When I was there, it was a moderate choice within the Orthodox schools.
It wasn’t very near where the rockets were hitting, but at that point no one knew where the rockets were exactly hitting. The guidance systems weren’t very good. There were national aerial alerts. They had a radio station that was broadcasting silence, if I remember correctly. It didn’t broadcast unless there was an alert. Generally, they had a couple of minutes warning. I guess they vectored roughly the area of the country where the rocket was going. They would say, “Area B rocket alert” or something like that. And you would run as fast as you could wherever you could. You had your gas mask with you and you hoped for the best. As you can imagine, it was the fundamental experience of the year. It did put a lot of things into perspective, of course, for a seventeen to eighteen year old.
Besides the rocket alerts, did you enjoy your time there? Did you get anything out of it?
I did. I’m not sure if I had the choice to do it again, I would do it with the rockets… The silver lining was that you did feel at the end of it all, for really no good reason, more equipped to handle things. And it did create a perspective. There’s just no question about that. Even while I was going through the war, though, I was aware of essentially how safe I was and how many people were being placed in harm’s way. This was a very different situation than many of the students certainly experienced in the Second Intifada when there were waves of suicide bombings. I suspect my experience was much less psychologically fraught, but one lives through what one lives through.
Have there been any major obstacles that have helped you move forward or develop into a better person? You can address failure.
From a professional and intellectual perspective, I’ve been extremely lucky, there’s no question about that. I was able to get this wonderful fellowship. I was able to go on to a great time at Oxford, where I met a lot of interesting people, and to the first job that I got. And I’ve been lucky to get tenure here at Columbia, so things have been going well.
With that said, I didn’t win the Rhodes the first time I applied. I reapplied. The first time I applied I was a senior in college. I applied for the Rhodes and the Marshall, like a lot of people do simultaneously. I received the state interview for the Rhodes. At that point, there was a two-tiered system, which has since changed. I didn’t get out of the state and I didn’t get an interview for the Marshall. The next year, I won both the Rhodes and the Marshall, and I hadn’t changed that much during the intervening 365 days. As I got to meet a number of people also going through the process – winners and not – I realized there are a tremendous amount of variously talented people out there and that you just have to keep doing what you’re doing, because people would say all sorts of things to me when I said I would reapply. People said, “You should really apply without wearing your yarmulke, because maybe some people don’t like that, or you should play down the Jewish literature side.” I also applied saying I wanted to study and teach Jewish literature and continue to write and talk about television and movies. I heard, “Well, you should make a choice between one or the other.” And I said, “I don’t want to.” That would ring untrue to me. The truth was I didn’t get these things the first time. I was disappointed. Of course, I was. But it wasn’t so bad. That was a good thing to learn, because in my very lucky life this should be the worst thing in the world.
I remember around that time there was an interview with Jimmy Carter, and he said how he was still upset, this was how it came off at least, that he hadn’t won the Rhodes. He was a finalist. He had read Time every week, and the other person hadn’t, and they gave it to the other person. My thought was, “Man, let it go. You were President of the United States of America. It’s time to let it go.”
Be happy with who you are. That’s been one of the things I love about academia is that yes, there are things you have to deal with, like any job, but you have this incredible freedom of being able to say, “I find this interesting and I’d like to think and read and write about this.” And you can, and nobody says to you, especially at the later stages of your career, that you can’t. They may say, “I don’t know about that.” But you can say, “I don’t know either, but I’m going to try and find out.”
The only way that you’re going to be extraordinary at what you do is to find something that you’re happy and fulfilled in that you’re also good at and willing to work at. I’m not Pollyannaish: I’m not going to say, in my personal case, I could really be a professional baseball player, because I love playing baseball. You know it’s just not going to happen. If I had continued to compete in math, I would have been frustrated for years and I would not have been very successful. It turns out that I found writing about literature that I really love, particularly thinking about the connections between readers and writers in general, and specifically in Jewish literature. I think I’m good at it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
What was the turning point for that? Was it under Ruth Wisse that you discovered that?
