By Cindy Mindell
STORRS – This year marks the 36th anniversary of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut — a milestone that will be celebrated all through the coming academic year, beginning with a gala event on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, featuring at UConn’s Thomas J. Dodd Center.
Since 2012, with the retirement of founding director Arnold Dashefsky, the center has been led by Dr. Jeffrey S. Shoulson, who is also the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies. Before joining the UConn faculty, Shoulson was associate professor of English and Judaic Studies at University of Miami, where he also served as the director of the George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies.
Shoulson spoke with the Ledger about how the Center has evolved over his three-year tenure, and what is planned in Storrs (and beyond) for the year-long anniversary celebration of this important milestone.
JL: What makes the center’s 36th anniversary significant?
JS: For much of its history, the Center was operating on a relatively modest budget with relatively few resources — mostly the good will of UConn administrators who were sympathetic to the efforts of my predecessor, Arnie Dashefsky, who was the founding director of the Center, but whatever was being done here was done in a patchwork way with whatever resources that came to hand, and even with what they had to work with, it’s pretty extraordinary what they were able to develop.
But one of Arnie’s final and most significant achievements was the establishment of a major endowment at UConn for the Center for Judaic Studies; the money was given by Simon Konover and the Konover Foundation. That endowment set the Center on a much more solid footing, which included all kinds of financial resources, but we were taken more seriously by the university. When Arnie stepped down and retired and I was hired to come in as his replacement, not only was I brought in, a second senior colleague was also brought in at the same time – my colleague, Susan Einbinder
All of a sudden and immediately, in addition to Stuart Miller, who had been on the faculty for many years as a senior scholar of classical rabbinic Judaism, and Nehama Aschkenasy, who headed up Judaic studies at the Stamford campus, we now had two other senior faculty and it gave us a much stronger core of faculty to develop a significant undergraduate and graduate program and to become more of a focal point for the academic study of Jewish life and culture within the state of Connecticut and within the region.
So, we are celebrating the really impressive growth of the Center over the last several years, as a culmination of much of the hard work of Arnie and his colleagues who helped him in that original development of the Center.
JL: You recently launched a program called “The Judaic Studies Roadshow.” Is that a part of this year-long celebration?
JS: In addition to the anniversary that we’re celebrating in November, we have undertaken a whole variety of new and much more ambitious initiatives to put ourselves out into the community and to make good on the kinds of resources that we now feel we have to offer the state and the region.
We launched the Judaic Studies Roadshow over the summer. Being at Storrs is a wonderful thing and it’s a beautiful campus and very idyllic, but one challenge of being
located at Storrs is that we’re a little bit off the beaten track and it’s difficult to attract many people from outside of the university to Storrs to attend the various events that we put on – lectures and cultural series that we are participating in. So it became clear that if we wanted to be more of a presence within the larger state, we needed to bring ourselves out into the state rather than try to attract people here.
We decided that it would be a good way to make a splash if we put together this roster of speakers and topics that my faculty and I have prepared and disseminate them across the state. Our pitch was very simple: we are a state resource – we’re the flagship university of the state – and we serve the state as well as our students. We would like to be thought of as a resource for education at all levels; we’d like you to hear a little bit more about the kind of exciting research that we’re doing. So, when you are looking for programming possibilities for a scholar-in-residence or an evening lecture, we’d like to offer the resources that we have here. And, whereas ordinarily, when my faculty and I are invited to speak at institutions, we receive some form of honorarium; this year, as a promotion, my faculty has agreed to defer that and to be willing to present themselves without expectation of any secondary compensation, as a way of promoting ourselves and promoting our program and what we have to offer.
JL: Can you give us an idea of the sorts of topics your lectures cover?
JS: I have colleagues who lecture on Nazi Germany and the aftermath of the Holocaust; on the interesting aspects of the Italian Jewish community; on the contemporary Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict; and on the ancient history of Israel and Judaism. I give a variety of different talks on the early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries and on biblical literature.
