Monday, November 4, 2013

What's a Nice Jewish Girl Like Me...

... doing with degrees like this?

Yes, dear readers, this is the first of the gloriously nerdy posts where I tell you about my studies!  You might know the sordid tale of why I went to London for my MA, but there's some academic backstory leading up to the move that, quite frankly, I didn't think you'd care to hear.  Based on the results of my survey as well as a few scattered emails, though, it seems I was wrong!  (If you aren't interested, you can just come back tomorrow.  I promise I won't be offended if you skip this one!  It's kind of long.)  So here's how I ended up majoring in history and minoring in French with a combined focus on the history of pre-Reformation Christianity in Western Europe as an undergraduate which led me to a post-graduate degree in Medieval Studies and a dissertation on sex and sexuality in a twelfth-century monastic context:

The Worcester Fragments (from manuscripts of polyphonic music)
England; late 13th / early 14th century
now at the Bodleian, Oxford

Actually, I have to back up to sixth grade to answer this question.  After all, I'm Jewish!  Why would I be interested in learning about Christianity?  Well, in short: I didn't have a choice - not at first, at least.  I went to an Episcopalian school in DC and every student, no matter her grade, set foot in Washington National Cathedral at least once a week for a service or a class.  We took our first formal religion course in sixth grade, and my memory is that I was the pre-teen authority on Judaism.  There were only three girls being raised Jewish in my class (that year; a few more joined us in the upper grades) and I was the most obnoxiously know-it-all of us, which meant that I raised my hand whenever an opportunity arose to explain something about my faith.  And - again, as memory serves - my classmates thought it was cool!  Judaism was such a foreign thing to them that they were fascinated and, even better, our amazing teacher encouraged my enthusiasm.  Because of that, I never thought that believing in one religion and learning about another were mutually exclusive.  I just assumed that I could be interested in Christianity and Judaism at the same time and that my appreciation of each would be the richer for it.

I became a chorister at the Cathedral in seventh grade and spent the next six years living the daily liturgy of the Anglican tradition.  Internalizing the religion was a process of osmosis more than anything else, to be honest.  One day I didn't know the Nicene Creed; the next, I found myself murmuring every word along with the other choristers.  (This is another post entirely, but I cannot give enough credit to the priests and choirmasters who gave me the freedom to explore spiritually while there.  It goes without saying that my path would have been very different if they hadn't been so open-minded!)  I joined the choir because it was the best musical education I could get in DC, but I quickly came to love the rituals of the Cathedral, to take comfort in the chants and readings, and to find solace in the prayers.  Leading worship didn't bother me even though I didn't believe in much of the doctrine and, again, it encouraged me to consider how my faith could coexist with the religion in which I was immersed.

When I went to college, I thought I wanted to major in Comparative Literature.  My focus was always on history (and consistently on the earlier side of things - I wasn't interested in anything after the French Revolution, really, except for a brief foray into the Belle Epoque) and I thought that studying it through foreign languages might add a provocative dimension.  I was finishing up my French requirements in my freshman year and chose to add Italian as my second language with an intensive course over the following summer.  However, I also registered for a class on Christianity, a survey from the beginning up to the Reformation, in the spring of my freshman year.  After the first week, I was hooked.  Here was everything we'd done at the Cathedral - everything we'd sung, everything we'd chanted, everything we'd read - explained historically.  When our professor talked us through the origins of and the changes to the Nicene Creed, my mind exploded.  The Nicene Creed is the fundamental declaration of belief in the Christian church, and I was absolutely floored to learn that the text had been argued over for centuries to become what it is today.  It was the headiest feeling, learning about the blood and passion of this religion I'd always understood to be solid and comforting!  I took the intensive Italian class, but my heart belonged to the history of Christianity.

The religion major at Columbia included a lot of prerequisites that I didn't really care about, though, so I simplified my major to history and increased my French courses into a minor.  (Coincidentally, my first apartment in Paris when I studied there was just up the street from the Musée de Cluny, which meant that I had to walk past the National Museum of the Middle Ages every time I went to the métro.  How cool is that?)  Almost every class I took contributed to my invented specialization of Medieval Christianity in Western Europe; I think I was the only student in History of Philosophy: Aquinas through Kant who wasn't a philosophy major/minor.  When we chose works for a final paper in Literature Humanities, a year-long survey course on Western Literature, I picked the Lays of Marie de France, a late 12th century poet who wrote in French and also knew Latin and English.  When we selected topics for a final paper in my Art Humanities class, which covered works and ideas over more than two millennia, I analyzed a medieval baptismal font.  And when the time came to write my undergraduate thesis, I decided to focus on Louis IX, or Saint Louis, the king of France for much of the 13th century who unsuccessfully led the Seventh Crusade, died on the Eighth Crusade, and is the only French king to have been canonized.

