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How Jewish Studies Became A Central Part Of American Colleges

In American universities, the trajectory of Jewish studies has always been a product of the times, from the Hebrew learning of prospective clergy in the colonial era, to today’s vibrant intersectional field for grads and undergrads.

As Judith R. Baskin, the Philip H. Knight Professor Emerita in Humanities at the University of Oregon, wrote in her paper, “Jewish Studies in North American Colleges and Universities: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” the earliest instances of Judaic culture on American campuses started in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Then, the study of Hebrew language and literature catered to would-be members of the Christian cloth, some of whom were taught by Jews, like Harvard University’s Judah Monis.

But changing demographics brought about the first wave of what could be called secular “Jewish studies,” arriving in the late 19th century from Europe, along with a large influx of immigrants.

“It started when German-speaking Jews from Europe had the opportunity to go to German universities and were exposed to ‘modern scientific approaches’ to studying languages, literature, history, philosophy, et cetera,” Baskin told the Forward. “They realized those academic methodologies could be very useful in understanding the cultural productions of the Jewish past.”

Scholars called this school of understanding Wissenschaft des Judentums, and its goal was, in part, to bring a continental respectability to Jewish history. Jewish donors with a background in Wissenschaft introduced it to secular American universities, where it and made a play for a similar kind of legitimacy, according to Baskin.

Between the first and second World War, the scope of Jewish studies moved past the more arcane studies of Semitics to education in Modern Hebrew language and literature and Jewish history. Along with more eclectic curriculum came new opportunities for faculty, who were typically placed within broader History and Language departments, and supported by Jewish philanthropists and local Jewish communities.

How Baby Boomers Helped Blow Up The Jewish Studies Paradigm

A formative paradigm shift occurred in the mid-1960s, when Jewish Baby Boomers matriculated to colleges in unprecedented numbers, what Baskin called a “critical mass of Jewish students.” These Jewish boomers were also uniquely interested in the study of their people, due largely to current events.

“No question Israel made a big difference, the creation of the state,” said Arnold Band, the third president of the AJS and Professor Emeritus in Hebrew & Comparative Literature at UCLA.

Band noticed, in an influential 1966 paper, that the old Rabbinics and Semitics model of Wiesenschaft, represented by the then-46-year-old American Academy of Jewish Research (AAJR), co-headed by Harvard’s Harry Wolfson and Columbia’s Salo Baron, was outdated.

“It was clear in the ‘60s that there was a new interest in Jewish studies on the academic level,” Band said. “You had at the time some very great scholars, but they were all men in their 60s or 70s. And they had basically never had very many students at all.”

A new generation, it appeared, would have to guide the Boomers, whose interests had drifted quite far from the 19th century style. In an attempt to centralize the field away from the AAJR, Leon Jick of Brandeis University invited Band and half a dozen others to his campus in the late ‘60s. In 1969, a national colloquium on Jewish studies was held from September 7-10 at Brandeis, with 47 scholars present, Kristen Loveland wrote in her brief history of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). It was there that the AJS started.

“The position and the existence of Brandeis gave a certain impetus,” Band said. “They had a Department of Jewish Studies and they had Leon Jick who was very active in the organization of things.”

But the AJS soon moved past its association with Brandeis — a university with Jewish roots — making Band the third president when he was at UCLA. Band held his first meeting as president at his old alma mater: Harvard.

While members of the AJS debated — and continue to debate — such curricular requirements as Hebrew, or how Jewish studies should be incorporated into colleges departmentally, members held from the beginning to a specific standard for scholars. The field should be inclusive, they reasoned, and not dependent on prior knowledge or affiliation with Judaism.

Meanwhile, the field has expanded to touch all parts of the culture “The impact of things like women’s and gender studies, popular culture and media studies — all of these, as they flourish in the larger academic community have an impact on Jewish studies, as well,” Baskin said. “Anything that’s going on in the larger academic world percolates into Jewish studies.”

By the 1970s, with the simultaneous growth of women’s studies, more women professors had entered the field, bringing with them an emphasis on the experience of Jewish women. In the initial 1969 meeting, Band recalls only seeing one woman present. In 1986, the AJS incorporated a Women’s Caucus and a number of women presidents, including Baskin, have since served as head of the Association. Only a year before, the organization, which had grown steadily since the late ‘60s achieved a notable benchmark.

In 1985, after years of applying, the AJS became a member of the American Council of Learned Societies, cementing Jewish studies scholarship’s position as a vital part of secular American higher education.

A New Kind Of Scholar – And New Challenges

But recent years have changed the formula considerably. Baskin has noticed a dip in funding for the Humanities writ large, leading to a scarcity of positions for a strong field of scholars. In addition, student interest is dwindling.

“The numbers are in decline,” Baskin said of students choosing to pursue Jewish studies. “It may be that in coming decades, it will be the large centers with significant numbers of Jewish studies faculty, such as Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, NYU, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, the Universities of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Toronto — big research universities – and Brandeis, of course, — that will be the places where Jewish studies is best able to flourish.”

Meanwhile, campus-based activism, particularly surrounding Israel, and donor money that has a particular idea of what the field should look like has challenged professors’ academic independence.

But while these challenges are occurring, the demography of Jewish studies professors and students has shifted, indicating a relatively recent cohort of interested parties.

“In many places, most of the majors are not Jewish,” Baskin said. Both she and Band noted that the current president of the AJS, Christine Hayes, is herself not Jewish.

Over 100 years after the first stirrings of Jewish studies arrived in America, the field is still busy innovating to reflect the larger culture. Digital humanities and material culture, using artifacts to understand anthropology, have enriched Baskin’s teaching and her students’ studies. And Jewish studies themselves have grown to overlap with everything from courses on graphic novels to Queer studies.

“The field has expanded enormously,” said Band.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]. .

Correction November 17, 2019, 1:30 PM: A previous version of this article misidentified “Henry Wolfson,” as the head the AAJR. The scholar’s name was in fact Harry Wolfson. The error has been corrected.

This article is part of a Forward series on Jewish graduate studies. Find more stories in the series below.


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