Jewish studies at U.C. Davis enticing students of all faiths

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U.C. Davis' new Jewish studies program has grown beyond its projections and has enticed faculty from not only other departments — African American studies among them — but also other campuses.

In its first year, the fledgling Koret Foundation-funded program offered undergraduate courses in languages, comparative literature and the environment, as well as cultural and religious studies.

A U.C. Davis Hebrew course was televised throughout the Sacramento area and adopted by Sacramento State University.

The program's faculty includes 1994 National Book Award winner Samuel Armistead; author Benjamin Orlove ("In My Father's Study") and Jacob Olapuna, professor of African American religion.

"We offer a mature, academic approach to study," said Bruce Rosenstock, who teaches the televised Hebrew course.

Although some of these courses, such as Hebrew, were available at U.C. Davis, this program brings them all together under a single rubric, creating a vibrancy that students say did not exist before.

A "faculty research cluster" meets regularly to engage new Jewish studies instructors.

"By far the most important development has been the new major which has been created on campus, the classics and ancient Mediterranean studies major," said religious studies Professor Naomi Janowitz.

The interdisciplinary major will permit students to cast a wide net academically.

Next year's expanded program will introduce courses in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Contemporary Jewish American Identities and Communities, sociology and Modern Jewish Writers. A course called Homeland and Diaspora: Afro-American Religions and Judaism is co-taught by Janowitz and Olapuna.

The program's designers are also planning a spring lecture series on Jews and science.

"Our primary goal is to increase the offerings in modern Judaism," Janowitz said. "We are busy looking for partners, since our limited funding is not sufficient to bring a scholar to campus for an extended period."

A core group of 12 faculty members, with representatives from Hillel, the campus library "and Davis' one klezmer band" met last fall to plan themes for each quarter, Janowitz said.

Twenty-two students at U.C. Davis and six at Sacramento State signed up for the first course.

The number of interested students grew, propelling the program to expand much more quickly than its designers anticipated, Janowitz said.

"There are a large number of students who want to understand [Jewish] traditions," said Rosenstock, whose own doctorate is in Greek and Latin studies. One of his courses, The Other Bibles, focused on early Jewish texts from the Apocrypha, and the recently published Halachic Letter.

The program is well-placed on this campus, where some 10 percent of the student body is Jewish.

The program's students include Jews and non-Jews alike, including Arabs and African Americans, and range from prospective Israeli travelers to students of religion.

Rosenstock is thrilled that one of his class rosters included a rabbi and a minister. Fundamentalist Christians have registered for some of the classes.

"We are a model of the peace movement," Rosenstock said. "We more than coexist. We're very friendly."

Which is not to say placid. In keeping with Jewish tradition, he noted, "We have some lively discussions."

In fact, this vivacious, intense approach to discourse is one of the program's most Jewish features, and as crucial as the Jewish subject matter itself.

"We're honest; we respect one another," Rosenstock said. "There's a civility that most students want to maintain. But sometimes it's necessary to break down that civility to really get a discussion going."

"Like someone in charge of a nuclear reactor, I need to know when to pull the rods and when to cool down," he said.

During spring quarter, he said, one class "had a very active discussion about Louis Farrakhan. While there was no resolution, it was an opportunity to really have an exchange of views."

In addition to course offerings, the program conducts electronic dialogues on the Internet. Rosenstock calls this "a free-for-all discussion.

"I want to center it around readings," he said. "A lot of the discussion is very personal but revealing."

The instructors prize the diversity of the student campus — and the program. Rosenstock asserts that non-Jews are not merely guests in these classes.

History professor Paul Goodman, who specializes in Holocaust studies, has announced that he would use his estate to create a new chair named for Emanuel Kinglebloom, one of the foremost historians of the Warsaw Ghetto.

"Once we have our endowed chairs in place, we'll be able to sustain a graduate program," Rosenstock said.

For Rosenstock, the son of a Conservative rabbi who went through a "period of rebellion" before coming home to Judaism, this program is a perfect fit in an age when cultural diversity is prized — and debated.

"Once upon a time, to announce you were Jewish was embarrassing," he said. "But today…everyone is enjoying permission to explore their own culture."

A $15,000 grant from the Koret Foundation, matched by donations from alumni and other foundations, has "helped us with whatever we needed, and to build for the future," Rosenstock said, noting that the program is "heavily indebted" to its benefactors.

"This is not and never will be funded through the university. We exist because the outside community chose to support it."

For the program's World Wide Web site, key in HTTP://www.UCDavis.edu

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.