Anthropology of religion and messianism; political anthropology; ethnography of the state and bureaucracy; social knowledge and quantification; biopolitics; activism; Anthropology of time; Contemporary Jewry and Jewish Studies; Israel; American Jewry.
I am a socio-cultural anthropologist, working at the intersection of the anthropology of religion, political anthropology, and Jewish Studies. Founded on ethnographic studies, my work covers a range of topics and fields of study that center on the complex ways in which various groups and institutions within the contemporary Jewish world experience, articulate, and manage collective crises (whether religious, national, communal, or demographic). In particular, I am interested in exploring how political interventions in collective crises simultaneously shape and are shaped by the dictates of the Jewish law, habitus and systems of knowledge. These academic interests link my work on Chabad messianism, Jewish conversion in Israel, and my two current projects: one focused on the construction and management of a "socio-demographic crisis" among American Jewry, the other on the emerging outcry and activism against sexual abuse in Orthodox communities in Israel and the USA.
In my work on the Chabad (Lubavitch) Hasidic movement, I examined how a Jewish messianic sect has reinvented itself following the death of its leader-cum-messiah—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Based on fieldwork conducted at Chabad’s headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, I analyzed the ritual and pedagogical mechanisms through which religious institutions attempt to give the younger generation of Hasidim the agentive capacities that would allow them to navigate Chabad’s complicated messianic reality and temporal order. In contrast to the conclusions of most academic work on failed prophecy among millenarian movements, Chabad’s messianic endeavor is not based on reducing cognitive dissonance by means of normalization or religious rationalization. Rather, my findings suggest, this endeavor demonstrates a multifaceted and inherently incomplete cultural work, one grounded in the attempt to re-present an absent messiah. These efforts generate a delicate, though vibrant, collective existence, one that requires both a continuous sense of rupture and its ongoing containment.
My second ethnographic project was grounded in a rather different historical moment and type of predicament: the discursive and institutional construction of non-Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union as a “national problem.” The idea of conversion (giur) as a solution to a national problem represents the empirical point of departure for my ethnographic study on the micropolitics of conversion (giur) in Israel. In particular, my research shows how, in response to this perceived problem, the Israeli State has transformed conversion into a bureaucratic vehicle for its Zionist bio-political logic, thereby positioning the converting subject as an object of population policy. In the light of this transformation, I analyzed the everyday relationships between state agents and Jewish converts, particularly the array of practices directed at the alteration of the convert’s subjectivity and the shaping of her or his performance as a "sincere" convert.
I have two ongoing research projects. In the first, tentatively titled "Accounting of the Soul: Jewish Biopolitics, Statistical Truths and Narratives of Crisis in the Making of American Jewry, 1990-the Present" (supported by an ISF grant), I deal ethnographically with the making of political knowledge and intervention in population-related matters among American Jewry. In this project, I build on my previous work on the Israeli state and its biopolitics, this time studying a non-state polity –– a voluntary, identity-based diasporic community that both knows and governs itself through the quantification of Jewish life. My objective is to explore how the logics of statistics and demographics condition the political imagination of American Jewry as a community in "crisis," at risk of assimilation and cultural disappearance. I am interested in the role of demography not only as a politicized scientific endeavor, but also as a popular, vernacular social knowledge that is circulated and consumed by American Jewish leaders, rabbis, organizations, and communities.
The second project I am currently working on, tentatively titled, "The Writing is on the Wall: Activism and the Unsilencing of Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Jewish Communities, Israel and NYC", I study Orthodox grassroots organizations and activists dealing with sexual abuse: providing treatment to victims, raising awareness, collaborating with the police and other state agents, advocating legal changes. I am interested in better understanding the distinct Orthodox activist modes of operation that help unsilence one of the most pressing – but publicly repressed – issues in the shifting Orthodox world, unsettling some of the most sacred communal institutions and authorities, including the family, educational institutions and rabbinic figures.