Annie Hall goes to college in class on Jewish culture

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In professor emeritus Samuel Haber's spring history class at U.C. Berkeley, students will be treated to showings of "Fiddler on the Roof," "Schindler's List," "Annie Hall" and all three versions of "The Jazz Singer."

They'll also read Emma Lazarus, Isaac Wise, Philip Roth, Adolph Zukor and several Yiddish poets.

Haber is spending his retirement doing what he loves — teaching. But now he's doing it his own way. Exercising a retired professor's prerogative to design his own course, he created "A Century of American Jewish Cultural and Intellectual History, 1896 to 1996." The class explores Haber's private passion for the richness of American Jewish culture.

The class is a first in the University of California system and may well be a first for a public university.

"American Jewish history wasn't considered much of a history," says Haber. It was thought too immature and too parochial, he says, to merit scholarly attention. "For many years the world of scholarship wasn't interested in minority cultures."

Haber sees the addition of his course to the history curriculum as a significant change in American and Jewish attitudes.

"It reflects a new tolerance for diversity in America and represents a Jewish awareness of what Jews in America have achieved," Haber says.

He adds that Jews are often afraid to discuss or celebrate their influence in America because it might promote the anti-Semitic attitude that Jews are running the country.

In the class, Haber introduces Jews who have influenced their own culture and that of the world beyond: These Jews include Tin Pan Alley songwriters, philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, authors Irving Howe and Saul Bellow and feminist theologian Judith Plaskow.

Course materials include writings by Holocaust survivors and journalists.

Since the American Jewish experience has frequently been portrayed in movies, Haber's students are treated to showings of several popular films.

Although this may sound like too much fun to merit academic credit, Haber cautions his students to take the course seriously. It is in fact demanding, requiring heavy reading and writing.

In examining Jews' relationship to society at large, Haber explores how Jews have achieved acceptance and success. Some successful Jews "absorb an anti-Semitic stereotype," he says, citing Woody Allen, who while affirming positive Jewish attributes also holds onto negative stereotypes.

Other Jews make the transition to the larger society by falling back on what Haber calls "the Shylock defense," defined as "we're just like everybody else." Jewish academics, he notes, might avoid courses focusing on Jewish culture or history because they want to be accepted as mainstream scholars.

Haber also points to the dramatization of "The Diary of Anne Frank" and the controversy raised by its attempt to minimize the Jewish aspect of the story. The play, he says, tried to make Anne less a Jew than a symbol of all humankind.

While agreeing that Jews share universal characteristics, Haber cautions against discounting the distinctiveness of Jews and the Jewish experience. One of the dangers coupled with the growing acceptance of Jews in American society is the loss of an autonomous Jewish culture — and a celebration of that culture. An interesting footnote is that most of the students currently enrolled in Haber's class are not Jewish.

But as long as Haber teaches at U.C. Berkeley, the importance of American Jewish culture will not be ignored. He plans to continue offering his American Jewish history class every spring semester. In the true spirit of a devoted Jewish scholar and educator, Haber welcomes auditors and visitors.

The class meets from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in Barrows Hall, Room 166.