GTUs ex-director of Jewish studies tries out U.C. Davis

David Biale, who for 13 years guided Jewish studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, has taken a leave to teach at U.C. Davis.

"Up until now, U.C. Davis has not had one full-time faculty member who taught Jewish studies," Biale said, speaking of his new position as the Emanuel Ringelblum chair of European Jewish history.

Biale, who became director of GTU's Center for Jewish Studies in 1986, also taught in the history and Near Eastern studies departments at U.C. Berkeley.

He has written two books on Jewish history and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his current research into the symbolism of blood in the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Biale said joining the faculty of a large history department at a major university after many years in "a small Jewish studies program" is a definite change.

"For my own professional department, it's a positive career step," he said recently. "I will decide mid-year if I will return. I'm going to try out the new place, see how it will go."

Diane Wolf, a sociology professor who chairs the Jewish studies program committee at U.C. Davis, is glad he is trying out her campus.

"David is not only an exciting and creative scholar but a real institution-builder," she said. "I'm thrilled to have him as a colleague."

In recent years, Jewish studies have bloomed at such Bay Area institutions as Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University and the GTU. Graduates of these programs, in turn, are now fueling Jewish studies programs at such institutions as Indiana, Princeton, McGill and Duke universities.

Financial support has nurtured the Northern California renaissance. The U.C. Davis program's backing includes grants from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, the Bernard Osher Foundation, and the Koret Foundation.

U.C. Davis already offers a minor in Jewish studies. Developing the major will take "a couple of years," said Professor Bruce Rosenstock, who taught the first Jewish studies course at Davis. "This is an area in which David Biale is very active."

Biale envisions "an interdisciplinary major, incorporating history, literature, language, sociology, film, Hebrew language."

Its success, however, may hinge on generating enough funds to hire a second full-time faculty member.

The growth thus far has been impressive, said Rosenstock. His first class, an introduction to Judaism, drew 30 students in the fall of 1995. Currently, about 125 students are enrolled in related classes.

"We're moving forward in lots of exciting ways," he said. "Now we've got courses ranging from David's pre-modern Jewish history to Harriet Murav's Yiddish literature in translation." Murav, a specialist in German and Russian literature, is the Jewish studies program director at Davis.

Other Davis offerings include French-Jewish and German-Jewish literature. And up to 10 students study in Jerusalem each year.

"We've been building the Jewish curriculum," Rosenstock said. "With all this wonderful growth, this is rapidly becoming the place for undergraduates to study Jewish history in the U.C. system."

Other new additions:

*U.C. Davis has just created a graduate-level faculty consortium for Jewish studies that includes Biale, an anthropology professor and an expert in Judeo-Spanish culture.

*The National Science Foundation is funding a "digital library" there of Ladino folk literature, including songs, tales, ballads and poetry.

*Visiting scholars from other universities are teaching classes. Last year, a Yiddish scholar from Syracuse University taught. This year brought Zali Gurevitch, a poet and Hebrew University professor who taught literature and sociology.

Despite the distance, Biale will continue to tap into GTU's resources.

The GTU will "serve as a bridge" to other universities, he said. "There is a tendency to think of Davis as very far away from the Bay Area, but it's only an hour's drive from Berkeley."

Like Biale, GTU has also been in somewhat of a transition. Biale's colleague, Daniel Matt, has resigned. He is living in Jerusalem, translating the Jewish mystical text known as the Zohar.

Naomi Seidman has taken over Biale's previous position as head of GTU's Jewish studies. And the teaching staff has been boosted with the addition of Rabbi Yoel Kahn, the former director of Stanford Hillel and former spiritual leader at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.