Learning in Fort Lee
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Learning in Fort Lee

Historian/Frisch teacher to explore diverse topics in shul lecture series

Eitan Kastner
Eitan Kastner

It’s interesting the way things, and people, come full circle. You leave, and then you come back.

Eitan Kastner of Teaneck is a case in point. A 2003 graduate of the Frisch School, for the last four years Mr. Kastner has been a member of that school’s history department.

In addition, Mr. Kastner — who also is faculty adviser for Frisch’s Model UN and for The Struggle, the school newspaper — soon will deliver a series of lectures at the JCC of Fort Lee/ Congregation Gesher Shalom, where he has a “family connection. My grandfather was the president in 1972 — my name is on the Tree of Life,” Mr. Kastner said, adding that his father went there most of his life and was a student at its religious school.

A graduate of Yeshiva University, Mr. Kastner earned his MA at the University of Chicago, focusing primarily on American religious history. He shares that knowledge on a regular basis, teaching history and art history at Frisch and working as a licensed New York City tour guide, leading excursions with Jewish and historical themes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In delivering talks on historical topics, Mr. Kastner said, he takes two approaches. The first posits that “here’s something you don’t know about that you’ll find interesting.” The second suggests that “you may know a little bit about it, but I’ll take it in a direction you haven’t thought of.” Generally, he said, people are very receptive.

In choosing topics for his four Fort Lee presentations, Mr. Kastner saw the talks as divided into two separate units. “The first lecture — July 26 — is based on the contents of my master’s thesis,” he said. “It stands by itself.” Called “Allies or Apocalyptics? Christian Zionists and Israel Advocacy,” the talk will explore the religious reasons why conservative Christians advocate for Israel and will, he said, “answer the question, ‘Is their Zionism good or bad for Israel?’”

“It will have two smaller lectures in one,” he continued. First, he will look at conservative Christians, or evangelicals, in general, “providing a fuller picture of who they are. In the second half, I’ll talk specifically about what it is in their religion that makes them want a Jewish state. How does it connect to their theology? How does their theology impact the kinds of things they advocate for?”

He explained that “a big part of this kind of Christianity is biblical literalism, a specific way of reading the Bible, dating back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.” He will, he said, “look at where they get these ideas from and how they are interpreting the Bible in ways that other Christians do not.”

Acknowledging that the average Jew might be suspicious of these groups because of the worry that the Christians might try outreach, Mr. Kastner said that “most conservative Christians are smart enough to know that they wouldn’t be welcome to hang around with Jews if they tried to convert them.” While the lecturer would not answer his own question of whether these groups are good or bad for Israel — “Come to the lecture,” he said — he did note that he would explore a number of concerns these groups evoke.

In his second set of lectures, Mr. Kastner will speak about Jews in ancient times. With the approach of Tisha B’Av, which falls this year on August 14, he will talk about the destruction of both Temples but will not limit his presentation to historical texts. “I’m big into showing archeology and art from antiquity,” he said, adding that the inclusion of art history will help attendees develop a greater understanding of the material.

In his August 2 lecture, “The Surprising World of the Greeks and the Jews,” Mr. Kastner will explore Jewish life and culture from the time of Alexander the Great to the advent of the Common Era, with a focus on Jewish literature from the time.

“We start by learning about the Jews in antiquity, to introduce the players” who lived through the events commemorated by Tisha B’Av, he said. “This will take us up to Tisha B’Av, with interesting information from novels, plays, and works of art from antiquity.” Some of them, he said, have been published relatively recently. “It will get people up to date on the more recent material,” he said. On August 9, he will talk about the “Geopolitics of Tisha B’Av,” exploring the history of the destruction of the two temples.

“I’m not a rabbi,” Mr. Kastner said. “I will not tell people how it should impact them theologically. I’m a historian. When you understand what happened better, you understand more.”

For his last lecture, Mr. Kastner will talk about “Jews and Space: The Changing Significance of Jewish Structures,” exploring “the changing importance of synagogues throughout the centuries of the Jewish diaspora.” Focusing on the role of the synagogue from antiquity until today, Mr. Kastner will look at such questions as how synagogues adapted to the new reality — that is, the destruction of the First and Second Temples — and offer examples demonstrating different architectural styles, functions, and how the religion itself adapted. (In 2010, he published an article on this topic in the American Jewish History journal.)

“The earliest synagogues excavated in and outside of Israel found many interesting designs that repeat over and over” on floors, walls, and other spaces, Mr. Kastner said, and it is interesting to speculate on why some designs are repeated and others are not. One hypothesis is that “they help to transition from a Temple-based to a non-Temple based religion. They depict symbols from the Temple, bringing them to the local synagogue.”

“It is important to remember that this didn’t exist before,” he said. “It was sort of a new religion, for all practical purposes. This was the locus for that taking place. They were consciously doing something new.” And, he said, in making these important changes, there was also the question of how to justify them, since the religion was already more than 1,000 years old.

Joking that synagogues can’t function without a kiddush, Mr. Kastner also pointed out that “there is architectural evidence going back to antiquity of a social aspect” to the synagogue.


Who: The JCC of Fort Lee & CSI Scholar Fund

What: Presents visiting scholar Eitan Kastner

When: On Tuesdays, July 26, August 2, 9, and 23 at 1 p.m.; following refreshments at 12:30.

Where: JCC of Fort Lee, 1449 Anderson Avenue

For more information: Call (201) 947-1735

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