Jewish culture, scholarship booming here

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In the last year alone, a professor of Jewish history at U.C. Berkeley received Israel's most prestigious prize for scholarship.

A leading Boston-based Jewish demographer opened a new think tank in San Francisco.

And Judaism, a 43-year-old journal of Jewish thought previously edited on the East Coast, is now being edited by a U.C. Santa Cruz professor living in San Francisco.

Once thought of as a Jewish cultural wasteland, the Bay Area has bloomed into an oasis.

Here, the most obvious sign of the burgeoning interest in Jewish culture may be the growth of Jewish studies graduate programs at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, also in Berkeley. All have attracted formidable scholars as faculty and are expanding, thriving and churning out Ph.Ds whose influences are being felt across the country.

"I think the programs now compete with and even exceed the programs in places like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, which have always been thought of as the heartland of Jewish studies," said Robert Alter, a professor of comparative and Hebrew literature at U.C. Berkeley.

In the last three years, Alter pointed out, the university has placed eight of its Ph.D. recipients in Jewish history and Hebrew literature in teaching positions at such major North American universities as Princeton, Duke, Pennsylvania State and McGill.

Also at U.C. Berkeley, Jewish history Professor Amos Funkenstein won the Jewish state's coveted Israel Prize. Alter received an award for scholarship from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. And last year, Professors Chana Kronfeld and Daniel Boyarin founded a new Jewish book series, "Contraversions," which is published by U.C. Press.

Meanwhile, in the fall, U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, also in Berkeley, will inaugurate a joint doctoral program in Jewish studies. GTU recently added a third scholar to its Center for Jewish Studies — Naomi Seidman, a Ph.D. from Penn. State whose areas of expertise include Yiddish and Hebrew literature and Jewish gender studies.

With her work on gender issues, Seidman joins a number of local scholars working on the cutting edge of Jewish scholarship.

"What's happened here in the Bay Area is not just that the programs have increased, but that we have people doing very pioneering work in areas like gender studies and history of sexuality," said David Biale, director of GTU's Center for Jewish Studies. "Maybe this has something to do with the general atmosphere in the Bay Area of not being bound by tradition, of exploring new ideas."

Biale's recent book "Eros and the Jews" joins other Bay Area-generated works on related topics — among them Boyarin's "Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in the Talmud, " and San Francisco State University professor Howard Eilberg-Schwartz's "God's Phallus," a study of the relationship between Judaism and male sexuality.

"Even though there are people around the country dealing with these matters," Biale said, "here in Bay Area, we have a community of scholars. There's a high level of cooperation between faculty of the various institutions."

Just 10 years ago, one of those institutions, Stanford University, offered only a handful of Jewish studies courses. Today, students can choose from two dozen. The program in Jewish studies claims five endowed annual lecture series, eight full-time faculty members who teach in four departments and 15 graduate students, many of whom have won national fellowships.

In addition, two Stanford Jewish studies professors recently revived Jewish Social Studies, a moribund journal founded in 1939 as a cross between an academic journal and a public forum to challenge anti-Semitism. Two issues of the resurrected journal, edited by Professors Aron Rodrigue and Steven Zipperstein, have already come out. The journal will be published three times a year.

Another journal now edited locally is Judaism, a quarterly periodical of Jewish life published by the American Jewish Congress. Recently named editor Murray Baumgarten, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at U.C. Santa Cruz, promises translations of "important, rediscovered texts" as well as "the striking and original midrashim, fine poetry and important fiction that participate in the religious, moral and philisophical exposition of Jewish conversation."

The first issues edited by Baumgarten included pieces on black anti-Semitism, Jews and multiculturalism in America, Germany's vanishing Holocaust monuments, and artist R.B. Kitaj.

The organized Jewish community has welcomed the West Coast Jewish cultural boom and supported its advance.

Among those funding Jewish Social Studies, for example, are the Koret Foundation, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Louis Dessauer Trust of the JCF's Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

"The attention given to Jewish studies by the organized community is an attention we at Stanford have benefited from greatly," Zipperstein said. "I don't think that one sees [such recognition] nationwide."

Zipperstein, director of Stanford's Jewish studies program, sees a number of factors behind the local communal priority on Jewish culture. For one thing, he said, the disproportionately high rate of assimilation among Bay Area Jews compared to Jews elsewhere in the country has heightened the emphasis on Jewish culture.

"I think in part for this reason and because of the presence of cultural institutions of prestige, the Bay Area Jewish community has come to focus much of its attention on culture and cultural institutions as the sort of last point at which to capture Jewish souls," Zipperstein said.

Locally, a range of Jewish institutions and educational centers are doing just that. Those include the Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica, the Jewish Film Festival and San Francisco's Jewish Healing Center.

"There are a whole range of institutions growing up here," noted Gary Tobin, the demographer who opened the Institute for Community and Religion in 1994.

Though he doesn't cite specifics, Tobin said he expects that additional Jewish institutions will arise here over the next five years.

"I really think a lot of the cutting edge character of Jewish life is being defined in the West," Tobin said. "I think if you understand the changes of character of Jewish life in the West, you're looking at Jewish life of the future."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.