Presenting Professor Paula Daccarett: A New Approach to Jewish Studies

By Shani Chabansky

One lovely day amidst the streak of pleasant, summery weather atypical to winter quarter, I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Professor Paula Daccarett, a visiting professor of History at UC Santa Cruz. Warm, friendly, and keenly intelligent, Professor Daccarett is a fresh face to match the new Jewish Studies major. She has come to UC Santa Cruz thanks to a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture/Jim Joseph Foundation.

Located in the dungeons of the Humanities building, Professor Daccarett’s starkly blank office instantly reveals her recent arrival to our university. Nevertheless, we managed to disregard the oppressive whiteness of the walls and I found myself immediately absorbed in our conversation. One of the first things I noticed was her mastery of the English language; she seemed to have an endless supply of technical terms at her beck and call, effortlessly crafting each sentence to articulate perfection. Although she was born and raised in Colombia and educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Brandeis University, her English is far more eloquent than many native speakers.

Her relationship with Jewish Studies began in graduate school. Commenting on how she found her vocation, she said, “I’ve always been curious about narratives, particularly in the context of where people come from. Obviously that applied to myself and part of my interest in Jewish history initially began as an exploration of Jewish identity and personal family stories. But ultimately I never felt comfortable within certain narratives that were offered to me within both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.” These words will ring true with many of the Jewish students at UC Santa Cruz who, like Professor Daccarett, find immense satisfaction in an academic exploration of Jewish identity.

Professor Paula Daccarett. Photo by Shani Chabansky.

Revisiting this theme several times throughout our conversation, she revealed that her fascination with the field is informed by Jewish Studies’ ability to “act as a litmus test” in societies across time and place. Her metaphor put an abstract feeling into concrete words, a feeling that many students, including myself, have been unable to wholly discern. “I do think that Jewish Studies offers Jews a way to understand themselves and others to understand Jews in ways that are not those of identity-building,” she said. “It’s a way of critically understanding who you are and where you come from.” This critical understanding makes her courses a unique and valuable contribution to the Jewish Studies program.

Although the course title alone does not suggest astonishingly groundbreaking material, Professor Daccarett presents the first purely historical look at the history of modern Jewry in Latin America in her course “Modern Jewish History in Latin America.” “It’s possibly the first attempt at creating a Jewish history in Latin America course,” she said. “There are other courses that tackle Jewish studies or cultures in Latin America, but they are much more interdisciplinary. I’m really trying to create a history course here.” In this regard, Professor Daccarett is a kind of intellectual pioneer, guiding her students towards a new way of thinking about Jewish history.

What could be a better place for an intellectual pioneer to launch a pilot course than our educational incubator? A vital aspect of our university is our ability to include multiple voices in each academic program. We can, and should, take pride in this. Professor Daccarett’s courses on Latin America, Jewish Mediterranean port cities, and the history of Jewish women provide an enriched exploration of Jewish Studies. I hope the Jewish Studies program will blossom with her presence. In turn, the Jewish Studies program will help her grow.

And might I just add that having another lady in the Jewish Studies program makes my inner feminist grin from ear to ear. But sorry gentlemen, she’s taken!

Published on page 21 of the Winter 2011 issue of Leviathan.


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