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Scholars@Hallwalls: Alexandra Zirkle, “Chastening Germany: Graetz’s Lusty Jew and Asexual Jewess as Semitic Saviors”

October 14, 2022 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Please join us in the cinema space at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center!

Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), the famous historian and biblical exegete, penned his commentary to the Song of Songs in 1871 to counter rising antisemitism fueled by racialized fantasies of Jewish gender and sexuality. Graetz contested antisemitic tropes of Jewish manhood and womanhood by reconfiguring the Song of Songs, this most blatantly erotic book of scripture, as a testament to and celebration of Jewish chastity. Against the lascivious femme fatal, Graetz introduced the tender Sulamit, whose paradigmatic chastity renders romantic ardor into asexual, sisterly affection. In contrast to the effeminate Jew, Graetz introduced the Friend, a brawny adventurer whose masculine attempt at chastity only reveals his throbbing desire for Sulamit. Graetz leverages the co-constitutive relationships between categories of gender, class, and race to bestow on these figures not only the bourgeois virtues connoted by their chastity, but also attendant associations of whiteness and middle-class belonging. Graetz’s exegetical construction of new models of Jewish womanhood and manhood was no mere theoretical exercise, but a response to matters of life and death as the rise of venereal disease in the German Empire coalesced into a public health crisis. With the specter of syphilis in the background, Graetz’s commentary to the Song of Songs proffers German Jews—and non-Jews—a Semitic path to redemption from the immorality crippling fin-de-siècle Germany.

This event will be simultaneously live-streamed. Click here to watch the live-stream via the Hallwalls website. The talk will begin at ~4:15pm.


About Alexandra Zirkle, Assistant Professor, Department of Jewish Thought

Professor Alexandra Zirkle is a scholar of modern Jewish thought, biblical hermeneutics, and Jewish-Christian relations. Her research centers biblical interpretation as a mode of critical inquiry, restores nineteenth-century figures to the canon of modern Jewish thought, and explores the ways that the interpretation of scripture is always also a mode of political speech. Professor Zirkle’s book-in-progress analyzes how German Jews wielded the constructive power of biblical exegesis to craft new forms of Judaism and stake their claims to civil emancipation.

Her recent articles analyze Graetz’s fantasies of Jewish gender and sexuality in his anti-antisemitic commentary to the Song of Songs (2021: Modern Judaism); resurrect how debates over the Jewish Question were shaped by two exegetical odes to Jewish farmers past and present (2019: de Gruyter); and trace how Graetz’s forgotten exegetical commitments undergird his famous History of the Jews (2019: Jewish Quarterly Review).


October 14, 2022
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Event Category:


Humanities Institute


Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center
341 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo, NY United States
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