I did also take a few courses on Judaism, including an amazing one on Judaism in Muslim Spain, but I found throughout my undergraduate career that I was able to approach Christianity more academically.   Judaism was too subjective for me, and, to be honest, I never felt the desire to take my understanding of the religion out the the synagogue.  Because I didn't believe in it, the history of Christianity could be studied objectively, but I was absolutely passionate about it due to my experiences as a chorister actively participating in the liturgy.  My studies didn't shake my faith, because I had none relevant in the first place, but they constantly challenged me to learn more about the religion that had formed such a grounding basis for my academic and spiritual education as a child - and so I went to graduate school.

Stay tuned for part deux of this story in the coming weeks!

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38 comments:

  1. I am so into this post! Hearing smart people talk about what drives them intellectually is fascinating, and I love reading about your exploration of the church through music and the classroom. I can't wait for part 2!

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  2. YAY! I went to the Columbia religion department website and looked at the courses offered this year and I want to go back and do it all again. come with me?

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  3. Really interesting!!! I also loved history in school, in particular, I loved my art history classes in college. I always think about perhaps getting another degree someday in Art History.

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  4. oh DO IT and I'll come too :) I'm excited for being retired so I can audit lots of classes - my grandmother does that and learns the most interesting (and varied) things!

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  5. This is so interesting! I wish I had more of an opportunity to take religion classes in college. I find the topic extremely fascinating! I can't wait to read part 2!

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  6. yes!!!! The thing is, I love school and the learning part, I really do, but then I think about all the homework and studying and go, hmmm do I really want to go back? haha

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  7. This is FASCINATING. Seriously. Not my usual sarcasm, I swear.
    I sometimes wish I'd declared a minor, but UGA's structure was set up rather stiflingly when I was there (I really hope it's been improved since) and since I was also interested in many fields of study in a more hobby/fun way, I just filled my spare credits with random classes, most of which I enjoyed but didn't leave me with any declared knowledge.
    As for your finding that studying Judaism and Christianity can go hand-in-hand, one of the few aspects I enjoyed at the Southern Baptist church my family attended when I was growing up was that in the 6th grade Sunday School we studied Jewish customs, holidays, practices, and foundations of the faith. From then on, it was integrated into our Christian lessons, other than one year when our teacher was a staunch, cliché Southern Baptist man… and weird, I hated him ;) It made perfect sense to me to study Judaism, since really, it's the root of Christianity. Plus that gave me a good starting point for understanding aspects of my Jewish friends' lives later on, which was nice!
    But I want to read more about your education!

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  8. I'm glad you think so! I got so into writing this post :) just to warn you, I get a little carried away in part two... haha!

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  9. Jess Gerrow / The Stroke BlogNovember 4, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    Wow, we have a very similar academic background! It sounds like we've both studied a lot of 'odd' things: medieval baptismal fonts, Aquinas to Kant, Medieval Christianity in Western Europe. I had some fabulous classes here in Malta with a priest who had done many turns in monasteries around Europe, including Mont St. Michel, and knew everything there was to know on the subject. I've also studied a bit about Judaism in Spain (and Malta) and early Judaic and Islamic philosophy and art history.

    As an undergraduate Art History major I didn't have much choice but to study Medieval Christian art and history in particular, but I too enjoyed it immensely. I also suspect it was because I was also able to tackle it objectively (albeit, as an atheist).

    I'm curious, does your current field of work relate to your undergraduate and postgraduate studies?

    Confession: I've been to Paris many times and STILL never visited the Musee de Cluny!

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  10. haha okay I believe you :P

    THIS is the reason I like the American college system better than the British one - I never would have been able to go down this path if I'd applied to read a specific subject at age 17! it was a seemingly random class, one that I took just for fun, that got me hooked.

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  11. YAY we should make a club. a club where we discuss flying buttresses and the possible symbolism of various Virgin and Child statues. (I LOVED my medieval art history and architecture class! absolutely loved it. I supposed I was spoiled by having grown up in a Gothic (well... in theory) cathedral, but I loved learning the theory and history behind it all.)

    I do arts fundraising, and I haven't yet worked somewhere that puts my medieval studies to use... but you never know! I could get hired by the Cloisters at the Met in New York or something :P

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  12. Betsy, I'm so impressed! (Not surprised, though, really :) can't wait to read more about your studies. My Medieval Literature courses were absolutely FASCINATING, as was Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages. People are the weirdest, and it's awesome.

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  13. haha thank you.

    and YOU GOT TO TAKE A CLASS ON LOVE, SEX, AND MARRIAGE IN THE MIDDLE AGES? I am so jealous! Columbia sometimes offers a class called Gender In Ancient Christianity - it wasn't available when I was there, but I want to take it so badly!

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  14. My mother got her degree in psychology but somehow she fit an art history minor into all of it. It was always so much fun to bring her back pictures of cool things I saw while traveling and have her excitedly recognize them and tell their stories. I might have to take her on a mother-daughter trip to Rome just to experience it through her eyes.


    Adding art and art history classes to my wish list for later life. It's never too late to learn.

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  15. Oh yes please. My alma mater (Kenyon College) just started offering a "summer experience" program for alumni and parents who want to come back to college for an intensive course. It sounds so nerdily indulgent!

