Penn Katz Center Director Wins Book Award

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Steven Weitzman | Photo provided

What is a Jew?

Where did we come from?

Who am I?

Such existential questions not only keep us up at night, they deeply interested author Steven Weitzman — so much so that he set out to research questions of identity and origin in a book.

The result was The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, which was named the winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in the Education and Jewish Identity category.

“What originally inspired me to write it is my own curiosity of the origin of my own identity as a Jew, and that’s a question that I’ve had since I was a kid,” said Weitzman, director of the Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

“As I learned more about my field” — ancient Jewish history — “I realized that scholarship didn’t have a clear answer to that question and actually answered the question in many different ways,” he said, “so I wanted to write the book as a way to explore why we don’t know the answer to the question and why scholarship has so many different theories.”

He went on about eight expeditions to research scholarship about origin in different fields, such as genetics and archaeology. The idea of origin turned out to be a bit more complicated than he realized.

He also was mindful of the idea that many people have started turning to ancestry sites and genealogy because they are becoming curious about their identities and where they came from. But the answer isn’t as simple as an Ancestry.com search.

“Especially for American Jews like myself, a lot of us are — at some level — disconnected from our origin,” he said. “We’re descendants of immigrants who came to the United States from other countries and in many cases a lot of memory was lost, a lot of family traditions were lost. … A lot of American Jews today are really curious about genealogy and curious about what genetics can tell them about their ancestry because they don’t know a lot about their ancestors.”

Additionally, some scholars, he’s found, are skeptical about the ability to recover origins and don’t believe it’s worth pursuing.

“So I was also reacting to that allergy to questions about origin that is very prevalent in the humanities today,” Weitzman said.

While he immersed himself in research areas he didn’t know much about before, he realized the question is harder to answer than it appears. He hopes readers understand that, too.

Winning the book award was “gratifying” for Weitzman, as it allowed him to connect with a wider audience.

“I would love readers to understand that that question of where we come from and who our ancestors were — it’s a deeper question than it might seem on the surface to be,” he said. “So I hope by understanding that one’s origin is more difficult to retrieve and complicated than it might appear, that people will get a deeper sense of who they are and realize that they’re mysteries, even to themselves.”

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