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Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

A Rutgers course gets beneath the surface of classic stories

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Students in Professor Martha Helfer’s class are reading a tale of lust and danger.

It’s Little Red Riding Hood, the classic European fairy tale associated with the Brothers Grimm.

“What does the color ‘red’ make us think of?” Helfer asked several hundred surprised undergraduates gathered in a stadium-style lecture hall in the Rutgers Academic Building. 

After a few students gamely offer responses, Helfer spells it out. 

“Blood, fire, and sensuality,” she says.  “That’s all coded right into the title of our fairy tale!”

Welcome to “Fairy Tales Then and Now,” an acclaimed humanities course in the School of Arts and Sciences that has students from across the academic spectrum digging deeply into centuries-old stories and discovering some surprising insights. Students analyze storylines, trace the transformation from oral tradition to literature to film, and explore the enormous impact fairy tales have had on our collective psyche.

“This course is about fairy tales but it’s about much more than fairy tales,” says Helfer, a German studies scholar. “This course is going to challenge how you have been taught to think, and challenge you to think in new and possibly uncomfortable ways.”

Indeed, in the opening lecture, the timeless tale of Little Red, her grandmother, and the wolf that gobbled them up becomes something far more dark and complex than students remember—especially compared with contemporary treatments in children’s films and storybooks. 

Consider, Helfer says, the Brothers Grimm version, known as Little Red Cap, in which the wolf asks the young girl what she’s carrying—identical in German to the verb for wearing—under her apron. After the wolf devours Little Red and her grandmother, he is described as an “old sinner” who “satisfied his desires.” 

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“So now we have this notion of a religious transgression that has taken place," says Helfer, a professor in the Department of German, Russian, and East European Languages and Literatures. “Why did you not notice the religious overtones and the overt sexuality? Perhaps it’s because of the way you have been trained to think; or not to think.”

In the end, after Little Red is symbolically reborn chaste and pure from the wolf’s belly, the moral of the story is clear.

“Stay within these cultural norms, which are teaching little girls not to be curious, not to stray from the path, and not to be sexual beings,” Helfer says.

Students say they’re impressed by Helfer’s ability to dig beneath the surface and bring out new meanings.

“This is one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken,” says physics major Jesús Rodríguez.  “It’s eye-opening. You wouldn't expect there to be a cultural agenda in fairy tales.”

The class examines fairy tales from cultural, political, and psychological perspectives. Students learn how fairy tales can be easily abused, such as in Nazi Germany when Little Red Riding Hood symbolized the German people, and the wolf represented Jews. The huntsman who saved the day was Hitler.

Helfer also has them study Walt Disney’s film treatments of fairy tales, showing the 1937 version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and requiring students to watch several others. Although the Disney works have been criticized for being shallow and superficial, Helfer told the class to bear in mind that there’s no single version of any fairy tale that can be held up as authoritative.

“Rather than trash the Disney films or bemoan what they’ve done to change the Grimm tales, why not just embrace Disney as an object of study worthy of analysis?” she says. “The films may be traditional and vaguely anti-intellectual, but there are surprises and challenges to the Disney ideology even within the films themselves.” 

Whether they’re poring over the works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, watching Disney films, or reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, students are required to think deeply about the material and express their understanding in several papers throughout the course, including an eight-to-10 page essay. Helfer reminded them that no matter what they end up doing for a living, they’ll need to think critically, analyze with precision, and communicate their findings in writing. 

“If you think you can’t write, you are absolutely wrong about that,” Helfer says. “Trust yourself.  You have something to say.”

Dayna Gallucci, also a physics major, said she took the course in part to focus on her writing. 

“I find writing courses a little daunting,” she says. “But the material in this course is so fascinating, fun, and thought-provoking that it makes you want to write.” 

The illustration above appeared in "The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm," Bantam, New York, 1987. 

 

 

 

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Rutgers conference goes beyond shtetl to examine urban life

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Forget Fiddler on the Roof

Not all East European Jews lived the pious, small-town life of Tevye the Dairyman.

