Todd M Endelman: Review: Broadening Jewish History

A collection of essays on the social history of British Jews is a milestone on the road to defining an elusive concept

Source: The Jewish Tribune, 4-29-11

Ring of confidence: 18th-19th century Jewish boxer Daniel MendozaRing of confidence: 18th-19th century Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza

By Todd M Endelman
The Littman Library, £39.50

Professor Todd Endelman, who teaches modern Jewish history at the University of Michigan, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of European and specifically of British Jewry, on which he has authored three superb monographs and scores of scholarly articles. In this collection, he brings together 14 of his essays, most related the history of the Jews in England and all addressing the overarching theme of the volume, namely the “social” history of “ordinary” Jews.

These words – “social” and “ordinary” – beg many questions. Social history came of age in the third quarter of the 20th century in reaction to political history (centred on the deeds and misdeeds of politicians), diplomatic history (centred on the machinations of diplomats) and economic history (centred on national economies in the abstract).

Social history does not deal with elites – the few – but with the many, whose history is much more difficult to recount since, by definition, the many leave no institutional record and precious few memoirs. Until the advent of social history, those who wrote about the Jews had concentrated largely on institutions and elites. What social historians, including Professor Endelman, have done is shift the focus on to “ordinary” Jews.

But what is an “ordinary” Jew? Reading the essays in this volume one soon realises that there is no such entity. The most enjoyable chapter reproduces a study of Jacob Rey – “Jew” King – a scoundrel of a moneylender who, as Endelman reminds us, “flourished in the freewheeling atmosphere of late Georgian London.” Lending to “dissolute womanisers and compulsive gamblers,” Rey’s extraordinary career does indeed have much to tell us about the seamier side of life in the reign of George III. Rey was nothing if not ambitious. He married (apparently) into the landed aristocracy and dabbled in radical politics. But he never attempted to hide his Jewish identity…

This volume is subtitled: “Towards a Social History of Ordinary Jews” thereby charting directions others must take if such social histories are ever to be written. The raw material is certainly there, but discovering its location and divining its meaning are no easy tasks. But Endleman has provided a guidebook and a manual.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

Steven Plaut: The Maltese Yad — Jewish Slaves in 12th Century Malta

Source: Jewish Press, 4-28-11

It was the last slave prison and slave market in Europe. The United States was already an independent country and France was in the tumult of revolution. The Mediterranean island of Malta was the destination for the slaves snatched off of merchant ships by an order of Crusader Knights that had first been set up in Jerusalem in the 12th century.

And the slaves in question were Jews.

The slaves were unloaded at the Valletta Quay even today still known as “Jews’ Sally Port.” The city was the headquarters built after the Great Siege by the Order of the Knights of St. John, better known as the Hospitallers. For the more than two centuries its slave market operated, the main purpose was to extort ransom money from Jewish communities in Europe in exchange for the release of the hostages. Some captives were used as galley slaves. For some fortunate others it was really “slavery lite,” as they were allowed to leave prison during daylight hours to hold jobs or even engage in commerce.

Malta is one of the more remarkable places on earth. It contains antiquities a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Long before humans discovered metal, its earliest inhabitants were carving massive structures out of solid rock, some displaying amazingly modern thinking about architecture. Its vegetation and landscape look like the Galilee, while its architecture is simply breathtaking. Its 16th century fortifications were so powerful that they later served to defend British and Maltese forces from German and Italian assaults during World War II.

Malta’s devoutly Catholic population speaks a dialect of Tunisian Arabic (with Phoenician, Italian, French and English words mixed in). The Maltese like to think of themselves as the world’s last surviving Phoenicians, kin of Hannibal and King Hiram of Tyre. Speakers of Hebrew and Arabic can make sense of many Maltese words. Malta is never mentioned by name in the Bible. The word “Malta” is Phoenician but is from the same root as the Hebrew cognate word for “taking refuge.” The Apostle Paul found himself shipwrecked there, making Malta long a center of interest for the Christian world.

