Q&A with New Faculty in American Religion & Jewish Studies

The UF Religion Department is excited to welcome Dr. Rachel Gordan to the Gator Nation! Dr. Gordan received her PhD from Harvard University, in North American Religions; her BA from Yale in American Studies, and her MAR from Yale Divinity school. After receiving her PhD, she held postdoctoral fellowships at Northwestern University and at the University of Toronto, before teaching at Boston University and Brandeis in 2016-2017. As a scholar of American religion, she researches Judaism and Jewish culture from the early 20th century to the present, with a particular focus on the immediate Post-WWII era, middlebrow culture, and American Jewish literary history. To learn more about her research and passion for the field, read the Q&A below:

Why did you go into religious studies?

I was an American Studies major in college, and religion kept popping up as a point of interest in my study of American culture. I loved the way religion wove its way into politics, literature, and popular culture, but I didn’t consider majoring in religious studies, because I thought, “I don’t want to be confined to ‘religion’ — I want the much broader view of culture.” What I discovered, of course, was that following religion in American culture takes you everywhere: literature, music, politics, wars — you name it. So, I like to tell my undergraduate majors that they are far ahead of where I was as an undergrad, because they’ve already figured out the value of studying religion.

 

What are your future research plans?

I’m working on American Jews and Judaism in the mid-twentieth century, now, and I think I’ll stay in this era, in one way or another, for a while. When I started working on my How Judaism Became an American Religion project, a colleague in American religion whose work I admire, but who does not study Jews, told me that he had always felt like “everything changed” for Jews and America at midcentury, but he did not understand how all the pieces — the Holocaust, Israel, suburbanization, to name just a few — fit together. That conversation showed me that even those who really understand American religion, might need help weaving together the various midcentury pieces. I’m still having fun with that work!

What challenges have you faced, and what do you consider to be the most significant challenges facing the academic study of religion?

We have to remind students of the importance of religion in our society. On the first day of classes here at UF, I asked the students in one of my courses why they were taking a religion class, and a student who was not American told us that in his country, it seems like nobody is religious, but in America, religion is all around, and so it seemed interesting to him. He wanted to understand how religion works in America. I think the rest of the class had a “Oh, right! Religion is one of the things that makes this country different!” moment. Without realizations like that, undergraduates can mistakenly assume that religion is in the background and unimportant. It’s hard to say yet, whether the current political climate, in which religion has come up in various ways, will make students more aware of its relevance.

What have you enjoyed most about your experience as a researcher and professor in the field of religious studies? 

I love that being in this field leads to so many rich conversations. Religious studies professors often joke about the airplane conversations we have: if your seat-mate asks you what you do for a living, should you actually tell them that you teach religion, or is that opening up a can of worms? But much of the time, I enjoy what happens after I mention religion as my field. People sit up straighter. Whether or not the other person in the conversation feels that she “has religion” in her life — there’s a good chance she thinks we’re talking about something meaningful in the world when we’re talking about religion.  However skeptical they are about the significance of a category called religion, I think people are interested to hear the case we scholars of religion have to make. I see that in my students, too.