Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of History
Principal Research Interest(s): Jewish History and Culture; Slavic-Jewish Interaction; Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah and Hasidism; Modern Ukraine
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (Ph.D., Brandeis University, 2001, Ph.D. Moscow University, 1988) is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History in History Department at Northwestern University. He teaches a variety of courses that include early modern and modern Jewish History; Jews in Poland and Russia; Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah; history and culture of Ukraine; and Slavic-Jewish Literatures.
His research was supported by the DAAD Foundation, Rothschild Foundation, Fulbright, Davis Center at Harvard, Kosciuszko Foundation, the Memorial Foundation of Jewish Culture, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, the Lady Davis Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. For his teaching, Petrovsky-Shtern won a Northwestern University Distinguished Teaching Award.
He has been a visiting professor at the universities in Toronto, Paris, Kyiv, Lviv, Warsaw, Krakow, Munich, and Jerusalem.
For his expertise, Petrovsky-Shtern has been appointed a Fulbright Specialist on Eastern Europe; a Fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute; a Visiting Professor at the Free Ukrainian University in Munich, and an honorary doctor of the National University Kyiv Mohyla academy in Kyiv.
He has published more than a hundred articles and six books, including most recently The Golden-Age Shtetl: a New History of Jewish Life in East Europe that appeared in paperback with Princeton University Press, 2015.
He appeared with commentaries on the situation in Ukraine at Chicago Public Radio, Associated Press Radio, National Public Radio, and also on TV at ZiK, Al Jazeera, WTTW and CBS.
In addition to his teaching and research, he is also an amateur artist whose conceptualist figurative artwork appeared in several museums including Spertus Museum Gallery in Chicago and Ukrainian Museum in New York.
At present YPS is working together with Dean Phillip Bell on a documentary history The Jews in the Early Modern World, 1450-1750 (Oxford University Press).
- Slavic Studies, Northwestern University (advising graduate students, teaching graduate courses, participating in institutional development).
- Holocaust Educational Foundation, Northwestern University (teaching summer school).
- Buffett Institute, Northwestern University (giving seminars, organizing lectures and events).
- Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (co-organizing academic projects, lecturing, graduate advising).
- University of Vienna, Doktoratskolleg Galizien (supervising a graduate student).
- Free Ukrainian University, Munich, Honorary Visiting Professor (lecturing, consulting MAs).
- Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, Lviv, Ukraine (teaching summer schools, lecturing, advising staff and affiliates).
- National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kyiv, Ukraine, honorary doctor (teaching mini-courses, consulting MA and PhD students, developing curriculum, peer-reviewing for Judaica Ucrainica journal).
- Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, NGO, Toronto, member of the academic council (scholarly and institutional consulting, editing media resources, participating in working groups and round tables).
- Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-existence, co-authored with Paul Robert Magocsi (University of Toronto Press, 2016).
- The Golden Age Shtetl: a New History of Jewish Life in East Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014; paperback, 2015). Reviewed in: American Jewish World, Association of Jewish Libraries, Canadian Jewish News, Choice, Commentary, Foreign Affairs, Forverts, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Journal, Jewish Herald Voice, Jewish Reporter, Jewish Review of Books, History Today, Key Reporter, Kirkus, Library Journal, Moment Magazine, Mosaic Magazine, Northern Review of Books, New York Times, Publishers Magazine, Reporter, Times Literary Supplement, Weekly Standard, Unconventional Literary Review: English edition; Polish edition.
- “On the Other Side of Despair: Cossacks and Jews in Yuri Kosach's The Day of Rage,” Amelia Glaser, ed., Stories of Khmelnytsky: Competing Literary Legacies of the 1648 Ukrainian Cossack Uprising (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 2015), 182-196.
- “Jewish Apples and Muslim Oranges in the Russian Basket: Options and Limits of a Comparative Approach,” in Franziska Davis, Martin Schulze Wessel, Michael Brenner, eds., Jews and Muslims in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (Munich: V&R Unipress, 2015).
- “’Context is Everything.’ Reflections on Studying with Antony Polonsky,” in Glenn Dynner and François Guesnet, eds., Warsaw: The Jewish metropolis: Essays in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Professor Antony Polonsky (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 613-616.
- Cultural Interference of Jews and Ukrainians: a Field in the Making. Inaugural Lecture at the investiture ceremony conferring the National University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” doctor honoris causa degree, January 20, 2014 (Publishing House “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, 2014) [in Ukrainian].
