Andy Bush: Vassar Jewish-studies scholar, delivers surprises

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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PROFILES — BOOK NEWS

Source: Poughkeepsie Journal, 7-29-11

Like Sandy Koufax, Andy Bush — a popular Vassar College professor of Hispanic studies and Jewish studies who speaks five languages and has a Ph.D. from Yale — throws curveballs.

What I mean is Bush’s ideas, like curveballs, traverse a tantalizing and surprising path between where they begin and where they wind up.

For instance, Bush’s latest book, “Jewish Studies: A Theoretical Introduction,” seems at first glance like a short, conventional and narrowly focused work.

It’s actually long, revolutionary and broad.

At just 145 pages, it’s long because it requires rereading, revolutionary because it successfully breaks so many literary and scholarly rules, and broad because it spills over to enduring themes of intellectual life.

Traditionally, Jewish studies hold a privileged status for certain starting points, such as the Torah, medieval thinker Moses Maimonides, or the history of Eastern European Jews.

But Bush undermines this hierarchy with his unproven, but effectively demonstrated, faith in the interconnectedness of all things in this world.

Because Jews cleave so deeply to this world — Christians and Muslims seek, and sometimes even yearn for, a home beyond — all earthly starting places, geographic and intellectual, are equal.

This means Bush would implicitly approve of beginning a Jewish-studies quest right here in Poughkeepsie.

Just notice Rabbi Paul Golumb’s purposeful stride down Ferris Lane toward Vassar Temple, or the delight Ellen Devorsetz takes in finding out who knows whom, or Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff’s relentlessly funny, we’re-all-in-it-together perspective on political foolishness, and you’ve already entered the endlessly connected realm of Jewish studies.

In his concluding chapter, Bush abandons his thick, scholarly camouflage. He suddenly starts what looks like a play.

But it has an impossible structure: 37 Jewish characters — the living and the dead; a setting that is either Berlin in 1800 or a present day Jewish-studies class before the teacher arrives; and, silliest of all, a very omniscient narrator.

But the joke is on us: It works!

But for me, Bush, with an assist from a feminist Algerian Jew, Helene Cixous, is at his most brilliant in shedding new light on the ancient commandment “Thou shall not kill.”

And get this: He does it with a commentary on two previously unrelated Rembrandt paintings — “Bath-sheba” and “The Slaughtered Ox.”

Now, we may reach the end of this bewildering, life-giving book wondering what exactly Bush is up to.

Is it really Jewish studies? Maybe Jewish life? Or even human existence itself?

Surprise, surprise. It’s all three.

Welcome to the big leagues.

Play ball!

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