Before Josh Lambert arrived to teach English literature and run the Jewish Studies Program at Wellesley College, he was the academic director for the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst for almost a decade. During his tenure at the center, Lambert launched what became signature programs that included Tent: Encounters With Jewish Culture for young adults and the Great Jewish Books summer program for high school students.
Lambert’s scholarly work has focused on American Jews and American Jewish literature. He is the author of “Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture” and “JPS Guide: American Jewish Fiction.” He also co-edited a recently published anthology on Yiddish in American culture called “How Yiddish Changed America and America Changed Yiddish.”
Lambert’s reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Forward. But it was at the Yiddish Book Center where he was charged with expanding the organization’s mandate and, as he noted, “to not speak only to people who were already interested in Yiddish, but to speak to people with broad interests.”
Lambert spoke to JewishBoston about his new position as director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wellesley, his hopes for Jewish studies to become a fully integrated multidisciplinary subject and his new book about Jews in American publishing.
What are your plans for the Jewish Studies Program?
I have been thinking about the place of Jewish studies on a liberal arts campus like Wellesley. It’s essential and wonderful that the program plays a role at the college. But what’s even more important to me is that Jews don’t get left out of other disciplines. When I took English courses as an undergraduate, we talked about Saul Bellow or Philip Roth as American novelists who were writing about intellectualism or writing about politics. The sense that Jews and Jewishness are relevant themes and topics within American literature rarely felt like something people wanted to talk about. There is also an entire history of assimilation and antisemitism in English departments that explains that exclusion. One of my goals is to reach out to my colleagues on the faculty and help them to feel comfortable cross listing their courses in Jewish studies. There’s an incredible wealth of Jewish studies expertise and material on campus.
Which professors might collaborate with the Jewish Studies Program?
I hope to collaborate with Marjorie Agosín, a professor in Wellesley’s Spanish department, who is a very important Latin American Jewish writer. One of the first things I want to do is find where people are teaching related subjects and ensure they have the support they need to make Jewishness part of that conversation. It can happen in literary studies, in history, in economics. I just heard from someone who’s teaching a course on the economics of immigration and wanted students to know they could do a study of Jewish immigration in that course.
How does linking Jewish studies to other disciplines benefit students?
I want students to understand the degree to which Jewish studies is connected to so many other disciplines. Wellesley, like many colleges, has a very diverse international student population. Public discussions of Jewishness are often tense, perhaps more so in recent years. Wellesley students are future leaders. That’s part of the ethos of the school. It’s important that they pass through a place where they get a sense of what Jews are like and what role Jews have played in history and culture. Hopefully, they will not leave the college susceptible to common stereotypical or antisemitic ways of thinking.
Where do you think American Jewish literature is going to land in the 21st century?
There was this crucial moment for American Jewish literature in the post-war decades. There was also a similar moment at the turn of the millennium when many writers of the genre came to prominence. The question to ask about Jewish literature right now is what role it plays in the larger conversation. The next feat for American literature is about centering the voices of people of color in a way that undoes some of the white supremacy of American publishing.
What is the role of Jews in American publishing?
In the last decade or so, we saw a lot more focus on Jewish diversity, interest and representation of the Sephardic and Mizrahi experiences. We also saw much more interest in Jewish LGBTQ+ experiences. We’ll also hopefully soon see more representations of Jews of color. That’s what I’m optimistic about and interested to see in the next few years.
How do you tackle the question about Jews and American publishing in your next book?
My next book is called “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing and Postwar American Literature.” If you ask book-loving people, “Did you know that the founders of Random House, Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Viking, Basic Books and 17 other major American publishers I could name are Jewish?” They’ll likely say, “I had no idea. I never thought about it.” People might have some sense that Jews were in American publishing, but not that Jews played a powerful and vital role in the industry.
In the book, I think about how Jews in publishing changed American literature. How did the fact that when Jews were still discriminated against in the 1920s, they were leading some of the most exciting, prominent and prestigious publishing houses in the country? How did that fact determine what got published and what didn’t get published? How did it change what kinds of books about Jews could get published and what kinds of books about Jews couldn’t get published? The other question is about how and why does it matter who publishers are? How does it affect people’s choices to be from a particular background and to have a gatekeeping role in the culture?
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
There are all sorts of Jewish cultural resources in Boston that I want my students and me to be part of. I’m very excited to be in the Boston Jewish community, and I will be exploring ways to connect the Wellesley Jewish Studies Program to the community. It’s also important that Wellesley is aware of the interesting work in local Jewish culture.
This interview has been edited and condensed.