We sent the mailing out in early summer and we’ve gotten at least 30 to 40 inquiries from synagogues and schools, and close to 20 lectures already lined up and potentially more than that.
We’ve had interest expressed in all of those different topics from different places. There seems to be a real thirst and desire to learn about a whole range of things, not just the things that are most immediately pressing – though that is, of course, of great interest – but also of the history and diversity of cultural experience that constitutes Jewish life.
JL: How has the center changed since your arrival three years ago?
JS: One of our first orders of business has been to expand our course offerings. Now that we have a whole variety of new faculty available to us and a number of different relationships within the institution across departments and institutes, we’ve been adding courses to try to grow greater interest amongst the students. We are in the final stages of putting together a proposal that will now be forwarded to the university’s Committee on Curricula and Courses for approval of an independent, standalone major in Judaic Studies. Up until now, students could minor in Judaic studies or do what was called an individualized program of study in Judaic studies. But this will be a formal major, if it gets approved, and I expect it will be in the next year.
JL: What is trending in the academic field of Judaic studies?
JS: Judaic studies is such a vast and diverse area of study now and has really grown in a lot of interesting and different ways. I think one of the things that is very much in play, in the contemporary context, is the relationship between Jewish culture and Jewish communal life in the United States, as opposed to Europe, Israel, and Latin America – the different shapes and expressions of Jewish culture in these different locations, not just now but also in the past, and the interactions among those different Jewish communities and how they influence one another.
There’s a lot of interesting work that’s being done on questions of racial identity in Jewish culture. The presumption that was made for probably way too long, that Jews are all a single kind of ethnic phenotype and genotype – that we’re all the same – has been demonstrably shown to be false. There are Jews of color, not just in the United States, but in Israel and elsewhere, and there is a need to be much more attuned to and engaged with questions of racial identity, of differences in cultural and ethnic politics as different kinds of Jewish groups formulate their own identities in relation to one another. That’s a very exciting area and one that a lot of people are working on, in interesting and exciting ways. For example, my colleague at UConn, Lewis Gordon, has an interest in Afro-Jews [and is the founder and co-director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University].
I think the dominance of the Ashkenazic intelligentsia within Jewish cultural and historical studies for much of the 20th century is now finally being acknowledged for what it was, which was in part, at least, a failure to acknowledge that there are so many other expressions of Jewish identity and Jewish cultural practices outside of the Ashkenazic world, that need to be accounted for and studied and taken on their own terms, rather than as somehow divergences from the norm of an Ashkenazic identity.
JL: What is your own particular area of focus?
JS: The area that I work in most directly – the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily – that I think has been very exciting for the last 20 years or so, is an area where Jewish studies is having an impact outside of the local community of Jewish studies scholars. [It focuses on] the increased awareness we have now of the intensive interest in and study of Jews and Jewish literature and material by Christian scholars in the earlier periods, and how that necessarily inflected Christian identity, thinking, and theology. The access to Jewish texts and scholarship in the 16th and 17th centuries led to a whole rethinking of what Christianity was in its various formulations. That development within Christianity can no longer be separated from what seems to have been an increasingly intensive study of and interest in Jews and Judaism during that period.
JL: You will be lecturing at UConn Stamford’s Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies (CJMES) on Nov. 5. How is the Stamford Center linked to Storrs?
JS: University of Connecticut is a little different than a lot of state university systems, like those you might find in places like California, for instance, where different state campuses are essentially completely independent of one another. UCLA and UCSD and Berkeley are really standalone institutions. The University of Connecticut state university system is completely integrated within itself, so faculty are faculty of UConn with appointments at particular campuses. So, the UConn Stamford campus is very much part of what we do at UConn Storrs. Its founding director, Dr. Nehama
Aschkenasy, and I have worked together on a variety of things and hope to continue to work together on a number of things. For obvious reasons, the distance doesn’t allow us to be constantly with each other and we’re trying to leverage the strength that allows for us to have a footing in different locations in different parts of the state.
The Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies at UConn Stamford was established by Nehama and she should be credited with putting all the time and effort and energy into building that center from scratch.
