March 30, 2020

‘Jewish Studies’ in vogue on California campuses

“These are boom times for Jewish studies on campuses,” said professor Sara R. Horowitz.

“Israel is now a hot topic for scholars,” observed professor David N. Myers.

These are strong, if now downright exuberant, words for normally cautious academicians like Horowitz, president of the Association for Jewish Studies, and Myers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.

Despite the belt-tightening these days in academia, particularly at public universities, here are some announcements received during the last couple of weeks from California institutions alone:

  • A $3.75 million gift to San Francisco State University will endow a professorial chair in Israel studies and expand the current Jewish studies program into a full-fledged academic department.
  • UCLA is launching the $1 million Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music, honoring the memory of the clarinet-playing, Yiddish-speaking comedian from Cleveland.
  • A $1 million endowment will establish a chair in Jewish studies at UC Santa Barbara.
  • The Judaic Studies Program at UC San Diego is planning a long-term transformation into a center and museum for Judaic studies, with its own on-campus building, said program coordinator Dorothy Wagoner.
  • The Western regional conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) will meet April 6-7 in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. The American Jewish University, formerly the University of Judaism, offered its facilities for the meeting but was beaten out by Loyola, a Jesuit institution.

“You can’t be a great Catholic university without a Jewish studies component,” said the Rev. Michael Engh, Loyola’s liberal arts dean.

Professor Holli Levitzky, director of Loyola’s Jewish studies program, noted that interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity was a factor in hosting the conference.

Horowitz, who heads the organization of some 1,700 American and Canadian academics in Jewish studies, takes an even broader view.

“When I was a graduate student and attended AJS meetings, the presented papers were usually about rabbinics, Talmud and Jewish history,” said the New York-born Horowitz, who directs the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. “Now the field is so much broader; it has become an essential part of understanding Western culture and civilization.”

The bull market in Jewish studies has been triggered by other factors, which have transformed the field from an ethnic enclave to a broad-based discipline that attracts large numbers of non-Jewish students and faculty.

Educated estimates on the proportion of non-Jewish students in Jewish studies courses at general universities and colleges range from 30 percent to 70 percent. A part of the phenomenon can be attributed to interfaith dating, with the non-Jewish boy or girlfriend interested in learning about the Jewish partner’s background, said professor Marc Dollinger of San Francisco State.

Overall, AJS counts some 160-member institutions, and its individual membership is growing by about 100 a year, said Rona Sheramy, the organization’s executive director. Her Web site lists 77 institutions seeking applicants for open positions, ranging from Arizona State University to Harvard, and from Hofstra to Yeshiva University.

At this point, the demand and supply equation of qualified faculty is roughly in balance, said Myers of UCLA, but as the aging generation of professors retires, more graduate students need to enter the pipeline.

Academicians agree that a combination of developments underlie the expansion of Jewish studies programs.

Israel and its international visibility is one major factor, and most scholars feel it’s high time to go beyond the headlines and expose the state to the same kind of objective research applied to, say, Britain or France.

While courses and chairs in Holocaust studies were the first to be funded and are now generally well established, the gradual disappearance of the eyewitness generation and the persistence of Holocaust denial lend continuing urgency to the subject.

Practically all programs and chairs in Jewish studies are supported by private donations. This fact of life leads to occasional tensions between donors, who want pro-Israel advocates on campus, and recipients defending objective scholarship and teaching.

The tensions can be real, Myers said, but can usually be settled amicably.

Another motive for support by Jewish philanthropists is to counterbalance real or perceived anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments and demonstrations on campuses.

A good case in point is San Francisco State, with a past history of such attitudes and clashes on the politically active, multi-racial campus.

Richard N. Goldman, who has just announced his $3.75 million gift to the urban university, does not spell out the reason for his donation in so many words, but the implication seems clear in his official statement.

“As the conflicts in the Middle East continue, it is vitally important to provide students with a deeper and more fully developed understanding of Israel,” Goldman said. “The purpose of this professorship is to accomplish that goal.”

Professor Fred Astren, director of the SFSU Jewish studies program, agrees.

“It is very important to move the discussion of Israel from the plaza [read student demonstrations] to the classroom,” he said.

“My father was a link between Old World European music and New World entertainment,” said Ron Katz, who with his wife, Madelyn, endowed the UCLA chair in memory of his father, Mickey. “With the revival of klezmer music, for instance, it is time to explore this link for a new generation of students and performers.”

At the inauguration of the new chair this summer, another entertainer will put on a show — actor Joel Grey, the other son of Mickey Katz.

Mickey Katz sings ‘Duvid Crockett’