The Jewish Studies Initiative

Years ago, upon hearing that I was about to leave Los Angeles and move to Utah (to teach at the University of Utah), friend after friend said to me: “You know, in Utah Jews are considered ‘Gentiles.’”  Largely spoken in jest (with perhaps just a tinge of dismay), the comment reflected my friends’ collective anxiety about the prospect of me–a passionately committed, intellectually engaged, rigorously trained Jew–moving to a place where I would dwell perpetually in exile, an Other in Zion!

As it happened, what appeared to be a liability actually turned out to be an advantage.  For even as I was warmly welcomed by my home department (English), by the University community at large, as well as by the relatively small but vibrant local Jewish community, I found myself explaining Jewish customs and traditions, and teaching Jewish texts, to a highly engaged but mostly non-Jewish audience.  But instead of simply shoring up my conviction in whatever “truths” I thought I might convey about Jewish identity, I found that–more often than not–these encounters with students, friends, and colleagues actually compelled me to re-examine a whole host of ideas and claims, often to surprising ends. Indeed, my book, Singing In A Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics (which received a book award last year from the American Jewish Studies Association), was more innovative precisely because of some of the rich conversations I had here in Utah, conversations which pushed me beyond my usual intellectual boundaries.

These experiences led me to design a course I titled “Jews and Other Others,” looking at ideas of Jewish identity in a comparative context with other groups, including African American, Asian American, Latino, and Mormon.  I’ll be honest: not all of the conversations that occurred during that semester were easy or comfortable.  But for most of the students, the course offered a sustained (and exciting) opportunity to explore all kinds of assumptions about identity–Jewish and otherwise.

Increasingly it became clear to me that, rather than the University of Utah being the least likely place to establish a Jewish Studies Program, it was actually ideally suited to such an undertaking: an academic program devoted to the idea of exploring both how Jewishness contributes to our understanding of other kinds of difference, and how Jewishness itself is complicated by these comparative encounters.  For, as readers of Kingfisher know, the College of Humanities is the site of many innovative programs focusing on interdisciplinary approaches to education and  Two programs in particular, Peace and Conflict Studies and Religious Studies, have proved to be important partnerships for launching this initiative in Jewish Studies.

The spark for this venture arrived in the spring of 2011 when, to my good fortune, the Department of Languages and Literature hired Professor Nathan Devir, who came to the University of Utah by way of Middlebury College, where he had taught in its acclaimed program of Hebrew language and literature.  Born in Montana, Professor Devir received his undergraduate degree from the University of Haifa (after completing a stint as an officer in the Israel Defense Force), and then returned to the United States where he received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Pennsylvania State University.  Professor Devir’s cutting-edge research on the “neo-Jewish” groups in India and Ghana (groups that, by self-identifying as Jewish, challenge the boundaries of culture and belonging) sets an exciting precedent not only for Jewish Studies at the University of Utah, but for programs throughout the world who are interested in refashioning themselves by engaging in cross-cultural, ethnic and religious dialogue.

Under the aegis of the College of Humanities and its Religious Studies Program, Professor Devir and I are initiating the plans and groundwork for an exciting Jewish Studies Program here at the University of Utah.  Our plans include not only a number of innovative courses and community lectures by visiting scholars, but also an academic minor in Jewish Studies, as well as a study-abroad course in Israel.  Keep your eyes open for these exciting opportunities as we develop them!

Maera Y. Schreiber

Associate Professor of English

Chair, Jewish Studies Initiative

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