A win for ’slow scholarship’

Leslie Ridgeway • February 9, 2023
post image
Ten years in the making, Nomi Stolzenberg’s book honored with National Jewish Book Award
Nomi Stolzenberg
Prof. Nomi Stolzenberg (Photo by Scarlett Freund)

Professor Nomi Stolzenberg’s 2022 book American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York (2022, Princeton University Press), was recently named winner of the Celebrate 350 Award in the American Jewish Studies category of the 72nd annual National Jewish Book Awards.

The award, given by the National Jewish Book Council, was presented to Stolzenberg and co-author David Myers, Stolzenberg’s husband and a professor of history at UCLA. The awards will be celebrated at an in-person ceremony March 1 in New York City.
Stolzenberg, a multidisciplinary academician whose research spans religious law and property law, and Myers devoted more than 10 years to researching and writing American Shtetl. To Stolzenberg, the award validates the book’s popular appeal, bolstered by numerous positive notices in publications like The New Yorker and Los Angeles Review of Books, as well being included in The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2022 So Far.
“This was a book that we really hoped would be read by non-academics, by people who were already were interested in the subject or would be, if they learned about it,” Stolzenberg said. “To share this [award] with likes of Philip Roth is amazing and reflects a non-academic reading public that is personally important to me.”
American Shtetl examines a unique enclave of Satmar Jews – a subset of the Hasidic community – that has used the law to establish itself as a separatist society. The book arrived in the midst of increasing interest in the Hasidic community in America – the winner in last year’s National Jewish Book Awards in the American Jewish Studies category was A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg by Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper. An investigation by The New York Times in late 2022 reported that several state funded Hasidic schools in Brooklyn had failed to provide a basic education to their students.
“It is a marginal community that has become highly visible and controversial,” Stolzenberg said.
American Shtetl book
‘American Shtetl’ wins National Jewish Book Award

Shaped over time

Stolzenberg called the award “a vindication of slow scholarship” that recognizes the years she and Myers labored to discern the different types of law needed to understand the community – Constitutional law, local government law, family law, education law and more.
“There’s so much pressure to turn things around quickly, and there’s a time and a place for that,” she said. “But if you really want to understand a community that is very alien and different from your own and the mainstream, and you really want to understand the role of American law, vis-à-vis a community that has set itself apart, it requires that much time to avoid overly simplistic, overly stereotypical ideas about this culturally foreign community and frankly, about what American law is.”
Stolzenberg is hard at work on her next project, developing a theory of what discrimination on the basis of religion or belief means, as a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. She is also a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
“I call it ‘A Theory of Faith-Based Discrimination,’” she said. “It’s very connected to my longstanding interest in the place of religion in American society, and how our legal system should respond to people with divergent beliefs, especially when the beliefs conflict with law and regulations adopted by state actors in form of legislation or executive orders, and in other cases by private actors like employers.”

Explore Related

Related Stories