Indeed, in pre-World War II Poland, many Jews enjoyed a vibrant, urban existence, checking out movies, going to the theater, or enjoying the razor-sharp repartee and sentimental tangos of the cabaret.

In Polish cities, Jews balanced age-old customs and identities with the fast-encroaching modern world, negotiating the forces of religious traditionalism, Hasidism, Polish patriotism, socialism, modernism, and Zionism.

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This fascinating, volatile, and intensely creative cultural mashup is often overshadowed by the dark history that followed: the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany that set the stage for the Holocaust. 

But a two day-symposium at Rutgers University March 5-6, will explore the culturally- and intellectually-rich world of Jews in Poland from the late 1700s through 1939—a lost world to be sure, but one that pushed boundaries on many fronts, leaving its own distinctive stamp on art, music, literature, and spirituality.   

Rutgers Professor Nancy Sinkoff, one of three principal organizers, said that Jewish life in Eastern Europe is often portrayed either in sentimental, nostalgic ways, or else as a bleak, isolated existence.   

“We’re challenging people to think in new ways about Jewish life in Poland, pivoting away from the static portrait of a pious, politically passive, impoverished, and oppressed minority,” says Sinkoff, director of the university’s Center for European Studies and a professor of history and Jewish studies in the School of Arts and Sciences. “We’re dislodging the fiddler from the roof.”Adler large 4

The symposium, Centering the Periphery: Polish Jewish Cultural Production Beyond the Capital, is part of the Fifth Annual Polish Jewish Studies Workshop and will take place at the University Inn and Conference Center in New Brunswick. Scholars from Poland, Israel, Germany, and North America will participate. 

The event also includes an evening concert of choral and instrumental music at Kirkpatrick Chapel on March 5th. The performance, The Soundscapes of Jewish Modernity: Jews and Music in Polish Cities, will showcase music of Polish Jews that is little known to American audiences.

Click here for a full schedule and list of sponsors. 

The symposium comes at a time when Poland, and its relationship to the Holocaust, is drawing the attention of the world. Earlier this month the Polish president Andrzej Duda signed a bill that makes it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed by Nazi Germany – drawing widespread criticism.

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Although the symposium, which has been in the works for months, does not address that issue, organizers say their program is an implicit rebuttal of simplistic, black-and-white narratives about Jewish life in Poland.

“We are interested in the cultural interactions between Christian and Jewish Poles,” Sinkoff said. “These interactions were not always harmonious, but neither were they always irredeemably conflicted.”

Organizers added that the event reflects a fruitful and continuing collaboration between Polish and Jewish scholars.

“As we explore exciting and seldom-discussed topics, we’re also creating a synergy among international scholars working on Polish Jewish history and culture,” says Natalia Aleksiun, professor of modern Jewish history at Touro Graduate School.

Adler 7The symposium also breaks new ground by focusing on cities other than Warsaw, the Polish capital. Jewish culture and creativity flourished in many Polish urban centers, such as Lwów, Łódź, Wilno, Kraków, and Lublin. Most of this culture is unknown to American audiences.

The concert, for example, highlights a range of Jewish music, works from avant-garde composers, choral societies and progressive synagogues. These works will be performed by the Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir as well as by graduate performance students and alumni from the Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Halina Goldberg, one of the organizers and a professor of musicology and affiliate of the Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, said the extent to which Polish Jews were involved in music may come as a surprise to contemporary audiences.

“Polish Jews engaged with music in diverse ways,” she said. “Progressive synagogues and choral societies fostered rich choral traditions. Avant-garde composers, such as Józef Koffler, who was murdered by the Nazis and remains mostly unknown to present-day audiences, left behind superb compositions.

“The Holocaust has silenced these musicians; we wanted to give them back their musical voice.”

The Fifth Annual Polish Jewish Studies Workshop: "Centering the Periphery: Polish Jewish Cultural Production Beyond the Capital” takes place on March 5-6, 2018,  8:30 am - 5:00 pm, University Inn, 178 Ryders Lane, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

For more information, click here

 

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