- POLIN: Jews and Ukrainians, vol. 26 (Oxford and Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2013), co-edited with Antony Polonsky.
I use Jewish history as a particular approach to the plethora of social, economic, political, religious, gender, literary, and cultural issues faced by scholars across various disciplines. My students master several basic skills indispensable for any field in the humanities: contextualizing historical problems, analyzing primary and secondary sources, and framing research questions. I consider these three skills absolutely indispensable for any student, whether he or she applies to graduate school in the humanities or goes into business. By ‘framing a question,’ I mean the ability to articulate a question in such a way that it strikes the core of the subject matter. Contextualizing—accurately contextualizing--an event is for me an attempt at reconstructing how that historical event was perceived at the time it occurred by the variety of historical actors immediately involved. Finally, by analyzing a document I mean teaching not only how to engage in inquisitive textual analysis, but also how to keep in mind the larger context of the document, bridging the meanings of the document and its specific context. Document analysis also requires delving head-on into the circumstances that produced the document by pondering its origins, the author’s and editor’s agendas, its real or imaginary audience, its perception by various groups, and its impact or lack thereof. Analyzing a document also means thinking through both what the document includes and also what is remarkably absent. By using these techniques. I impart to my students that context, primary sources, and inquiry are crucial to any critical thinker.
In my Northwestern courses in Early Modern Jewish History, for example, I emphasize the urban aspects of Jewish communal and socio-cultural life and emphatically position Jewish history within the framework of general historical developments. For example, when presenting 15th century Toledo or Avila, 16th century Venice, and 17th century Izmir (Smyrna) to my students, I learn with them how to investigate the shared behavioral and cultural patterns of Jews, Christians, and Muslims—and how to find the meaning of Jewish distinctiveness in an urban community with blurred cultural boundaries. By the same token, when I discuss conversos in the Iberian peninsula after the expulsion, I am questioning the rigidity of cultural boundaries, discussing its fluidity and hic et nunc application, particularly when looking at multiple examples of those conversos, who practiced a variety of forms of Judaism in private while living their public lives as allegedly good Catholics.
All my classes are designed as sophisticated and cutting-edge multi-media power-point presentations. I invest a great deal of preparatory work in setting up my power-points—to positive feedback. I have about 20 frames per session, which, in addition to multilingual transliterated terms, dates, and names, contain visual (f.., Soviet antisemitic cartoons and posters), textual (Kafka’s diaries), and audio documents (Shostakovich’s “The Baby Yar” Symphony). I utilize what appears on the screen in two ways—as an illustration accompanying my lecture and as documentary evidence in and of itself, which I analyze for students and, more often than not, invite them to analyze. I am particularly pleased to see students pondering aloud the affinity of color palette of the Sephardic synagogues in Venice and Istanbul and that of the baroque churches and mosque ornaments.
In my graduate-level courses such as “Documents and Narratives” or “Jewish Mysticism: historical contexts,” I focus on primary sources and on various ways to build—and challenge—historiographic narratives based on these sources. While I always accommodate graduate students who can only read translated English-language documents, I also encourage graduate students to grapple with new foreign languages, acquire paleographical skills, and do their best to analyze documentary evidence in the original. I use primary sources in a dozen languages as objects of both philological and historical inquiry. I teach students to analyze the rhetoric of a document, its literary layers, its tropes and metaphors, its cultural frame of reference, proving that documents help explore not only what people or groups of people write, but also what they read—and what their reading tells us about who they are, how they articulate their intentions and thoughts and why. Using the techniques of a neurosurgeon, I help students separate literary and cultural layers, each with its own peculiar historicity, and uncover the socially and politically relevant meanings of the primary documents. I start, of course, by presenting to students the idea that we can historicize practically anything, turning material culture, verbal expression and visual signs into historically relevant sources. I am developing this methodology in my work-in-progress based on what I call “cultural archaeology.”
Recent Awards and Honors
- The Kosciuszko Visiting Professor at the University of Warsaw, Kolegium “Artes Liberales,” 2016.
- The American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence, Honorable Mention, 2015.
- National Jewish Book Award (History), 2015.
- Jewish Memorial Foundation Fellowship, research of Practical Kabbalah/Medicine early modern intersection, 2015.
- The DAAD German Academic Exchange Fellowship, 2015.
- Nomination for 2015 Pulitzer Prize for the Golden Age Shtetl book, 2014.
- Fulbright Specialist appointment for teaching in Ukraine, 2014.
- Doctor honoris causa at National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kyiv, Ukraine, 2014.