Rebecca Gross is a PhD student in Literature at UC Santa Cruz. Her project asks how Jewish cultural objects–such as films, television, graphic texts, and performance art–produced post-1945, can unsettle cultural attachments to Zionism and the nation state. Gross served as a THI Summer Research Fellow in 2022-2023 for her project, “Approaching Comparative Diasporic Memory and Intercultural Resistance through Fiction,” and a 2023 THI Public Fellow with Lux Magazine. In November, we discussed Gross’s research work, the relationship between myth and intergenerational trauma, the “Israeli grief machine” (Gabriel Winant), and Gross’s journalistic pursuits.
Hi Rebecca! Thank you for chatting with us about your ongoing work! To begin, would you provide us with a brief overview of your dissertation project and what you are currently focused on?
My project examines Jewish cultural objects constructed post-1945 that are committed to actively challenging national memory, and in the process, unsettling cultural attachment to Zionism, territorialization, and the nation state. I look at this phenomenon through cultural objects including novels; films and television series; graphic texts, and performance art practices. These cultural practices all embody a “speculative realist” genre, projecting premodern Jewish national imaginaries onto the landscape of the contemporary material world. Drawing on the history of radical thinking and organizing from the Black diasporic left, my project imagines what a Jewish nationalism untethered from Israel–and in fact, freed of any single territorial attachment–might look like.
I’m currently working on revising an essay I wrote about Judeo-Futurist performance art practices, and reading about (inter)nationalism and diasporic memory in preparation for my Qualifying Exams, which I will take in the Spring.
You have described your work as interested in myths and myth-making. More specifically, your work explores the extent to which contemporary diasporic literature mimics foundational myths of diasporic peoples’ histories, and the extent to which diasporic writers employ myth–via the fantastical, magical, and surreal–to politicize and critique nationalism. I’m wondering if you could give us one example of this sort of myth-work at play in a diasporic text that has been of interest to you?
One example of this diasporic myth-work that I’ve been really excited about lately is a re-imagining of the Baba Yaga folk story in GennaRose Nethercott’s 2022 novel, Thistlefoot. The story is about the Yaga siblings, who mysteriously inherit a house. But this house is not like other houses: it’s stilted on two chicken legs, which enables it to walk and run with its residents inside. The novel is about reckoning with cultural memory, working through embodied intergenerational trauma, and learning to carry out a Jewish politics of “Doikayt” or “hereness,” rather than “thereness” (i.e., Zionism). It’s also worth mentioning that the author of the book has a traveling puppet show of the same name, which relates to a major plot point in the novel. I haven’t yet seen it, but hope to see it on its next tour! This is a great example of the kind of mixed-media speculative realist cultural objects I’m interested in analyzing for my project. I won’t spoil any more of the book, because everyone should read it! I certainly plan to use it as an object of my analysis in my dissertation.
Obviously, the international spotlight has been cast on the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine with renewed focus over the last several weeks. As a scholar who has worked in the Jewish diaspora canon, and who has an interest in learning about cross-coalitional support among the Jewish left and Palestinian diasporic communities, I am curious how our current political moment has reflected aspects of or otherwise resonated with your work. What new questions are coming up for you of late?
My own disciplinary home of literary studies calls on me to root my analysis in cultural objects, but my project fundamentally recognizes that these objects cannot be divorced from the historical and material conditions they are being produced within, and the audiences that they are addressing.
The stakes of my project feel very high in our present moment. Right now, in real time, social science scholars in fields such as politics and sociology are called upon to analyze the genocidal events that continue to unfold in Palestine. My own disciplinary home of literary studies calls on me to root my analysis in cultural objects, but my project fundamentally recognizes that these objects cannot be divorced from the historical and material conditions they are being produced within, and the audiences that they are addressing.
