Jewish Studies Pioneer Honored

“I have a fantasy,” professor Zev Garber says, “that if there is a second coming of Jesus, he will have a concentration camp number on his forearm and he will ask one question, ‘What have you done to my people?’”

As passionate scholar, teacher, lecturer, author, mentor and interpreter of the “historical Jesus,” Garber has raised the hackles of many traditional Christians, and not a few Jews.

“Jesus was a zealous Zionist, a Jewish patriot involved in the Jewish national struggle against Rome,” Garber argues. “He was never an apostate, never called himself God, never said or did anything to indicate that he was not a Jew.”

An appreciation of Jesus’ Jewishness is gradually leading to a “re-Judaization” of the Roman Catholic and other Christian churches, Garber believes. One long-range indicator is the change from the medieval “disputations” between representatives of the faiths, in which the Jews inevitably lost, to the modern forum of interfaith dialogue.

“Christians are trying to reach out, to explore their Jewish roots,” Garber comments, and it behooves Jews to respond. One way is to re-evaluate negative Jewish stereotypes of the “Aryan” Jesus, another is to learn about Christianity and its changing theology.

“Israelis, for one, know nothing about Christianity,” Garber says.

Garber is 68 and his formal title is emeritus professor and chair of Jewish studies and philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College. His appearance, though, when a reporter met Garber in the spacious garden of his Sherman Oaks home, was more 1960s hippie than buttoned-down academic.

His hair was tied in a ponytail, his beard graying, and he was wearing blue jeans and a turtleneck sweater — a dress code almost as celebrated among his students and colleagues as his scholarship and full-throated teaching method.

On this occasion, Garber, joined by his wife, Susan, seemed even more ebullient than usual. He had returned recently from a professional meeting at the University of Denver, where his academic peers had formally presented him with a Festschrift.

Now this German term, literally a festive publication, may not be a household word, but in academia its prestige is equivalent to an Oscar for best director or an Olympic gold medal for an athlete.

One dictionary definition of Festschrift is “a tribute volume of essays and articles published in honor of a distinguished scholar” who has greatly influenced his field of study through his teaching and innovative research.

The honor goes almost invariably to a scholar at a prestigious university with extensive graduate and research programs. Garber, however, has spent almost his entire teaching career at a two-year community college.

He doesn’t dwell much on the matter, but it can be assumed that the reason Garber never joined a prominent university corresponding to his scholarship and publications, is that he never completed the thesis for his doctoral degree, the basic union card for appointment to a full-fledged university.

So getting a Festschrift, with essays by 44 academics throughout the world strongly influenced by Garber’s writing, thinking and teaching, is somewhat akin to an unseeded tennis player winning the U.S. Open.

Garber said he did not know of another community college professor in California, or in the United States, who had been honored in this manner.

The Festschrift, alluding to Garber’s sartorial style, is titled “Maven in Blue Jeans,” which beat out an alternative suggestion, “The Levite in Levi’s.”

One indicator of Garber’s influence, and productivity, is his 25-page bibliography, in small print, of his authored and edited books, scholarly articles, book reviews, invited lectures and editorship of Shofar magazine.

Another is “Maven in Blue Jeans” itself, which runs to 513 pages and explores the areas of Garber’s own research and teaching on the Holocaust, Jewish history, Hebrew texts, Zionism, rabbinic interpretations, Jewish-Christian-Muslim interaction and how academic research is translated into teaching.

Garber ties all these fields together with one of his many linguistic constructs, “historiosophy.”

Encomiums of the honoree are expected in a Festschrift, but the ones in “Maven,” edited by Jewish studies professor Steven Leonard Jacobs of the University of Alabama, cover an unusually broad range.

Lawrence Baron of San Diego State University, who coined the book’s title, recalls, “My first impression of Zev was that of a rebbe who couldn’t afford a caftan or black suit.”

Quotes from other essays include, “A major figure in post-Holocaust Jewish and Christian thought and relations,” “mentor to a generation of young scholars,” “passionately committed to making sense of our world,” “pop culture maven and cinema buff” and “willing to rattle the cages of all whom he encounters.”

Garber was born in 1941 in the Bronx, the son of a “passionate Revisionist” mother and religious Zionist father. He studied for his bar mitzvah in a Chasidic shtibl (synagogue) and attended Yeshiva University High school, where he was suspended for a week in 1956 for cutting classes to protest at the Brooklyn docks against the U.S. government policy of holding up weapons-carrying ships from leaving for Israel.

Outside the classroom, Garber wears a kippah, and he describes his religious outlook as “Orthodox with a small ‘o.’ I believe in the tradition and occasionally speak to God in Yiddish.”

Garber is credited with establishing the first Jewish studies program at a California public institution of higher learning in 1971, soon after arriving at Valley College, and his teaching style soon became the talk of the campus.

A fellow academic, Penny Wheeler, describes Garber in action: “He teaches each subject as though it really matters, as though his hair was on fire — he shouts, he whispers, he dances, he never sits down.”