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Schapkow Interview with Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg

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The following is a translation of an interview of Dr. Carsten Schapkow by the Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg. For the original German-language interview, click here.




Prof. Dr. Carsten Schapkow is Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Oklahoma. In the 2020/21 academic year he will be teaching at the University of Potsdam to replace Prof. Dr. Sina Rauschenbach who is the spokesperson of the Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg this year. Prof. Schapkow’s research interests include German-Jewish history and Sephardic history and culture. His publications include the monographs “The freedom to philosophize”: Jewish identity in modern times as reflected in Baruch de Spinoza's reception in German-language literature, Bielefeld 2001 and Role model and Counter model. Iberian Judaism in German-Jewish remembrance culture 1779-1939, Cologne 2011, published in a revised English version in 2015, as well as numerous essays, especially on Sephardic Judaism.

First of all: What are you doing in this current situation of the corona pandemic?

Above all, I am very happy to be here in Berlin and thank Professor Rauschenbach very much for inviting me to come to Potsdam this year. I look forward to the many exciting virtual semester activities at the center and especially to the exchange with colleagues and work with students in Potsdam.

1.      What are you currently working on? Please briefly explain:

I am working on a book about Ernst Toller (1893-1939) with the subtitle “A German-Jewish Life and the Lifelong Quest for Belonging.”

2.      What is your central thesis?

During the Weimar Republic, Toller was one of the most famous authors in Germany. Only if we read Toller as a Jewish author against the background of his time can we do justice to his artistic oeuvre and overall commitment for the oppressed and save him from oblivion.

3.      Where do you see the relevance of Jewish studies for the general validity of science?

Jewish Studies are explicitly open to other sciences, they have to be, because after all, Jewish history and culture cannot be viewed in isolation.

4.      Where do you see the closest connections between Jewish Studies and other disciplines?

For me personally, the closest connection exists between Jewish studies and music. On the one hand, because music always brings very different people together. On the other hand, because there has been wonderful Jewish music but also fruitful collaborations between Jews and non-Jews over the centuries in different contexts. And because there is still so much to (re) discover what constituted this important collaboration. I was able to help organize some concerts on topics from Jewish music in Oklahoma myself and I am looking forward to doing so in the future.

5.      What do you think is the most important source / your favorite text?

Ernst Toller’s autobiography Eine Jugend in Deutschland (in English it is titled I was a German) is a wonderfully thoughtful and ironically broken text and recommended for anyone who would like to learn more about Ernst Toller's life from himself.

6.      What do you wish for the field of Jewish Studies?

A steadily growing self-confidence to bring the findings and controversies from research and teaching to the public. More points of contact with representatives outside of academia should be sought in order to achieve more visibility but also to further reduce still existing fears of interaction between representatives of academia and the general public.

7.      In your opinion, what should be included in school lessons / in the educational sector / in society from your research area?

My answer has not so much to do with my specific research interests, but rather with a general concern: On the one hand, to read the authors who have been forgotten since the National Socialist terror and to save their lives and works from oblivion. On the other hand, to deepen the societal understanding that National Socialism forever destroyed something, namely a entire world, that will never come back.