Jews first lived in Malta in the days when it was still a Carthaginian colony. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians all came and left. Eventually the islands fell under Spanish rule. The Jews of Malta then met the same fate as the Jews of Spain, expelled the year Columbus reached the Americas.

One of the most famous Jewish residents of Malta was Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia, a 13th-century Spanish kabbalist rabbi. A bizarre character, he dreamed of forging a monotheistic unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He managed to arrange for an audience with the pope to lay out the merits of his plan. The pope was horrified and ordered Abulafia burned at the stake. But the pope died suddenly just before the sentence was to be carried out, and the condemned man was released.

Abulafia spent the last two decades of his life as a hermit, evidently living in caves on the barren and still all-but-deserted island of Comino, just off the coast of the main Maltese island. There he wrote several books on Kabbalah, philosophy and grammar.

Abulafia’s career is of surprising contemporary relevance. The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish community is an old man known by all simply as “The Admor.” He claims to be a direct personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta. He plans to convert Abulafia’s “home” on Comino into a site for world Jewish pilgrimage….READ MORE

James Bernauer: ‘Golden Age’ for Christian-Jewish Relations

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning promotes interreligious dialogue, research

Source: The Boston College Chronicle, 4-28-11

“This is a veteran group of scholars engaged in understanding and encouraging Christian-Jewish dialogue. They have come out of the post-Holocaust and post-Vatican II eras. One of the real challenges is to pass this dialogue down to the younger generation.” — James Bernauer, SJ (Photo by Lee Pellegrini) As Kraft Family Professor James Bernauer, SJ, explains it, the study of Jewish-Christian relations has entered its Golden Age.

BC’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, which Fr. Bernauer directs, is playing a key role in the growing dialogue and body of scholarship in this area of study that draws on experts from multiple academic disciplines.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary year, the center has sponsored numerous events that have brought scholars from across the globe to campus to examine some of the most pressing issues in the field of Jewish-Christian relations — including last month’s conference “Are Jews and Christians Living in a Post-Polemical World? Toward a Comparison of Medieval and Modern Christian-Jewish Encounters.” An endowed visiting professorship has brought leading scholars to BC to teach, research and collaborate with their peers.

“We are becoming a real center for scholarly analysis,” said Fr. Bernauer. “What we are aiming for now is to combine both service to students with our service to the broader scholarly world.”

Through a series of new projects, the center has incorporated additional opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to participate in center activities and learn from leading scholars.

Fr. Bernauer says it is crucial for the field to encourage young students and scholars, lest this Golden Age succumb to a challenge posed by shifting demographics: many of the scholars who have led the field since the end of World War II are nearing their “golden years.”

“This is a veteran group of scholars engaged in understanding and encouraging Christian-Jewish dialogue,” says Bernauer. “They have come out of the post-Holocaust and post-Vatican II eras. One of the real challenges is to pass this dialogue down to the younger generation.”…READ MORE

Irreverence Now Shoah Teaching Tool: Graphic Novels

Source: The NY Jewish Week, 4-27-11

A graphic novel about Auschwitz is part of a growing trend of so-called Holocaust comic books.

After years of Holocaust farces, observers debate the uses of irony or graphic novels when it comes to Holocaust remembrance.

The traditional, reverent ways to “never forget” what happened to six million Jews during the Holocaust are still very much with us. Seventy years after the event, Holocaust museums have recently opened in Los Angeles and the Chicago suburb of Skokie, and even a city like Richmond, Va., with about 8,000 Jews, has one.

Public school curricula feature units on the Holocaust, trips to Shoah museums and visits by survivors themselves. And thousands of Jewish students still go on the March of the Living tour, which ferries them from the ashes of Auschwitz to the light of the State of Israel.

But as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, nears this year, observers are debating the uses of irreverence to memorialize the event, especially when it comes to passing the lessons of the Shoah on to a younger, Facebook generation. After years of Holocaust farces like Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway play “The Producers,” Holocaust comedy films like Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” after Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” and art shows depicting Zyklon B canisters alongside Coke cans, irreverence, when it comes to the Holocaust, is now the classic “teachable moment.”

And in our medium-is-the-message world, the graphic novel (comic book, to an older generation) may end up being the vehicle to carry the memory of the Holocaust to younger people.

