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Leah Wolfson 

Emory academic to host a look at Jewish literature

Leah Wolfson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Emory University, will host a five-part reading and discussion series beginning Monday, June 11, titled "Let's Talk About It: Jewish Literature -- Identity and Imagination." The Peachtree Library will host the series, which will explore the theme of "Demons, Golems and Dybbuks: Monsters of the Jewish Imagination." The Peachtree Library is one of more than 205 libraries nationwide receiving grants to host the series developed by Nextbook and the American Library Association. The series will feature discussions on authors Isaac Bashevis Singer, S. Ansky, Franz Kafka, Cynthia Ozick and Tony Kushner.

What exactly is a dybbuk?

A dybbuk is a Yiddish word for demonic possession; it usually refers to a man possessing a woman. The story we're reading by S. Ansky, The Dybbuk, is really interesting, though, because a dybbuk usually refers to a random man possessing a random woman, but Ansky's story is more like a Romeo and Juliet love story gone wrong. Golem is sort of a Jewish Frankenstein that was usually created for the protection of a Jewish community. There is a legend that the Golem of Prague is still kept hidden in the Old New Synagogue, but I don't think anyone had been to eager to check and see. The story we're reading by Cynthia Ozick is a sort of feminist take on the idea of the golem.

You won the David R. Blumenthal Award in 2006 and received an honorable mention this year. What is the award for and what did you write your papers on?

It is an internal Emory award established in 1999 by professor Blumenthal's friends and colleagues in his honor. The award is given to Emory students (graduate and undergraduate) who submit the best paper or project that links the knowledge, insights, values and perspectives of Jewish realities to generically human concerns in thought or action; in ethics, language and linguistics, literature, theology, exegesis, law or the arts.

Last year I wrote a paper on a film called Shoah, which is the Hebrew word for Holocaust that means destruction. It's a nine-and-a-half-hour film, so I took a very small slice of the film and discussed song. A lot of characters sing in the film, and I looked at what part of their history they were trying to get across through their song.

The paper I wrote this year was about France and Israel. For two very different nations they both have very similar narratives for resistance to war. I looked at the literature that came out post-war in both France and Israel and found that it really questioned the larger national heritage. Literature holds up a mirror to society and usually reflects something different than we expect.

Tell us a little about the books featured in the discussion series.

We're reading a really compelling selection of books that I think will generate really interesting discussion. We're reading such a wide variety of books – everything from works from the Yiddish tradition to Kafka to Cynthia Ozick. I'm really interested in giving the participants a little background on the discussion and then seeing what people have to say about the different works. One of the most interesting parts of literature is watching what people do with it.

What book are you most looking forward to discussing?

Gosh, it's like asking me to pick a favorite child! I'm really looking forward to discussing Isaac Bashevis Singer's work. I think he has a really interesting way of presenting what looks like a traditional topic and discussing it in a new and unexpected way. I'm also very curious how the discussion on Angels in America will turn out – that was one of the books I saw on the list and thought "Hmm ..." because the discussion could be really great or not work out at all. Kafka is one of my favorite writers, and the discussion on The Metamorphosis should be great because everyone always has such different interpretations. Once you read that first line: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed into a beetle ..." it could really go anywhere from there.

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