Literature Course of a Lifetime

Faye Moskowitz sits with stacks of books behind her
Professor of English Faye Moskowitz brings Jewish American writers to campus in her Jewish Literature Live course.
February 03, 2011

By Menachem Wecker

Asked to pick her favorite speaker who has come to the Jewish Literature Live course she has taught at GW for three years, Faye Moskowitz, M.A. ’79, professor of English, refuses.

“Asking me to choose a favorite author or visitor is like asking a Jewish mother who her favorite child is,” she says.

Ms. Moskowitz says she and her class have enjoyed hearing from all the established and emerging writers who have come to address the class and to read selections of their works.

“I will say I can’t forget Michael Chabon sitting at a seminar table with undergraduates talking to them as comfortably as if they were his own students,” she says.

Other memorable events include Maus author and illustrator Art Spiegelman, who spoke “candidly” about being the son of Holocaust survivors; the “electrifying energy and brilliance” of Dara Horn, who read her novel All Other Nights, about Jews in the Civil War; and Myla Goldberg discussing the intricacies of her novel Bee Season.

“On and on the list goes,” says Ms. Moskowitz. “One of the beauties of the course is that each author visit brings an entirely new experience to everyone involved.”

On April 7, award-winning author and Pulitzer Prize finalist E.L. Doctorow will address the class. “Of course I am thrilled by the prospect of such a visit and the opportunity to teach The Book of Daniel, one of my longtime, all-time favorites,” Ms. Moskowitz says.

In addition to E.L. Doctorow, the course is bringing five other Jewish literature authors to campus this semester, including poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch and novelist Steve Stern.

According to Ms. Moskowitz, the concept of the course is to give students the chance to read novels or short story collections by living authors, so they can pose questions to the authors when they visit.

“The most important benefit for student and professor alike is the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the author,” she says. “We are able to ask questions about author intent, inspiration and influences on the spot without an intermediary.”

Authors’ visits to the class are usually followed by a public lecture or reading, in which  writers often read from their most recent works, Ms. Moskowitz says. Students then respond to the works and the visits as part of their coursework.

Ms. Moskowitz based the idea of the course on a secular Literature Live course she started teaching at GW in 2002, which brought local writers to campus to discuss their works. When Jeffrey Cohen, then chair of the department, convinced David Bruce Smith, B.A. ’79, and a GW trustee, to fund the Jewish iteration of the course in 2009, Ms. Moskowitz agreed to create the new course.

“The idea of a similar Jewish literature course had since occurred to me often,” she says. “I was eager to implement that idea when the opportunity arose.”

According to Ms. Moskowitz, Mr. Smith never forgot a Jewish literature course he took with Judith Plotz, professor emerita of English, as an undergraduate.

“Mr. Smith has funded the course since 2009 because of his own interest in the topic of Jewish literature, because he was intrigued with the concept of bringing Jewish authors to campus to engage with students and in gratitude for his own undergrad exposure to Jewish literature,” Ms. Moskowitz says.

When she explains the merits of a course like Jewish Literature Live in Washington, and at GW in particular, Ms. Moskowitz draws from her own experience as an undergraduate – particularly when Robert Ganz, professor of English, brought Alan Ginsburg to a poetry class Ms. Moskowitz was enrolled in.

“We were studying the ‘Beat’ poets, perhaps the first time their work was taught on campus,” she remembers. “The opportunity to exchange ideas with a cutting-edge poet, whose writing we had read and discussed, was memorable for me. I still recall it all vividly. I think Jewish Literature Live replicates that experience.”

As far as she knows, there is no other course like this in the country, Ms. Moskowitz says, particularly because it is expensive and requires generous funding, as Mr. Smith has provided.

“I don’t know where else students have an opportunity to meet with a series of authors in such an intimate setting,” she says. “Truly, this is a literature course of a lifetime, and GW students are very fortunate to have such an unforgettable experience.”

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