“What does it even mean to be friends?” a voice from the row behind me whispered to the student on their left.
“That’s what we’re here to find out, isn’t it?” the other student whispered back in a similar tone, reserved, I felt, only for friends. I considered the question myself and agreed that it was indeed the reason why we were all sitting at the History of Jewish Friendship Conference. The answer, however, would be more difficult. Historically speaking, what qualifies as friendship is based upon an immeasurable variety of political, social and cultural pressures. It is, of course, also a deeply personal matter.
The decision to use the word “friendship” rather than “relationship” in the conference title was also of interest to me. In a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, Deborah Dash Moore, University of Michigan history professor, explained that the choice was made because “Friendship suggests a measure of intimacy and shared responsibilities. It’s about obligation, agency, trust and the willingness to share elements of one’s personality.” Professor Dash Moore also noted that it was ambitious of the Eisenberg Institute and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the co-organizers of the event, to cover such a long period of time. The conference brought together 13 scholars whose areas of study ranged from 1650 to 1950 in places around the world.
Over two full days of in-depth discussion, scholars heaped their research together to explore the question of “what it even means to be friends” through the lens of a “Jewish” cultural model. The answer turned out to be one of boundless possibilities. It became clear that friendship cannot and should not be pigeonholed, but a Jewish lens can produce rich possibilities for historical understanding.
For example, although their research deals with separate topics, friendship was a central issue in both Shachar Pinsker’s, U-M Judaic Studies Professor, research on Jews in coffeehouses in the modern world and award-winning author Ruth Behar’s research on a group of five Jewish couples who immigrated to NY in the early ’60s after fleeing Cuba. The intimate relationships explored within Pinsker and Behar’s work allowed for sociability and exchange, created a sense of community and were key to both groups’ livelihood.
The presented research also lent itself to friendships between Jews and non-Jews. As Professor Dash Moore noted, “one of the points of this conference is to explore multiple models of Jewish friendship and to suggest how complex friendship can be. They can cross boundaries that we normally assume exist which separate Jews from other groups … and yet, in fact, the friendships are formed across those lines.”
Mostafa Hussein, Judaic Studies LSA collegiate fellow, researched a new perspective on Jewish-Arab friendships in Mandate Palestine, specifically the intellectual and cultural intersections between Ashkenazi Zionists and Palestinian Nationalists. Steven Green, UC Santa Cruz Ph.D. candidate, researched Jewish and non-Jewish farmers on North Dakota homesteads, suggesting that their friendship was critical to both groups’ success. Professor Dash Moore noted that “It’s harder to create friendships across different boundaries, but it’s fascinating when they occur, and to ask, why do they occur.”
Despite this aim, scholars recognized that an answer could not be found by looking through a single perspective. Rachel B. Gross of San Francisco State University and Sarah Imhoff of Indiana University discussed this issue in great detail in reference to their joint-research project on the friendship of Mary Antin and Jessie Sampter. They made clear that while there is an interesting way to approach their topic from certain angles, such as Queer theory, a Queer lens can be distracting and will only tell us so much.
If there is anything the History of Jewish Friendship Conference emphasized, it is that there are an infinite number of models for Jewish friendship and friendship in general. The definition of friendship is determined by individual cultural systems and new definitions will be produced in the future. Friendship shapes who someone is and how they act in the world. Tracing its role throughout history will therefore always be a rewarding feat.
Daily Arts Writer Jaden Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The image was originally credited to the event page for the History of Jewish Friendship Conference, but was corrected on Nov. 9 to credit Ruto Modan, whose design was first published in The New Yorker Magazine.