Against the odds, U.S. Jewish studies thrive

Source: The Forward, 12-29-10

History is filled with surprises, and sometimes the surprises are quite pleasant; the Association for Jewish Studies is exactly such a surprise.

Seriously, how much do you know about sea narratives by Hasidim and their opponents? Were you not listening that day? Surreptitiously texting? Did you perhaps grow up in Syracuse, which is not near the sea and which has had more than 70 inches of snow already this season? That, dear friend, is no excuse: Just down the block, at Syracuse University, you will find Ken Frieden, who just happens to be the B. G. Rudolph Professor of Judaic Studies at Syracuse and, I dare say, the world’s leading expert on sea narratives by Hasidim and their opponents.

I love it. I love that amidst all the hurly-burly of our times — while Sarah Palin does her shtick, and Michele Bachmann is oxymoronically appointed to the Intelligence Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Goldman Sachs sacks the rest of us — people like Frieden, a magna cum laude graduate of Yale, think about things such as the role of Hebrew and Yiddish narratives in Jewish literary history….READ MORE

It was at the 1969 Brandeis meeting that the idea for a professional association of Jewish academics was put forward and endorsed. And now, 41 years later, the Association for Jewish Studies has more than 1,800 members, and more than a thousand came to Boston to attend its recent conference, at which there were more than 150 panels.

It is a wonderful surprise that there are still students who choose Jewish studies as their college specialization. One wonders whether that will last, given the growingly stepchild status of the humanities. These days, when the value of a college education is widely announced in earning potential, when both fiscal and cultural tendencies in our public schools prompt more and more cuts in the “soft” subjects, when the largely fraudulent “for profit” universities are accountable not to their students but to their shareholders, when technology and, if I may be quaint, love of learning, seem so separate, a continuing interest in Jewish studies can hardly be taken for granted.

But who knows? History is so filled with surprises, and sometimes the surprises are quite pleasant. The Association for Jewish Studies is exactly such a surprise.

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