Access to Academia

If you’ve ever been curious about "Hierarchy and Transcendence in Gersonides’ Theory of Knowing" or "Mnemonic Characteristics and the Oral Transmission of Aggadic Tradition," you’re about to get your chance to wade through these weighty issues with leading academics, when 1,000 members of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) descend on Los Angeles for the organization’s 34th annual conference Dec. 15-17 at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Although some of the planned sessions may be at the ivory tower level, others are relevant to the average Jew. The conference will offer a critical, scholarly perspective on issues Jews deal with every day, with topics such as "Food, Gender, Sex and Jewish Identity," "Jewish Studies and Online Learning," "Revisioning the Jewish Mother" and the "Social Network of Jewish Teens."

The newly released National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 will be presented and analyzed, as will Jewish communal issues in post-apartheid South Africa. On the occasion of Hadassah’s 90th anniversary, scholars have prepared analyses of the women’s Zionist organization’s contribution to U.S. and Israeli Jewry. Issues such as pluralism, feminism and gay Jewish studies are also on the extensive program.

The image and influence of Jews in Hollywood and on Broadway is also on the sessions list, including analyses of Barry Levinson’s ("Avalon") films and Wendy Wasserstein’s Jewish women. Novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin will deliver a keynote address on "Making Jewish Culture: Tales of a Hollywood Jew."

Conference organizers said the focus on Hollywood is more than a bid to play to the locals.

"Jewish scholarship used to be very closely defined and limited to certain disciplines, but now it’s been extended to the social sciences and the arts, and when it comes to the arts, there is something to be said for the movie industry," said AJS Executive Director Aaron Katchen. "It’s really a question of the changing nature of what constitutes Jewish studies from a scholarly standpoint."

With yet another nod to Los Angeles, which will host the conference for the first time, several sessions are dedicated to West Coast and Los Angeles Jewry, including "The Mariachi-Klezmer Connection: Examining Jewish Identity Through the Lens of Latino-Jewish Relations in Los Angeles" and "Jewish Civil Rights Activists in Los Angeles."

Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live and Adat Ari El’s One Shabbat Morning will be among the programs analyzed in "Intimacy, Memory and Ideology at Generation X Seeker Services."

Discussing the fact that some of the conference sessions are directly relevant to day-to-day Jewish life, while others are more specialized, Katchen said the general public should pay attention to what’s going on in academia. He said it provides academic respectability and gives the Jewish community an awareness of what is going on. A good portion of today’s adult Jewish educators are Jewish studies professors, he noted, and college students are having formative experiences in the lecture hall.

"Jewish kids who go to college — and most of them do — for the most part take one or more Jewish studies courses, and it provides an intellectual framework on which future Jewish consciousness is based," Katchen said.

Robert Alter, professor of comparative literature at UC Berkeley, will discuss "Deuteronomy and the Invention of Collective Memory" in a free session open to the public on Monday, Dec. 16, at 7:45 p.m. at the hotel. It will be followed by a concert, "Hillulim ‘To the Glory of God’: Songs from the Sephardic Tradition," with Rabbi Haïm Louk and his Orchestra.

The conference is open to the public.$135 (general),
$100 (Jewish educators and rabbis). The Century Plaza Hotel and Spa, 2025 Avenue
of the Stars, Los Angeles. For more information, go to  or call (781) 736-2981.