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  16. Brilliant! Can't wait to read about your Masters. I remember when we first met at Beas and thinking how cool your studies were! I'm reading this book right now called Vanished Kingdoms which is all about medieval Europe, and I love it.

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  17. This was fascinating Betsy and I look forward to part deux :)


    These days I'm finding the study of religion more and more interesting. I took one religious studies class in University which focused on the study of the bible. {Actually, upon re-reading my comment I might have lied - I did take a class titled Witchcraft and the Occult which may also qualify as religious studies.} I figured it would be helpful in terms of being an English major when it seemed like every other article I referenced for papers brought references from the bible into the discussion. But, that being said, the class was a bit of a let down and my formal study of religions stopped there. But, these days, particularly with travel, I've been learning a lot more about a variety of religions. As a sort of atheist or at the least, someone who doesn't subscribe to any organized religion, I find it really fascinating to learn about something that plays such a massive part in others' lives.


    Sex and sexuality in a monastic context - I hope you share how you arrived at that as a topic for dissertation!

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  18. reading this has left me with this general feeling of wow...super brain. I think the humanities side of my brain is fairly strong, but I just can't even imagine pursuing a curriculum that is so heavy with reading things and writing papers. but I also really don't have a taste for things of that time period - when it comes to studying history or literature or art, my interests have always slanted more modern.

    so basically, color me impressed.

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  19. haha it has nothing to do with super brain and everything to do with finding something I loved that I wanted to work hard at! but thank you anyway :)


    and you're going to med school! I took the most basic science classes in college to fulfill our requirements...

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  20. that definitely counts as religious studies! I'm watching The Witches of East End right now and it drives me NUTS that all the spells are in Latin. like, historically, why would that be the case? haha!

    and oooooh yes I had fun researching my dissertation! I'll definitely share - maybe I'll even post some juicy snippets of my papers in the next post :)

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  21. oh WAIT I got that book for my grandmother a few years ago! do you like it? I'll need to borrow it back from her!

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  22. I bet there's a lot of pverlap between psychology and art history! (Van Gogh, anyone?) and it's NEVER too late to learn - I think that's why I'm going through a big non-fiction phase at the moment with my books :)

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  23. Georgia ChristakisNovember 4, 2013 at 6:57 PM

    that's what you get when you combine a slightly insane literary feminist with medieval texts. It was so much fun! It's always great to have professors who are clearly passionate about the subject they're teaching. We had lots of those at my school :)

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  24. I'm just floored right now. Probably because as a former history major (of 3.5 years!) I was never ever ever interested in anything prior to like 1600. All of this kind of stuff totally went over my head! The first time I really studied other religions in depth wasn't until 9th grade and it totally fascinated me. But even then, it still kind of went over my head. So basically I said all of that to say: I'm glad there are people like you in the world that this interests! Also, isn't it amazing how us history majors always have a "favorite" era to study? Mine was the Civil War/Abraham Lincoln. I took a whole class on Lincoln, in fact!

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  25. I get lost in 19th and 20th century history! (Well, I'm really interested in WWII history but I'm lost as soon as the Russians get involved. They always complicate things! haha)


    I wish I knew more about American history, though. maybe you can give me a crash course in the Civil War :)

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  26. haha I feel like the best professors have to be slightly insane :P

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  27. You need to get your butt to Avignon!

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  28. I'd be happy just sitting with a cup of tea and listening to you talk right now. This is SO interesting! My italian studies/art history pales in comparison!

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  29. I KNOW. THIS IS WHAT I KEEP TELLING YOU (AND JON). IT HAS TO HAPPEN FOR MY SOUL.

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  30. no such thing as "pales in comparison" - we all know things that other people don't know, and there's tons you could nerd out on to me, I'm sure! I didn't focus as much as I could have on Italy, unfortunately, because it always seemed SO hectic even in comparison to the chaos of the rest of Europe then!

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  31. Very interesting! I studied Comparative Religious Studies as my major in College and LOVED it.

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  32. Whitney, yes! My favorite era is World War II.

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  33. I think this is absolutely fascinating and I would love to sit down with you and talk religion ALL DAY. (When I get myself to DC next this must happen.)


    It's funny you mention Christianity as something that's easier for you to study than Judaism; for me, perhaps predictably, it's the opposite. I've loved where my history classes touched on Judaism and when my pastor or Bible study leaders will expand on traditions of the Old Testament. I think I find it so fascinating because early Judaism is the bedrock of the Christian faith, and because of that, I think it's so critical for Christians to learn about.

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  34. So interesting!!

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  35. I'd love that! there's ALWAYS more to learn when it comes to religion because it's constantly changing, which then changes our understanding of how it worked and why in the past, I think.

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  36. haha my version of comparative religions is, like, the Cathars versus the Catholics.

    (did you know you could only be a heretic if you claimed to be Christian but didn't agree with established papal doctrine?)

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  37. It's so nice to hear about this part of your life! Thank you for explaining the background of how this became such an avid interest. Can't wait to read more. :)

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