//end of the world//
I wrote a thesis this year. The process of writing such a long—often very niche— and extensively researched paper is a challenging and exhilarating experience, and one that demands constant reflection. Whether or not the thesis topic is explicitly personal, it provokes deep introspection. As a Jewish student writing about the politics of land ownership in Mandate Palestine, I found myself thinking through difficult questions about the religious Zionist narrative I had been taught in Jewish day school and my personal and religious relationship to Zionism. There are many Jewish students at Columbia University who wrote theses that have pushed them to think in new ways about their Jewish identities and values. I asked four seniors how, if at all, the process of writing their thesis informed their Jewish identity.
Thesis Title: “We’re Jews! Jews! Jews!: Queering Third Generation Holocaust Memory”
For my senior thesis entitled “We’re Jews! Jews! Jews!: Queering Third Generation Holocaust Memory” I was so grateful to be able to interview fellow queer-identifying grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, particularly during a pandemic. As a queer grandchild myself, I was able to find community and connection with so many queer descendants who felt they were having so many experiences alone. Being able to tell them that so many other queer descendants were having similar experiences was an incredibly meaningful experience. When I worked on a different version of my Holocaust research as a senior in high school, I was in the early stages of coming out to myself and convinced I would never mention my queerness in conversation with my work as a descendant of Holocaust survivors. The fact that I have embraced my queer, Jewish, and descendant identities together, found community and descendants to share that with, and created my new queer Holocaust memory framework, is reflective of the supportive and affirming environments I have found both academically and socially at Barnard.
Thesis Title: "The Evolution of the Grey Area in Jewish Identity: A Study of Rabbinic Era Kutim and Modern Day Former Soviet Union Immigrants in Israel"
When Maya asked me this question my first instinct was to say "no, of course not [my thesis did not inform my Jewish identity]—I was fascinated by the Kutim and built my thesis around them. It has nothing to do with me." But that's not true. I analyzed the inconsistencies in the treatment of Kutim as I pushed my own boundaries. How stable is my identity as a religious woman, or is it taken from me as soon as I step out of line? How can one truly belong to a society with static definitions if we are always changing? Rather, this case study showed me that people with complex identities have always been part of the community and have been negotiated into the halakhic system. It is a never-ending issue, and one I am excited to keep grappling with. This is why I looked for solutions that balanced traditional halakhah with the ethic of acceptance.
Chaya Sara Oppenheim
Thesis Title: “Writing as Witness: A Literary Analysis of Holocaust Diaries”
My thesis utilized Holocaust diaries to argue that the use of diaries as primary sources can serve to humanize the study of history. As a granddaughter of survivors, my interest in the Holocaust is certainly attributed in part to my legacy, but writing this thesis has expanded my knowledge of and appreciation for this enormous event beyond my personal connection to it. Instead of thinking of the Holocaust as a tragedy that can only be spoken about in Jewish terms, I think that this extreme catastrophe of the 20th century ultimately revealed many of the underlying structures that exist in the world and inspired witnesses to record their testimony in extraordinarily innovative and productive ways. Everything that has resulted from the Holocaust—every diary, every testimony—can be useful for gaining a better understanding of history and the world. Reading different diaries, I have also come to appreciate how diverse both the Jewish and Holocaust experience is for every individual. (For example, the diaries of Moshe Flinker, a deeply religious Jewish teenager, and Victor Klemperer, a Jewish-born academic who was baptized as a Protestant, are just two of the multitudes of perspectives in my thesis that articulate their experiences.) My understanding of my Jewish identity, the Holocaust experience, and history, more generally, has been broadened by studying these Holocaust diaries: the testimonies of individuals sharing their own authentic perspective on their lived experience.
Thesis Title: “היינו כחולמים We Used to be (American) Dreamers: A Narrative Inquiry into the Social and Political Evolution of the American Jewish Community”
The process of writing a thesis about the Jewish community I grew up in changed my relationship to it. I wrote my thesis intending it to be an angry expose of the community I grew up in but it ended up being a love letter. I learned a lot about the people who I grew up surrounded by and how they feel about being Jewish in the United States today. I understood their individual stories and the communal American Jewish immigrant story better. I also saw how the experiences of the first and second generation of Jews in this country inform the way we think and act today. Writing my thesis changed the way I think about what it means to build a permanent home for Jews in the United States today.
//MAYA BICKEL is a senior in Columbia College and editor-in-chief of The Current. She can be reached at email@example.com.