I’ve been thinking lately about the way that inherited familial trauma, for example, is being used to divide communities for the benefit of imperialist, fascist powers. We are witnessing what Gabriel Winant has recently named as the “Israeli grief machine” weaponizing Jewish intergenerational trauma toward violent, ethno-nationalist ends. My project asks how cultural objects can operate counter to state-sanctioned emotional manipulation of Jewish populations. Examining the art and literature produced by anti-Zionist cultural players, my project argues that they find ways to recapture affective experiences that have been usurped by this grief machine, using them instead as building blocks to produce networks of diasporic solidarity across difference. As greater numbers of Jewish Americans, and diasporic Jews internationally, take up an anti-Zionist position, we are seeing the kind of cultural objects I’m interested in proliferate on social media, and also in popular and scholarly leftist magazines. Despite all the horror we see every time we open social media apps or turn on the news, the actions taken by anti-Zionist Jews in solidarity with Palestinians gives me hope that there is a political future for Jews outside of the nation state.
This Summer, you served as a THI Public Fellow with Lux Magazine. What drew you to this organization? Could you share a little about what you spent your time at Lux doing / what projects you worked on?
I was drawn to Lux Magazine because it’s a socialist feminist magazine named after Rosa Luxemburg–a Jewish socialist and key thinker of the second international. The magazine publishes hard-hitting stories about socialist feminist happenings around the world. The magazine’s editorial masthead is composed of all-star writers, editors, academics, and organizers. When I was introduced to the editor-in-chief, Sarah Leonard, and another editor, Cora Currier (who also served as my mentor), we got along right away and I knew it would be a good fit.
The magazine is quarterly, and I assisted with putting together Issue 8, their Fall 2023 edition. I wore many different hats in the context of preparing this issue for print, including serving as the primary editor for the Capsule Reviews column; assisting with the curation of the “From the Archive” article; copy-editing all the issue’s articles; and assisting with payroll. I also worked on daily and weekly operational tasks that were unrelated to Issue 8, such as curating, editing, and designing three Lux for Life newsletters; bottom-lining a promotional deal to sell back-issues and gain subscribers; unpaywalling and promoting issues on the website homepage; and assisting with social media.
What skills did you hone during your time at Lux and what will you take away from your Public Fellowship experience?
Working with Lux this summer showed me that these two interests of mine–journalistic writing and scholarly research–don’t have to exist separately.
Before I went to graduate school, I was pursuing a career in journalism. However, I craved the kind of in-depth research experience I felt I could only achieve in an academic setting, which pushed me to go back to school. Working with Lux this summer showed me that these two interests of mine–journalistic writing and scholarly research–don’t have to exist separately.
Working on Lux’s Issue 8 sharpened my copy editing abilities and my journalistic impulses. I am most proud of the work I did on the newsletter, in which I had the opportunity to exercise my journalistic writing voice. I also designed each newsletter, and built up my graphic design skills in the process. Relatedly, the social media campaign I bottom-lined boosted my design skills and encouraged me to think about a different type of audience than I address in an academic context.
I plan to continue working in copyediting and social media on a freelance basis throughout my time in graduate school, and would certainly consider entering the magazine / journal world post-graduation.
What’s one non-academic community you’ve found as a PhD student at UCSC that has enriched your time in Santa Cruz? How has it bolstered/sustained you?
I have become very involved in organizing circles in Santa Cruz, including the local chapter of DSA and my union, UAW 2865. Being a part of these circles has given me a built-in community of comrades I can trust and spend time with, and has also given me the opportunity to put my research into practice. I can’t imagine Santa Cruz without this organizing community.
I would also be remiss not to mention my husband, Phil, and our two cats, Blu and Billie, who keep me sane and happy in the midst of stressful, busy work weeks!
Finally, what is your favorite spot on UCSC’s campus?
My favorite spot on UCSC’s campus is probably the Chadwick Garden, or another spot on the East side campus under trees. This quarter I’m working as a TA for a class with film screenings that end in Merrill around 9:30 PM. There are few things I love more than walking out of class to a foggy campus night!
Banner Image: still of the Thistlefoot traveling puppet show, featuring the author GennaRose Nethercott.