“Reading Hard and/or Hardly Reading” 

By Nicole Collins, MTS ’24 

Editor’s Note: In this post, HDS Admissions Graduate Assistant, Nicole Collins, shares her favorite readings from her first semester at HDS.

Throughout undergrad, I was vaguely aware of the pitfall of “reading too much”: that is, reading voraciously, almost obsessively, to the point where burnout becomes imminent. I fell into this unfortunate habit quite frequently, giving myself headaches late into many a quarantine night trying, and trying, and trying to understand Hegel. This fall semester is the first time that I’ve become acquainted with the dilemma of having “too much to read.”  

The biggest “dilemma” (if you can call it that) of my first semester at HDS has been that there is simply too much cool stuff to read. And worse than that: It’s all relevant! Being in a master’s program instills a unique and stressful alertness that I need to craft, and guide, my area of study. (And hey, how far away are our Ph.D. dissertations really?) So not only are the readings in every single class interesting; each reading reaches out and begs the student to save it a place in the dream annotated bibliography they’ll be crafting in, say, five years. It’s nice to be freed from undergraduate GenEdLand. Now it seems I can spend most of my time engaging with classes, topics, and readings that I find interesting. 

Unsurprisingly, then, the readings that I have found the most interesting this semester have been relevant to my interests in religion, portability, gender, and colonialism. Here, I’ll go through some of the best things I’ve read so far this semester, culling from both my course syllabi and my own personal reading list. 

Despite most students’ chagrin over being required to take the first-year Theories and Methods course, that class has had some of the most interesting readings, for me, so far. Perhaps this makes sense given my background as an undergraduate philosophy major. In a similar sense, I have appreciated the class for introducing me to the field of religious studies in general: It’s nice to finally be given the same ammunition that those with religion major backgrounds possess.  

A particular favorite of mine from this class has been Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. It has been interesting to engage with her theorization of—among many other things—marginalized agency performed within, rather than in spite of, societal norms. This, I think, has cool imports on what transness, Judaism, and trans Judaism can—or could—look like. Mahmood’s lens of analysis seems a helpful way to approach debates such as whether trans women should defy or embrace restrictive, cis(-)gender norms. Mahmood offers a more nuanced look at how trans folks interact with gender normativity. 

Speaking of which, I am reading—half on my own and half for my Theories & Methods final paper—Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Boyarin’s work is an exploration of—in part—how the figure of an ideal Jewish male as passive, weak, and soft was formed largely in contrast to Roman, western manifestations of masculinity and heterosexuality. Of particular importance to Boyarin’s analysis is how diasporic Jewish communities viewed such normative masculinity not so much as a threat but also, positively, as a site of reclamation, an opportunity for the exercise of Jewish agency—that is, enacting and “owning” their stereotyped passivity and molding into what would become a prominent aspect of Jewish culture.  

In a macro sense, the biggest challenge I’ve been navigating this term has been, to put it crudely, “balancing pleasure-reading with even more pleasure-reading.” Really, truly, none of it has been boring, and the most frustrating thing in the whole situation is that I just can’t fit it all in. Unfortunately, sometimes—and maybe this is a general life lesson, too—skimming is the best we can do. 

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