September 23, 2019

New UCLA program puts spotlight on Mediterranean Jewish life

UCLA has established an academic program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies, focusing on the rich history of Jewish life and culture in Italy, as well as in France, Spain, the Balkans, Greece, North Africa, Egypt and aspects of Israel’s past.

Starting in the fall, the program will bring a noted scholar as visiting professor to the campus for one quarter each year to lead classes on a topic dealing with Jewish society, history or culture in one of the designated countries.

The program was launched through a $1.4 million gift from Andrew Viterbi, considered the father of cell technology, his wife Erna, and their three children.

“This is the first program of its kind and exemplifies the trend in historical analysis to go beyond traditional political boundaries and look at broad regional trends,” said historian David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

Viterbi interview

Viterbi and his parents arrived in the United States as refugees from a small town near Milan, a week before the outbreak of World War II, after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, aping Adolf Hitler, had imposed anti-Semitic laws.

After graduating from USC with a doctorate in electrical engineering and joining the UCLA faculty, the young professor developed the groundbreaking Viterbi Algorithm, which opened the doors to the digital age.

His mathematical formula for eliminating signal interference, allowing cell phones to communicate without interfering with each other, also led to direct broadcast satellite television, deep space weather forecasting, video transmission from the surface of Mars, voice recognition and even DNA sequence analysis.

As an entrepreneur, he co-founded Linkabit in the 1960s and cell phone giant Qualcomm in 1985, both hugely successful enterprises.

He has since endowed or supported a wide range of Jewish institutions in San Diego and Israel and served as president of the Jewish Community Foundation in San Diego and Congregation Beth El in La Jolla.

Commenting on his donation to UCLA, Viterbi said, “Because the Mediterranean region has been at the crossroads of commerce and ideas for thousands of years, it has been the site of one of the richest and most diverse Jewish cultures in history. I want that culture to be explored and recognized.”

The philanthropist himself “is perfectly fluent with the scholarship of the Italian Jewish experience,” said Myers, who was recently elected a Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research.

The Center for Jewish Studies offers close to 50 public lectures, seminars and conferences each year, including series in Sephardic studies, Holocaust studies, and Modern Jewish culture.

UCLA’s academic departments list 70 courses each year in Jewish and Israeli studies and Hebrew.