Will it all breed in young people a disrespect that is harmful to the cause of Holocaust memorialization, or is such irreverence only inevitable in this post-Holocaust age?….READ MORE

Vanessa Ochs: A place to gather — New Brody Jewish Center at University of Virginia sparks discussion of Judaism

Vanessa Ochs: A place to gather — New Brody Jewish Center at University of Virginia sparks discussion of Judaism

Source: The Cavalier Daily, 4-26-11

Jewish life at the University found a renewed identity April 10, when the Brody Jewish Center building — Hillel’s 10,000 square-foot addition to its existing space at 1824 University Circle — officially opened.

“There’s now this glorious space to be Jewish in together and to invite others in to experience what Jewish life is like,” said Vanessa Ochs, associate professor of religious studies and member of the Jewish studies program. “The big difference is to have a glorious and capacious and welcoming space that doesn’t feel like a grandma’s attic, because that’s what it used to feel like.”

The new building, made possible by more than $2.4 million in private funding, including gifts from lead donors Dan (Class of 1973) and Nad Brody, features study spaces, student lounges, new offices and a dining room that can comfortably seat 180 students.

“We haven’t before had a space where you could comfortably fit 100, 150 students for services, high holidays,” said Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of the new center.

He said the University takes seriously the charge of creating facilities for students “to learn and to work.”

“Up until this point, Jewish students haven’t really had that at U.Va.,” Rubin said.

He added Jewish students felt “a sense of pride” in having a new facility to call their own.

“You can see on the faces of students when they walk into that building — they’re blown away,” Rubin said.

In terms of the University’s history, however, vibrant Jewish life is a relatively recent development, explained Phyllis Leffler, a professor in the history department.

“It’s very hard for us to say that there were active quotas or that there was active discrimination,” Leffler said. “But I do think it’s fair to say that the University was never perceived, until the mid-20th century, as a place where Jewish students felt particularly welcomed or comfortable.”

Few Jewish students attended the University during the 19th century, something Leffler chalks up to immigration patterns and the small number of Jews in the South, among other factors.

“In the 19th century, there was probably less of a view that higher education was even possible because so many people had come from immigrant families and entered into businesses,” Leffler said.
The early 20th century, however, saw a rise in the number of Jewish applicants.

“There was a belief, of course, and there always has been, that education was absolutely critical,” Leffler said. “By the early 20th century, there was a whole different group of people that were now looking to education as a way to achieve economic mobility.”

Formally or informally excluded from joining existing fraternities, students organized two chapters of Jewish fraternities in 1915: Zeta Beta Tau and Phi Epsilon Pi.

Leffler said these fraternities “created a sort of comfort zone” for Jewish men at the University amid growing national anti-Semitism.

“There was an upsurge of [anti-Semitism] in the immediate aftermath of World War I,” Leffler said. “Jews came with odd traditions, or so it appeared, and they became more of a scapegoat.”

In years following, she said, “there was a watchful eye over the number of applicants believed to be Jewish.”

Leffler said Ivey Lewis, appointed dean of the University in 1934, organized applicants into three categories: Virginians, non-Virginians and Hebrews.

Diverse applicants posed a threat to the sense the University had of itself as “a place for aristocratic Virginia gentlemen,” Leffler said.

But as Jewish faculty came in larger numbers in the 1960s, the tone of the University began to change.

“For every group of people, having role models that students can somehow see themselves in … is terribly important in terms of creating diversity at an institution,” Leffler said.

Jewish faculty members at the University also have made possible what Ochs described as “one of the finest Jewish studies programs in the country.”

“At many universities, Hillel might be the only place where a student can learn informally about Judaism,” Ochs said. But here, she said, students can explore their Jewish identities through “intensive academic study, which is often much more satisfying than the kind of Jewish study they might have done when they were children and forced to go to Hebrew school.”

