Weekly Interview: William Kolbrener

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Open Minded Torah is a blog I particularly enjoy. I suppose that its attempt “to deal with some of those problems and contradictions” involved in being an observant scholar of Milton is something that particularly appeals to me. Thank you William for adding your atypical voice to the JBlogosphere and this series of interviews.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I grew up in Roslyn, Long Island, went to Columbia College in New York City where I studied English Literature and where I met my wife Leslie. I then went on to Oxford to get an MA, and back to Columbia where I got my PhD in English Literature. Now I am a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel and live in the Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem.

What is your religious background (if any)?

My background is reform, but always had a very strong Jewish identity, inherited from my grandparents and my parents. I am named after my mother’s grandfather Velvel (Wolf or Zev), and have discovered affinities with him over the past years – he was a Gerer Hasid in a village called Govorovo which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944.

When and why did you decide to make aliyah?

Our aliyah was not the typical one: we were graduate students, and had recently ‘discovered’ Rabbi Riskin’s synagogue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, Lincoln Square Synagogue. We decided on the basis of a year’s experience with the Beginner’s Minyan that we wanted some time to study. Fortuitously, I won a Lady Davis Fellowship at the Hebrew University – where I finished my dissertation on the English poet, John Milton. It allowed me to start to find out about my own tradition – and not just the Christian tradition of Milton and his contemporaries. I was one of many Jews in my profession who knew much more about Christianity than Judaism. If we had to plan for aliyah – we never would have made it. It was kind of an accidental aliyah – the Miltonist at Bar Ilan retired just a few years before my arrival, and I got the job In Israel we experience the rewards – and challenges – of living with the Jewish people in the Jewish State.

When and why did you start blogging?

Blogging was a way, for me, of finding a voice. Academic writing can have its uses – but it tends to be overly scholarly, certainly not accessible to a larger audience. During my graduate studies, I had tried to work out certain problems – thinking about how my life as a scholar of Milton related to my new life of Jewish observance. There are certainly not of people in the humanities who decide to become observant. So I wrote a series of academic articles trying to deal with some of those problems and contradictions. Writing the blog was an attempt to bring some of my earlier scholarly writing down to earth – to make it accessible. In the process, I found a new voice, and a way of expressing perceptions of the world that I already had but didn’t know – thus began the book which is coming out with Continuum in 2011, Open Minded Torah. Of my blog, I would say what the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets: ‘So I find words I never thought to speak.’

To what extent do you feel your blogging activity reflects on the global perception of Israel?

I don’t think my blog has much to do with global perceptions of Israel. But lo b’shmayim hee’ – it’s not in Heaven – small things can sometimes have positive effects as well. I’m hoping that my blog – and the book – will give a more complicated sense of what it means to embrace Jewish life and learning.

What post(s) are you most proud of?

My posts are really various, but here are a couple, one about Israel, and one about my son Shmuel – both of which I really like:

Oedipus in a Kippa
Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

Last week’s interview

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5 thoughts on “Weekly Interview: William Kolbrener

  1. Thank you for the introduction to William Kolbrener. I can’t imagine “accidental aliyah” – how wonderful that one makes aliyah because an expert on Milton is needed!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Review with Hollyhock « Ilana-Davita

  3. Pingback: Weekly Interview: Baila « Ilana-Davita

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