JL: The topic of your Stamford lecture is “Prayer for the Government: Jews and Citizenship.” Can you give us a preview?
JS: My Nov. 5 lecture [part of the CJMES Lunch and Learn series] explores how Jews have shifted in their own self-perception about what their relationship is to the larger civil government in which they find themselves living – whether it’s in the ancient times or the Middle Ages or the period right around the Enlightenment and political emancipation or even in the contemporary U.S.
I look at how those shifting views about Jewish citizenship or ‘subjecthood’ are reflected in the ways in which the traditional prayer for the government that’s recited during Shabbat morning services have changed over the years. The prayer had a certain kind of construction in the medieval period and has a very different kind of formulation now, especially in the U.S., where Jews regard themselves as full-fledged citizens no different than anyone else. Today, their whole sense of what their relationship is to the government for whom they’re saying the prayer is quite different than it would have been back in the Middle Ages, when they were very clearly subject and beholden to the beneficence and the care and the goodwill of one king or another, one nobleman or another.
Q: In your experience, has the current anti-Israel or anti-Jewish atmosphere reported by students on many North American college campuses influenced participation in Judaic studies?
JS: I have never felt limited or hampered in any way by political concerns. I’m certainly aware of how divisive the issues pertaining to the Middle East are. But I have never felt any hostility at UConn or in the academic world more generally to Judaic studies that is in any way attributable to the difficult realities in Israel-Palestine. My approach has always been that, as members of an academic institution, it is our responsibility to approach all issues – however incendiary and political they may be – with our mission as educators and producers of knowledge first and foremost in our minds. We are not advocates for one side or another of any issue. What we are doing is deepening our understanding of these complex issues and, hopefully, helping others to see them in their fullest contexts. n
“Celebrating 36 Years of Judaic Studies at UConn,” Sunday, Nov. 15, 1:30 p.m., in the Thomas J. Dodd Center, Konover Auditorium at UConn Storrs. Featuring keynote speaker David Ruderman, Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. For information: judaicstudies.uconn.edu, (860) 486-2271.
Judaic Studies at UConn A brief history
The Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life is the oldest Jewish studies program at a public or private institution in Connecticut.
Judaic Studies emerged as a college discipline in 1969, the same year that both the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) was founded and the University of Connecticut welcomed Arnold Dashefsky to its Department of Sociology faculty. Students and faculty worked together to initiate efforts that would create a series of undergraduate courses within the UConn College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, laying the academic foundation for a Judaic Studies program. Fall semester 1973 saw the first Judaic Studies courses listed in the UConn course catalog.
After a survey of UConn students revealed a strong interest in expanding the discipline, a faculty committee approached the university. In February 1979, the UConn Board of Trustees established the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and named Dashefsky as director. The inaugural lecture, on June 12, 1979, featured Nobel Laureate I.B. Singer, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for literature one month later.
The Center was founded with a three-pronged mission: to foster academic study and research in Judaic Studies; to offer undergraduate and graduate courses for academic concentration and enrichment; and to provide resources for continuing education. While there was no official major, students could obtain a BA in Judaic Studies through an individualized program of study, or minor in the field.
The Center was first housed in the Monteith Building, then moved to the basement of Manchester Hall to make room for an expanding Department of Political Science. In the early ‘90s, then-president Harry J. Hartley developed a plan for a new campus facility that would honor and highlight the work of former U.S. Senator Thomas J. Dodd, who had served as Executive Trial Counsel in the International Military Tribunal, the first of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, dedicated in October 1995 by President Bill Clinton, was built to house the university’s special collections and archives, including Dodd’s personal papers from the Nuremburg Trials. The building also became home to the Center for Oral History and the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. That same year, two students enrolled in the newly-created master’s program in Judaic Studies (the result of a consortial relationship with the University of Hartford). UConn is still one of only a handful of North American public universities offering the graduate degree.
Judaic studies students have participated in an annual summer archeological excavation at Sepphoris (Tzipori), Israel, led since 1988 by Prof. Stuart S. Miller, and in a variety of study-abroad programs.