Part of it was under Ruth Wisse. Ruth is an incredibly brilliant reader of literature. I did find that I had a very good, almost intuitive sense (I say almost and I’ll get back to that) of how literature seemed to work, how people put together a text. A lot of that came from all those hours, all those years of reading. I was in a world of books for a very long time. Many of the things I’m interested in about books–the relationship between writers and readers and what people know and don’t know as they come to a text–apply to any kind of literary text.
These questions, I should add, apply to science fiction and fantasy as much as they do to more “mainstream” genres. In fact, sometimes they’re much more apparent in genre fiction, because genre fiction is very self-aware of the conventions that they can or can’t rely on in their readers.
If some writer says the word “hyperdrive” in a science fiction story, for example, they know there is no such thing as hyperdrive, but they know their entire audience knows that you can’t go faster than light but for the purposes of science fiction short stories we need to find ways to get from one planet to another planet millions of light years away. So we’re going to invent this fig leaf called hyperdrive and we’ll accept it. It’s just one word. That’s all you need.
It’s very obvious in that way, whereas in conventional, literary fiction it’s much more masked. It’s one of the reasons I love teaching Jane Austen to students now, because Austen is so fantastic a writer. She hides all of this careful scaffolding, architecture and hard work that’s sometimes put all out there on the page in other novels or other kinds of fiction, where it says “look how brilliant and complicated I am, look how complicated this text is”. Your work as a teacher is to say to students, just because you’re reading this so smoothly doesn’t mean that all of this isn’t going on, quite the opposite. That’s a fun journey to take the students on.
Do you incorporate Jane Austen into your Yiddish literary classes?
That’s a good question. I should have been clear about that. Columbia has a core curriculum; as junior faculty, you’re strongly encouraged to teach the Western Literature course in the curriculum, and you’re welcome to do it at any time. I did that for a number of years. I hope to come back to it at various points, because it’s just a lot of fun to teach.
Did you have any role models growing up or how about now, living or dead, fictional or real?
Aside from family members who were very important in that respect, I don’t think that there were specific and particular people who come to mind that I can pattern my life on. The one exception is a science fiction writer named Harlan Ellison. I always admired the moxie in his writing. He always seemed fearless. He very much put himself very upfront in his writing. He was probably best known as a science fiction writer, but he was just as much an essayist, maybe more. He wrote a lot of personal essays. The incredible vibrancy in his writing and life were inspirational to a teenager. I don’t know if I’d want to meet him, because it’s the life on the page that was so interesting. In fact, he’d always say that Gustav Flaubert said (I think; I’ve never checked the quote) that one always has to write with clean hands and composure. I always loved that. It seemed a very nice way of putting it. He also would quote Toulouse-Lautrec (again, I haven’t checked) that you should never meet a man whose work you admire, because the man is often so much less than the work. I don’t know whether that would be the case for Ellison.
Did you want to address that almost intuitive comment about your approach to literature?
It’s a sense of what the writer, the text or the readers are doing in the series of decisions that are made in decoding a particular book. This is a very fraught topic in literary circles. Amos Oz, the Israeli writer, in his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, talks about how when you write, there are a million decisions you have to make at every particular moment. Do I use this word? Do I use this paragraph? Do I structure the sentence in this way, or that way? And on and on and on. Because of the Talmudic training of scrutinizing every word of a text, I as an interpreter was very aware of the contingencies and the decision-making that were present, or seemed to be present, in every moment of a text.
That meant I continue to specialize in very close readings of texts, which also then generate or allow a lot of questions about allusions, references or possible ideas going on behind the text that the readers might understand and the writers might have known that the readers would understand.
It’s also one of the reasons why I like, even admire, some of the very close attention paid by fan culture to television shows like people who watch “Lost.” I certainly understand the impetus to look at a particular detail of a literary text that you care about. They are very close readers in that way. That kind of attention is admirable. From my own life experience that kind of attention is very much transferable from one genre and one text to another. I don’t mean in any kind of hierarchical order. If they’re interested in doing it with “Lost,” they may be interested in doing it with all sorts of other types of art and literature, too.