Jewish studies not just for Jews
In order for the academic pursuit of Jewish studies to continue, it must appeal to a broader audience outside the Jewish community, said Judith Baskin, a Jewish scholar, author and professor.
She was speaking to a roomful of academics and community members at the Midwest Jewish Studies Association (MJSA) conference at York University on Oct. 14.
“At the end of the 21st century, more and more students who choose undergraduate majors and graduate training in Jewish studies are non-Jews,” said Baskin, who has spent 40 years in the field of academic Jewish studies.
She cited changing demographics as the reason for this shift. “The absolute number of Jews in the larger population in North America is in steady decline,” said Baskin. “The future of Jewish studies in North American universities will depend on the field’s continuing appeal to a larger constituency.”
Her lecture, “Jewish Studies: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow?,” was the plenary talk of the MJSA’s annual conference, which brought students and faculty from around the world to York U last week.
Conference speakers included “musicologists, historians and scholars from all periods of Jewish studies, from biblical to modern for people all over the world,” said Mara Cohen Ioannides, president of the MJSA.
There was a panel on German Jewry, language acquisition, and literature panels. It was “very broad in that sense, what ties us together is the unity of Jewish studies,” Cohen Ioannides said.
As a veteran in the field, Baskin noted that Jewish studies has changed dramatically over the last 100 years.
“The significant expansion of Jewish studies in North American universities is a relatively recent phenomenon, although Hebrew language was included in the curriculum of several of the early colleges established in North America in the 17th and 18th century,” said Baskin.
But Jewish studies was only truly established as an academic pursuit under the influence of German Jewish scholarship in the 1890s, she said. Then, in the late 19th century, academic Jewish positions were established at secular universities, thanks to the support of donor communities, who hoped that this would help gain acceptance of Jews in the United States. “It was a place where it was acceptable to have a Jewish scholar,” said Baskin, unlike many other academic fields, which Jews were barred from.
Jewish studies became part of the mainstream academic university curriculum in between the world wars, when Jewish donors established areas of study such as Jewish history, modern Hebrew language and literature, she said. But in the 1960s and ’70s, there was an emphasis on singling out Jewish learning into one academic program, “moving away from the earlier approach that encouraged the location of Jewish studies within a larger department,” said Baskin. “The reasoning was similar to those for establishing African-American studies and later on, women’s studies.”
But the academic pursuit of Jewish studies is in for another shift, as the Jewish population dwindles in comparison to the rest of the world, increasing the diversity of students and faculty in Jewish studies programs.
“I spoke to someone recently at a very prestigious university,” said Baskin, “and he said 10 per cent of his majors in Jewish studies are Jewish, but most are Asians. There’s a very deep interest among Asians about Jews and Jewish success – economically, academically, professionally in the U.S. and also [how they] maintain their identity.”
“I had a survey class in Jewish history, and I had two students from Japan and I showed a clip from Fiddler on the Roof, and they were just in tears – apparently it’s the most popular musical in Japan,” she said.
This diversity may pose a challenge to Jewish communities that fund and support Jewish academic learning.
“We’ve moved beyond being an academic venture about Jews, by Jews and for Jews,” said Baskin. “And while the immortalization of Jewish studies is desirable from a scholarly point of view, however, the reality is it also points to potential future conflicts between academic Jewish studies programs and the concerns of the Jewish communities and donors who have thus far been absolutely essential to the presence and success of Jewish studies at North American institutions.”
Ultimately, she said, Jewish communities will have to accept this changing reality in order to maintain Jewish academic programs at North American universities.