David Biale: Teaching prize awarded to historian of Jewish culture

Source: UC Davis News, 3-8-11

Photo: David Biale portrait next to Roman sculpture posterTeaching prize winner David Biale says: “In history, we take our students on time travel to faraway times and lands, and that is an exciting opportunity for young minds and their intellectual development and imaginations.” (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

UC Davis historian David Biale, a leading expert on Jewish intellectual and cultural history, is the winner of the 2011 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Established in 1986, the $40,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country; it is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation.

On March 8, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi interrupted Biale’s History of Modern Israel undergraduate class to announce that he had been selected as the 24th recipient of the honor.

“It is a privilege to award the 2011 UC Davis Teaching Prize to a scholar and educator of David’s caliber,” said Katehi. “His students describe him as engaging and inspiring, and his colleagues describe him as a brilliant scholar and source of pride for his department. The UC Davis prize recognizes, in particular, David’s ability to help his students create the intellectual tools to be successful thinkers in a global community.”

Biale, the holder of the Emanuel Ringelbaum Chair in Jewish History, has been a prolific and dynamic thinker and leader since arriving on campus in 1999.

He founded the Jewish studies program and is now the chair of the history department. The author and editor of 10 books and 74 articles over his 33-year career, he is a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biale will receive the 2011 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement on Thursday, May 12, at a gala dinner in his honor at the Conference Center Ballroom.

“I am deeply grateful to the donors at the UC Davis Foundation who established this prize and to all of my students and colleagues for making this possible,” said Biale. “Teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels provides its own rewards when working with young minds. I’m humbled and incredibly honored by this award.”

Biale said he looks forward to using the award money to strengthen student opportunities in the history department, particularly in the areas of graduate education and the Jewish studies program.

‘Pivotal’ professor

According to Ron Mangun, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, Biale embodies the attributes of the ideal scholar-teacher envisioned by the donors who created this award. Biale has also twice won the Associated Students of UC Davis Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“Professor Biale’s leadership has been pivotal in creating the highly esteemed program in Jewish studies, a favorite of students and faculty alike,” Mangun wrote in a letter nominating Biale for the prize.

Jamie Forrest, a third-year student double majoring in history and political science, said that Biale teaches history as a “discipline concerned with the human experience rather than as a list of dates and events. He has allowed me to form an emotional and intellectual connection to the historical material he covers in class.”

Alan Taylor, history professor and recipient of the 2002 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, described Biale as both a demanding and thought-provoking instructor.

“Even in the largest classes,” Taylor said, “David invites students to explore the most profound questions about human nature and the interplay of despair and hope, of violence and peace, and of oppression and resistance. He expects much from his students, but they rise to his challenge because they recognize the great insight, care and energy that David invests in helping them.”

Biale describes his teaching approach as “old-fashioned” and participatory. His love for Jewish history, traditions and culture comes from the heart, he says.

“I mostly lecture without notes,” he said, “and even in large classes of more than 200 students I try to get them involved. For me, my personal experience with the subject is the greatest help.”

In the past two years, Biale has taught courses on the history of the Holocaust, the memory of the Holocaust, comparative genocide, secular Jewish thinkers and the history of the end of the world.

“Students are very excited by ideas and books. In history, we take our students on time travel to faraway times and lands, and that is an exciting opportunity for young minds and their intellectual development and imaginations,” he said.

Biale earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at UC Berkeley, and his doctorate at UCLA.

As a young student, Biale was greatly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century rationalist who laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment; Gershom Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism; and Jacob Katz; a leading historian of the Jewish people.

The most formative influence was Amos Funkenstein, a Jewish historian under whom Biale wrote his doctoral dissertation.

“He was truly a Renaissance man in terms of intellectual range,” Biale said of Funkenstein. “He was probably the only genius I’ve ever met.”

Biale, who describes himself as a secular Jew, wrote his dissertation on Scholem. He is the author of “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought” (Princeton University Press, 2010); “Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians” (University of California Press, 2008); and “Cultures of the Jews” (Schocken, 2006)….READ MORE

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