New Faculty
Adam Teller Associate Professor of History and Judaic Studies Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Adam Teller
Associate Professor of History and Judaic Studies

By David Orenstein  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

In 1648, Ukrainian Cossacks railing against Polish rule channeled some of their rage into a “pogrom,” or anti-Semitic riot, that either killed or displaced thousands of Jews. The tragedy was awful, but Adam Teller, associate professor of history and Judaic studies, has been studying it for two important reasons: It reflects the tight integration of Jewish and Eastern European history, and it presents the 17th-century case of a far-flung people cooperating to cope with a humanitarian crisis.

“[Jewish] communities and groups very far distant from each other interacted in order to try to deal with the problem,” says Teller, who comes to Brown from a tenured position at the University of Haifa, Israel. “My study leads me to look at how people dealt with refugee problems before the invention of the NGO.”

To Teller, history is a dynamic set of interactions and therefore Jewish history is never just about the Jews. The most enlightening insights into Jewish culture and identity are found by studying the connections between Jews with their non-Jewish neighbors, he says. These investigations, in turn, can offer important insights into general Eastern European history as well.

“I try to write my history of Polish Jewry in a way that a Polish historian reading it would also gain insights into non-Jewish Polish society,” Teller says. “You really understand history and culture when you look at the boundaries, the connections, and the margins.”

A particular challenge, he acknowledges, is that while Jews and non-Jews interacted frequently and produced indelible influences on each other, they rarely wanted their cross-cultural connections to be known.

Understanding such nuances has helped Teller write a study that put into broad cultural context a detailed historical text about the 1648 pogrom written by Nathan Note Hanover. Although Hanover wrote in Hebrew, his style and methods reveal many influences from non-Jewish historians of his native Eastern Europe — a cultural interaction that had gone unnoticed in historical research.

At Brown, Teller’s study of the pogrom will shift to focus on the international relief effort in the Jewish world. Unlike in previous tragedies, Jewish communities from northern Europe to the eastern Mediterranean began to openly collaborate, for instance in raising money to ransom refugees who had become ensnared in the slave markets of Istanbul.

Born in London, Teller traces his love of history to his childhood — he remembers memorizing the names and dates of the kings and queens of England when he was eight. This deep interest never left him. After undergraduate study at Oxford University, his exploration of his ethnic identity led to a Ph.D. in modern Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1997. He joined the faculty at the University of Haifa in 1995.

Teller says that Brown is an ideal place for him to continue his work and teaching.

“The history department is absolutely cutting-edge,” he says. “So too is the Judaic Studies program. This will give me an unrivaled opportunity to interact with world-class scholars and broaden my horizons.”

And then, he says, there is the intellectual curiosity of Brown students.

“I really hope that I’m going to come across classes that make me think about what I’m doing in new ways,” Teller says.

In history, as in the study of it, Teller is most excited about the interactions.