‘Jewish Orthodoxy Today’: UK Jewish Studies Program hosts lecture series


Nora Rubel, associate professor at the University of Rochester, speaks during the “Too Jewish? Imagining the Ultra-Orthodox and America” Zoom webinar on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Owen Chesemore, Reporter

Professor Nora Rubel delivered a lecture, “Too Jewish? Imagining the Ultra-Orthodox and America,” on Feb. 19, as a part of the Zoom webinar series “Jewish Orthodoxy Today,” sponsored by UK’s Jewish Studies Program.

Rubel teaches at the University of Rochester as an associate professor of religion. She spoke along with Sheila Jelen, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. 

Rubel is an accomplished author. Her book “Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination (Religion and American Culture)” delves into how films represent ultra-Orthodox Jews and unpacks the “struggles (for Jews) to balance religion, family, and culture.”

Her upcoming book, “Transparent and Queering the Jewish Family on TV,” remains under contract and is in the process of being released. 

Rubel reflected on her introduction to Judaism class, where she assigned a book with a character that irritated quite a few students. 

Rubel spoke of how some young learners believed the character went to “extremes” in her spiritual search and called her a “fanatic.”

She explained that many American Jews, through the lens of post-Enlightenment thinking, view this character’s commitment to her studies as strange. They found her approach of immersing in old Jewish texts to be distasteful.

This perspective informs the way some American Jews represent pre-Enlightenment Jews on television. Rubel referenced movies like “Fiddler on the Roof” and the limited series “The Patient” to support her point. 

Just as the reformed and liberal students had tension with the ultra-Orthodox Jews presented through the book, so does a similar tension arise in “The Patient.” 

Throughout Rubel’s lecture, she made further connections between films and books to important issues and discussions in Jewish communities. She spoke about novels like “Lovingkindness” by Anne Roiphe and “The Outside World” by Tova Mirves. 

These books focused on strained relationships between Jewish parents and their children. A child might, for example, adopt a more rigid structure for their life, which their liberal parents might protest against. Other times, tensions arise because a child makes changes to fit into their new culture, Rubel said

“Ironically, American Jews often change their name from the past to acculturate, to sound less Jewish,” Rubel said.

After the meeting’s conclusion, Jelen facilitated a Q&A. Jelen read student questions and directed them toward Rubel to answer. 

The next lecture in this series is on Feb. 27 with the guest speaker Zalmen S. Newfield.