Q & A with Prof. Stuart S. Miller: UConn’s Judaic Studies program enters new phase

By Cindy Mindell ~

Stu Miller

STORRS –Stuart S. Miller is a professor of Hebrew, history, and Judaic studies and a member of the Classics and Mediterranean Studies section of the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. He is currently the associate director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and is responsible for the direction of academic offerings in Judaic Studies at the university.
A specialist in the history and literature of the Jews of Roman and Late Antique Palestine, Miller has worked closely with archaeologists, having served for many years on the staff of the Sepphoris Regional Project. He is a renowned scholar recognized for his research on Talmudic Israel and experience on the ancient city of Sepphoris (Tsippori), an archeological site where he has taken students to excavate.
The Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life recently announced several developments, including the appointment of a new chair. Recently, Miller spoke with the Ledger about these changes, as well as his work at the university and how his own role is changing.


Q: Tell us what’s happening at the Center.
A: This is a very exciting time indeed. We just completed a search to fill the Doris and Simon Konover Chair in Judaic Studies, which includes the directorship of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. The chair and appointment have been held for the last 35 years by Arnold Dashefsky, professor of sociology, who is retiring. Thanks to our foresighted dean, Jeremy Teitelbaum, and our visionary president, Susan Herbst, who has implemented an ambitious hiring plan, we were able to fill this position and also add another faculty member through a process called an “opportunity hire.”
This fall, we will be welcoming Jeffrey Shoulson as our new director and Konover Chair. Prof. Shoulson comes to us via the University of Miami and is an accomplished scholar in English literature and early modern Jewry. He is the author of an award-winning book, “Milton and the Rabbis,” and has a forthcoming book, “Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England.” At the same time, we are adding another senior scholar, Susan Einbinder, of Hebrew Union College, who is an authority on Medieval European Jewry. Prof. Einbinder’s most recent book is “No Place of Rest: Medieval Jewish Literature, Expulsion, and the Memory of France.”

Q: How do these developments relate to the recent restructuring of Judaic Studies at UConn?
A: Two years ago, “Judaic Studies” at UConn underwent a self-review that included a visit by off-campus consultants. This resulted in a restructuring in anticipation of the hiring of a replacement for Arnold Dashefsky. We could not very well proceed without a plan that addressed the following questions: What field of Jewish studies should the new director specialize in? To which department should he or she belong? Would the role of the associate director – my role – change in any way?

Q: Which fields did you decide to emphasize and why?
A: We decided to focus on Jewish-Christian – and, to some extent, Jewish-Christian-Muslim – relations in the Medieval-to-Early-Modern period. In Prof. Shoulson, we have someone who is interested in the depiction of Jews in English literature and how it informs Jewish-Christian relations. In Prof. Einbinder, we have a scholar who can speak to the predicament of the Jews in Christian Europe and in Muslim Spain. These areas complement my own interests in Jewish society in Talmudic Israel/Roman Palestine. Moving forward into the Medieval period made especially good sense because UConn is strong in Late Antiquity and has a wonderful Medieval studies program, and such a concentration will make us quite unique for any university.

Q: How is your role changing?
A: For the past 30 years, I have been the only person teaching Judaic studies full-time at Storrs and have been and will continue to be a member of the Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies section of the Department of Literatures, Cultures and Languages. During the same period, I have also served as the associate director of the Center for Judaic Studies.
My new title, Academic Director of the Center for Judaic Studies, formally recognizes my responsibility for coordinating our undergraduate and graduate courses that are taught by faculty, especially beyond my department, or by visiting professors. My ongoing efforts to cultivate Judaic studies on campus will complement those of our new director, Jeffrey Shoulson, whose role is to oversee all Judaic studies-related programming, including events such as colloquia and conferences, and to represent our Center for Judaic Studies within the administration, on other state university campuses, and beyond UConn.
In addition to my position as academic director of our Center, I will chair the newly formed Hebrew and Judaic studies section within the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. Profs. Shoulson and Einbinder will be members of this section, which also includes representatives from other sections of the department, for example, Prof. Sebastian Wogenstein from German studies, who writes on German Jewish literature, and Prof. Sara Johnson, a classicist who has written on Hellenistic Judaism. My third book,
“At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee,” will be published early next year. The book includes an extensive treatment of mikvaot at Tsippori (Sepphoris) and elsewhere, from the period of the rabbis of the Talmud.

Q: How does a “center” for Judaic Studies differ from a “department” of Judaic studies?
A: There is no department of Judaic Studies at UConn, nor is there one at many of the best universities. Instead, Judaic studies faculty are often centralized in a single department such as history, religion, Near Eastern languages and literatures, or, in UConn’s case, Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. Judaic Studies in and of itself is not a “discipline” and works best in an interdisciplinary setting that allows its manifold scholars to work with related historians, classicists, etc. For example, I am a specialist in the literature and history of the Jews in Roman Palestine/Talmudic Israel who works with archaeologists. My natural fit is with specialists in the literatures of the peoples amongst whom the Jews lived during this period, that is, classicists who know the Greco-Roman world.
Our Center for Judaic Studies serves as the bridge between Judaic Studies’ interests in different departments on campus and sponsors campus wide programs and events, oftentimes open to the public. That is the work of a “Center,” which ordinarily does not have its own faculty positions.
Q: A recent announcement states that the hiring of Profs. Shoulson and Einbinder “is also a major move forward that will significantly advance the profile of UConn’s Judaic Studies program nationally and internationally.” Can you elaborate?
A: The hiring of two eminent scholars means that we will be offering almost three times as many courses in Judaic studies than we have in the past and will be able to go beyond our present M.A. in Judaic studies and develop a PhD track within the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. With four senior full-time faculty members – including Prof. Nehama Aschkenasy on our Stamford campus – we will be competitive with other state universities and will undoubtedly gain national attention.
Each year, our Judaic Studies courses reach hundreds of students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and we have prepared graduate students who have entered communal positions, teaching, and some very fine PhD and professional programs. It is important for Connecticut residents to appreciate that the state university is a wonderful resource with world-class scholars who do cutting-edge research. Keep an eye on Storrs; UConn is going places!

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