Barry Wimpfheimer @ Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies
Mar 18 @ 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

WimpfheimerThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia.

Providing a concise biography of this quintessential work of rabbinic Judaism, Wimpfheimer takes readers from the Talmud‘s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as a source of religious ideology, a model of different modes of rationality, and a totem of cultural identity. He describes the book’s origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its mixed reception history, and its golden renaissance in modernity. He explains why reading the Talmud can feel like being swept up in a river or lost in a maze, and why the Talmud has come to be venerated—but also excoriated and maligned—in the centuries since it first appeared.

An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

First published in 2018.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

Issa Kohler-Hausmann @ Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU
Mar 19 @ 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm


Felony conviction and mass incarceration attract considerable media attention these days, yet the most common criminal-justice encounters are for misdemeanors, not felonies, and the most common outcome is not prison. In the early 1990s, New York City launched an initiative under the banner of Broken Windows policing to dramatically expand enforcement against low-level offenses. Misdemeanorland is the first book to document the fates of the hundreds of thousands of people hauled into lower criminal courts as part of this policing experiment.

Drawing on three years of fieldwork inside and outside of the courtroom, in-depth interviews, and analysis of trends in arrests and dispositions of misdemeanors going back three decades, Issa Kohler-Hausmann argues that lower courts have largely abandoned the adjudicative model of criminal law administration in which questions of factual guilt and legal punishment drive case outcomes. Due to the sheer volume of arrests, lower courts have adopted a managerial model–and the implications are troubling. Kohler-Hausmann shows how significant volumes of people are marked, tested, and subjected to surveillance and control even though about half the cases result in some form of legal dismissal. She describes in harrowing detail how the reach of America’s penal state extends well beyond the shocking numbers of people incarcerated in prisons or stigmatized by a felony conviction.

Revealing and innovative, Misdemeanorland shows how the lower reaches of our criminal justice system operate as a form of social control and surveillance, often without adjudicating cases or imposing formal punishment.

Issa Kohler-Hausmann is associate professor of law and sociology at Yale University.

Peter Ungar @ The Royal Institution
Mar 22 @ 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm

BiteWhether we realize it or not, we carry in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. Our teeth are like living fossils that can be studied and compared to those of our ancestors to teach us how we became human. In Evolution’s Bite, noted paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar brings together for the first time cutting-edge advances in understanding human evolution and climate change with new approaches to uncovering dietary clues from fossil teeth to present a remarkable investigation into the ways that teeth—their shape, chemistry, and wear—reveal how we came to be.

Ungar describes how a tooth’s “foodprints”—distinctive patterns of microscopic wear and tear—provide telltale details about what an animal actually ate in the past. These clues, combined with groundbreaking research in paleoclimatology, demonstrate how a changing climate altered the food options available to our ancestors, what Ungar calls the biospheric buffet. When diets change, species change, and Ungar traces how diet and an unpredictable climate determined who among our ancestors was winnowed out and who survived, as well as why we transitioned from the role of forager to farmer. By sifting through the evidence—and the scars on our teeth—Ungar makes the important case for what might or might not be the most natural diet for humans.

Traveling the four corners of the globe and combining scientific breakthroughs with vivid narrative, Evolution’s Bitepresents a unique dental perspective on our astonishing human development.

Peter S. Ungar is Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Mammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity and the editor of Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Cheryl Finley @ Harvard
Mar 23 @ 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm

FinleyOne of the most iconic images of slavery is a schematic wood engraving depicting the human cargo hold of a slave ship. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, it exposed this widespread commercial practice for what it really was—shocking, immoral, barbaric, unimaginable. Printed as handbills and broadsides, the image Cheryl Finley has termed the “slave ship icon” was easily reproduced, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was circulating by the tens of thousands around the Atlantic rim. Committed to Memory provides the first in-depth look at how this artifact of the fight against slavery became an enduring symbol of black resistance, identity, and remembrance.

Finley traces how the slave ship icon became a powerful tool in the hands of British and American abolitionists, and how its radical potential was rediscovered in the twentieth century by black artists, activists, writers, filmmakers, and curators. Finley offers provocative new insights into the works of Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, and many others. She demonstrates how the icon was transformed into poetry, literature, visual art, sculpture, performance, and film—and became a medium through which diasporic Africans have reasserted their common identity and memorialized their ancestors.

Beautifully illustrated, Committed to Memory features works from around the world, taking readers from the United States and England to West Africa and the Caribbean. It shows how contemporary black artists and their allies have used this iconic eighteenth-century engraving to reflect on the trauma of slavery and come to terms with its legacy.

Cheryl Finley is associate professor of art history at Cornell University. She is the coauthor of Harlem: A Century in Images and the coeditor of Diaspora, Memory, Place: David Hammons, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Pamela Z.

Andreas Wimmer @ Columbia Maison Française
Mar 27 @ 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm

WimmerNation Building presents bold new answers to an age-old question. Why is national integration achieved in some diverse countries, while others are destabilized by political inequality between ethnic groups, contentious politics, or even separatism and ethnic war? Traversing centuries and continents from early nineteenth-century Europe and Asia to Africa from the turn of the twenty-first century to today, Andreas Wimmer delves into the slow-moving forces that encourage political alliances to stretch across ethnic divides and build national unity.

Using datasets that cover the entire world and three pairs of case studies, Wimmer’s theory of nation building focuses on slow-moving, generational processes: the spread of civil society organizations, linguistic assimilation, and the states’ capacity to provide public goods. Wimmer contrasts Switzerland and Belgium to demonstrate how the early development of voluntary organizations enhanced nation building; he examines Botswana and Somalia to illustrate how providing public goods can bring diverse political constituencies together; and he shows that the differences between China and Russia indicate how a shared linguistic space may help build political alliances across ethnic boundaries.

Wimmer then reveals, based on the statistical analysis of large-scale datasets, that these mechanisms are at work around the world and explain nation building better than competing arguments such as democratic governance or colonial legacies. He also shows that when political alliances crosscut ethnic divides and when most ethnic communities are represented at the highest levels of government, the general populace will identify with the nation and its symbols, further deepening national political integration.

Offering a long-term historical perspective and global outlook, Nation Building sheds important new light on the challenges of political integration in diverse countries.

First published in 2018.

Andreas Wimmer is the Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy at Columbia University. His books include Waves of War and Ethnic Boundary Making.

Michael Ryan @ Houston Museum of Natural Science
Mar 29 @ 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm

RyanDarwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process.

Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny Túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain—particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about the degree to which our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals.

Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.

Michael J. Ryan is the Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas and a Senior Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He is a leading researcher in the fields of sexual selection, mate choice, and animal communication. He lives in Austin, Texas.