“I’m always reminded of what a friend of mine once said,” says Gerald Sorin. “‘People are interested in how Jews died, but they ought to be also interested in how they lived.’ That’s a powerful thing to say, but I think that’s real. The Holocaust has a kind of macabre, attention-grabbing sense to it, so it’s hard to get people excited about the other stuff. But we do our best.”
As founder and director of the Louis and Mildred Resnick Institute for the Study of Modern Jewish Life at SUNY-New Paltz, Sorin has presented the annual Louis and Mildred Resnick Distinguished Lecture Series at the college every fall semester since 1989, bringing in guest writers, speakers and filmmakers who have had an impact on modern Jewish history. The lectures are open to the community and free of charge to attend, held on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. in Lecture Center 104 on the SUNY campus. This fall’s theme is “Jews and Theatre.”
The next lecture in the series will be conducted by Peter Antelyes, associate professor of English and director of Jewish Studies at Vassar College. His topic on Wednesday, September 16 at 7:30 p.m. will be “Staging the Shtetl: Fiddler on the Roof and the Photographs of Roman Vishniac.”
Shtetl is the Yiddish term for “town,” generally used to refer to the small villages with large Jewish populations that existed in pre-World War II Eastern Europe. Photographer Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) produced – according to the International Center of Photography – “the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars.”
Antelyes’ lecture, says Sorin, will likely compare the portrayal of the shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof to the photographs by Vishniac in order to discuss the authenticity of the theatrical portrayal of the shtetl. But Sorin gives his lecturers free rein in terms of the material that they cover, and he will discover the full content of the lectures along with the audience, trusting his speakers to deliver a presentation with panache that incorporates their solid background in the subject.
Yom Kippur falls on the following Wednesday, September 23, so the lecture series will pick up again on consecutive Wednesdays. On September 30 at 7:30 p.m., speaker Marc Courtade will offer “The Ethnic Musicals: Assimilation and Integration,” examining how musicals in the 20th century reflected the eras and cultures represented. Courtade is a frequent speaker on musical theater and opera, formerly with the New York Council for the Humanities, and is also an actor.
Edna Nashon, author of New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, will take the stage on Wednesday, October 7 with “Jewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice.” Debra Caplan closes out the series with “Death of a Salesman’s Jewish Homecoming” on Wednesday, October 14. Caplan is an assistant professor of Theater at Baruch College who specializes in Yiddish theater and drama and Jewish performance culture.
The Resnick Institute is not a physical location on the campus, but it is part of the university in New Paltz. It came about, explains Sorin, because local philanthropists Louis and Mildred Resnick wanted to give SUNY-New Paltz money for Jewish Studies. “They were very, very generous people, and had a nice relationship with Alice Chandler, who was president of the college at the time. She called me and asked me to write a proposal for the Institute.”
Sorin began teaching History at the college in 1965, eventually serving as department chair and later director of the Jewish Studies Department. He has written eight books and hundreds of published articles, essays and reviews in professional journals. At 75, Sorin is now retired from classroom teaching, but is still director of the Resnick Institute that he founded in 1989. The Resnicks left a sizable endowment to the university that ensures the Institute to go on in perpetuity, Sorin says, with the earnings from its capital investment paying for the annual lecture series and other programs, like the upcoming reading by poet and author Steven Sher (co-sponsored by the English Department) that will be held in the Honors Center in College Hall on the Main Quad on Tuesday, October 20 at 5 p.m.
The Resnick Institute also promotes a relationship between the college and the New Paltz community, says Sorin. And not just the Jewish community, he notes; a “good proportion” of the audience at the lectures is not Jewish. “We get a lot of general-interest people coming to these. I’m very glad to be able to play a role at the university, even though I’m mostly retired, and that the role is one which connects the college and the students and the professors to the larger community. That’s a very satisfying thing for me to see.”
Louis & Mildred Resnick Distinguished Lecture Series, Wednesdays (except September 23) through October 14, 7:30 p.m., free, Lecture Center 104, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz.