Benjamin Ratskoff, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
My Jewish journey has spanned many different communities: Reform Jewish communities, traditional Sephardic communities, and Haredi and Hasidic communities. When I first moved to LA years ago, I was coming straight from a Haredi yeshiva and I have since been constantly processing, reorganizing, and rethinking my relationship to Torah, Yiddishkeit, and Frumkeit. It’s really been quite an interesting and thought-provoking experience for me here at HUC-JIR. My students have taught me so much and continue to challenge many of my own assumptions and ways of thinking.
I finished my Ph.D. at UCLA in June of 2021 and was really overjoyed when this opportunity came up, because I could stay in LA where I’d been living for the past seven years. What brought me to HUC-JIR was this position teaching modern Jewish history and culture. Trying to develop a conversation, you could say, between my Yiddishkeit and that of the students has been one of the most exciting and certainly most ‘Jewish’ parts of my job, whichI certainly could not have gotten elsewhere. Working with rabbinical students to dissect, say, a responsum from sixteenth-century Istanbul or a Hasidic discourse on using Hebrew as a spoken language is a rare and unique privilege.
Please talk about one of your recent publications.
I wrote a more public piece in June 2020 in the context of the Black Lives Matter uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor before that. It was for the magazine Jewish Currents, and I was trying to respond to this Jewish American impulse to develop solidarity with Black American, non-Jewish communities through analogies to Jewish history and experience. I was thinking about the limits of these kinds of attempts at analogy and identification, where we say , “Oh, we’ve experienced the same thing. This is just like us. I know what you’re feeling.”
While this is an impulse that comes from a positive place of empathy, and trying to build bridges, I was thinking about how it might constrain Jewish communities from recognizing not only relevant differences between the histories and experiences, but especially our own implication in existing structures. It was kind of provocatively titled “Against Analogy,” which is not a position I hold in general at all. All of my research is about comparison and I think historical analogies are tremendously useful and necessary.. But in this specific context of political and social crisis, I was trying to suggest that analogy and identification might be a stumbling block, a well-intentioned move that prevents us from fully understanding our own position in relation to movements against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
What is most rewarding about teaching? What is a favorite course you have taught?
The most rewarding part about teaching is how much I learn from my students. It’s kind of a cliche, but it’s really the truth that so much of what I say in my classes now are insights that I’ve received or heard in dialogue with my students in the past. Just yesterday, my rabbinical students in an elective course here at HUC-JIR delivered these fantastic film curriculums. They had so many resources in them for further reading that I never knew about. Similarly, I love teaching my first-year courses on Holocaust literature and film at USC. My students have so many brilliant insights, things that they notice, things that they see in the film, in its dialogue, in its lighting, in its editing, whatever it may be, that I’ve missed or haven’t noticed before, and then become a part of my own toolbox for analysis.
Describe HUC in one word.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I love cooking – making complicated recipes and finding very hard-to-find ingredients. I love making big, elaborate meals, and inviting my friends over to share them.