Growth of Bay Area Jewish studies isnt problem-free

The Bay Area has become the second hub of Jewish studies in the United States, but the field's goals and future here are still being debated.

That was the consensus among seven area scholars who participated last week in a roundtable discussion at U.C. Berkeley during a conference called "The Origins of Modern Jewish Studies: Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem."

"Everybody's preconception was that all the real action was on the Northeastern seaboard," said Robert Alter, a U.C. Berkeley professor of Hebrew and comparative literature.

However, Alter added, "the Bay Area has become the second major center for the academic study of Jewish culture and Judaism, alongside this cluster in the Northeast."

Panelists pointed to these signs of substantial growth of Jewish studies here in the past decade:

*U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University and U.C. Santa Cruz have endowed chairs for Jewish studies.

*Stanford's graduate program in Jewish studies is thriving. U.C. Berkeley is now offering a joint doctoral program with its neighbor, the Graduate Theological Union's Center for Jewish Studies.

*Two major Jewish journals once edited on the East Coast — Judaism and Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture and Society — are now handled by professors at U.C. Santa Cruz and Stanford.

*U.C. Press has launched a Jewish book series called "Contraversions." Stanford will soon follow suit with "Studies in Jewish History and Culture."

But Jewish studies experts say this growth has not occured without problems: students and professors in other ethnic studies programs have voiced opposition to Jewish studies; donors have vague expectations that Jewish studies will promote Jewish continuity: the debate over which students Jewish studies should serve continues.

Professor Mira Zussman, who coordinates Middle East Studies at San Jose State University, felt compelled to discount the notion that the Bay Area has overwhelmingly welcomed Jewish studies.

At San Jose State, she said, Jewish studies is just hanging on and faces hostility from other ethnic minorities who complain that "Jews don't deserve their own ethnic studies programs because they have always blended into" the dominant culture.

Likewise, Jewish students at San Francisco State University have long felt attacked by African American and Palestinian students. Professor Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, director of Jewish studies there, has tried to use his program to build relations with other minorities.

But Professor David Biale hopes that the Jewish community doesn't expect Jewish studies to become the front line of defense against anti-Semitism at area universities.

"I think that is a major mistake," said Biale, who is director of the GTU's Center for Jewish Studies.

Because Jewish studies in the Bay Area has been funded in large part through individual donors and foundations, academicians also occasionally find themselves facing unspoken pressures to act as cheerleaders for Judaism.

"Implicit in our work…is a commitment to maintaining the Jewish people," said Professor Steven Zipperstein, director of Stanford's Jewish studies.

Added Biale: "I don't feel I should apologize for believing that the Jewish people should continue to exist."

But Biale followed by saying that the goal of Jewish studies shouldn't be promoting Jewish identity per se. Instead, he sees it's role as helping students think about their identity by opening them up to Jewish history and culture.

On the other hand, the generosity of donors may backfire as universities realize that Jews are willing to financially support Jewish studies programs.

"The issue of donors is a double-edged sword," said Murray Baumgarten, professor of literature of U.C. Santa Cruz. For example, he said, a new dean at his university is sure that the Jewish community will pay for Hebrew courses. But the same expectation doesn't exist for other languages, such as Italian or Greek.

And while U.C. Santa Cruz gained an endowed chair in Holocaust studies this year due to a community member's donation, that position exists independently without any Jewish studies departmental structure to support it. Although U.C. Santa Cruz once had a Jewish studies program, it now offers only individual classes.

In addition to these problems, professors are wondering who should populate their expanding classes. The programs generally focus on their natural constituency — Jews. But this means that professors must deal with the potential for parochialism, which is considered a tarnish in the academic world.

"We're at something of an impasse," Zipperstein said.