Jewish Studies: The Big Mentsch on CampusBy Shani Chabansky
Sit in Stevenson Café with a bagel and cream cheese, coffee and anything written by Jonathan Safran Foer and I guarantee that within about twenty minutes you’ll have one of the newly declared Jewish Studies majors dripping all over you with questions about identity or objectivity. Yes, theres’s a new major on campus and although it’s still small in numbers, it’s big in pride! Previously offered as a minor, Jewish Studies is now officially included among the sixty-three majors available to undergraduates at UCSC.
Co-chaired by English and Comparative Literature Professor Murray Baumgarten and Literature and History Professor Nathaniel Deutsch, the program has been under construction for over a decade. In order to create the major, Deutsch and Baumgarten assembled a proposal: a list of courses and faculty, a survey of resources on campus, statements about student interest and an intellectual justification for the major. According to Deutsch, the major is comprised of “people seeking support for things that have been organically driven,” and that the major exists thanks to a “labor of love on the part of the faculty, student and intellectual interest.” However, it is clear that generous support from foundations and donors among them, Anne Neufeld-Levin, the Helen Diller Family Endowment, the Koret Foundation, the David B. Gold Foundation, the Jewish Community Federation Endowment Fund, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture has also played a significant role in the new major’s existence. This takes care of the proposal’s list of courses, faculty members, student interest and available resources, but what of intellectual justification?
Professor Baumgarten’s essay entitled “Jewish Studies: Attesting to the Importance of the Jewish Imagination in Shaping the Modern World,” addresses the program’s intellectual justification by asking the reader to imagine our society without the achievements of modern Jewish scholarship. He writes, “I do not think it is possible to be an educated human being at the beginning of the 21st century without some knowledge of the history and culture of the Jewish people.” How’s that for intellectual justification?
Indeed, academia is a terrific place to interrogate what it means to be Jewish; the program offers Jewish students a new way to feel connected to Judaism. One such student is Savyonne Steindler, a junior majoring in Cultural Anthropology and Jewish Studies. “I chose to major in Jewish Studies at UCSC because the curriculum allows me to relate to my Jewishness outside of a religious context,” she said, “and in fact in a way that is impossible in a religious context. The program embraces a plurality of perspectives that problematizes some of the basic assumptions that had previously shaped my Jewish education.” Steindler illuminates the most beautiful aspect of the program: it is an alternative way to create Jewish identity.
While Jewish students may find significance in an exploration of their personal narrative, other students will find value in an investigation of Jewish cultural framework. Taught by Professor Deutsch, this year marks the debut of the core course of the Jewish Studies program: “Jewish Studies 101: Methods and Approaches to Jewish Studies.” Sable Yemane, a freshman majoring in Computer Engineering, enrolled in the course in order to learn about Jewish history. She was surprised to find that the course was, in fact, the history of Jewish history, also known as Jewish historiography. Despite her initial shock, Yemane found satisfaction in the course. “I like that it is a course about the problematic,” Yemane said. “I like the inclusiveness of the topic and how some of the students really analyze and understand the gist of [the material].” Emphasizing the multidisciplinary nature of Jewish Studies, the course is useful for students interested in epistemology, methodology or any brand of cultural analysis.
Widening the scope of the program to the impact upon our campus community is slightly problematic; one would be hard-pressed to find an article announcing the new Jewish Studies major in recent student publications. Overshadowed by articles on the Kerr Hall aftermath, the graffiti threats of violence in Social Sciences and the recent sacking of the American Studies and Community Studies majors, news of the Jewish Studies major made only a brief appearance in a short article in City on a Hill Press during the summer. Yet it is not a coincidence that the introduction of the Jewish Studies major and the dissolution of the American Studies and Community Studies majors occurred simultaneously: both show the impact of budget cuts and tuition hikes. Thanks to private funding, the Jewish Studies major is unlike American Studies and Community Studies because it is not bound by the school’s budget. Recent economic pressures created the sense of urgency required to finally propel the introduction of the Jewish Studies major. Let us hope that the aforementioned majors will find similar support, because whether the program is called American, Community, Jewish or Yellow Studies is irrelevant; each program helps to form the higher education we all hope to achieve as students at this university.
Published on page 6 of the Winter 2011 issue of Leviathan.