Ochs said about 500 students a semester enroll in Jewish studies courses, working under 25 professors from various departments….READ MORE

Menachem Mor: Visiting professor to help in creation of Jewish studies program

Source: The Pendulum, Elon University, 4-26-11
Menachem Mor

Menachem Mor from the University of Haifa visited Elon University last week and plans to assist in the development of a Jewish studies program on campus. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

A professor of Jewish history from University of Haifa in Israel joined Elon University last week, with plans to assist the university as it develops a proposed Jewish studies program.

Menachem Mor spent the week with his friend Yoram Lubling, professor of philosophy at Elon. They wanted to spend the Passover holiday together, said Mor, who joined Elon Hillel for Passover Seder, a dinner that commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

“I was very impressed by the fact that it’s supported by the president,” Mor said of Elon’s Passover Seder. “It was a very impressive evening. It was a short version, but still, that’s enough.”

Lubling and Mor met 20 years ago at Creighton University in Nebraska, where Mor was the Klutznick Chair for Jewish Civilization and Lubling taught philosophy.

This year, Mor is a visiting professor of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia.

He will help in the creation and brainstorming of ideas for Elon’s program, which is still currently being developed. He served as the dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Haifa for many years and has experience in Jewish studies.

During the next few years, Mor said he will be involved in conferences and sharing ideas for Elon’s program.

“I think it’s a great education process that will be very helpful for all of the students that are here,” he said. “First of all, Elon has a nice group of Jewish students. It will be a good occasion for them to study more about their Jewishness. For non-Jewish students it will be a nice opportunity to get acquainted, learn about Judaism and take away some of the stereotypes.”…READ MORE

Cinnamon Stillwell, Judith Greblya: USA: Anti-Israel Jewish Studies

Cinnamon Stillwell, Judith Greblya: USA: Anti-Israel Jewish Studies

Source: Arutz Sheva, 4-26-11

The field of Middle East studies is notorious for producing apologias for radical Islam, particularly where anti-Israel and, at times, anti-Semitic sentiment is concerned.

These same tendencies are also increasingly common in an unexpected sector of university life: Jewish studies. An open letter dated March 3, 2011, and signed by 30 University of California Jewish studies faculty members, is a case in point.

The letter to the Orange County District Attorney concerns the orchestrated disruption of a lecture by Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, at the University of California, Irvine on February 8, 2010.  The D.A.recently charged the 11 offending students—all members of the radical Muslim Student Union, a branch of the Muslim Student Association—with one count each of misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting.

Posted at the “Stand with the Eleven” website, along with a similar statement by 100 UC Irvine faculty members, the letter states:

As faculty affiliated with Jewish Studies at the University of California, we are deeply distressed by the decision of the District Attorney in Orange County, California, to file criminal charges against Muslim students who disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on the UC Irvine campus last year. While we disagree with the students’ decision to disrupt the speech, we do not believe such peaceful protest should give rise to criminal liability. The individual students and the Muslim Student Union were disciplined for this conduct by the University, including suspending the MSU from functioning as a student organization for a quarter. This is sufficient punishment. There is no need for further punitive measures, let alone criminal prosecution and criminal sanctions.

While it might seem counter-intuitive for Jewish studies academics to support such an endeavor, a closer look demonstrates that many of the signatories are harsh critics of Israel. For example:

·       –Mark LeVine, a Middle East studies professor who is affiliated with Jewish studies at UC Irvine, is an apologist for Hamas and blames Israel solely for the ongoing violence. In a June 2005Al-Jazeera op-ed, LeVine described the Turkish terrorist supporters who were killed on the Gaza Flotilla ships as “martyrs,” “heroes,” and “warriors every bit as deserving of our tears and support as the soldiers of American wars past and present.” In a 2010 History News Network op-ed, LeVine described the MSU’s disruption of Oren’s speech as a “teachable moment.”

·       –Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the departments of Near Eastern studies and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, signed a statement from University of California faculty members urging the UC Berkeley student senate to vote “yes” on an Israel divestment bill. In a June 2006 article at the Arabic News website titled, “U.S. Professor on How Zionism and Apartheid Are Alike,” Boyarin labeled Israel an apartheid state wherein the “destruction of human rights and democracy is at least as severe as that of the South Africans.”

·        –David Theo Goldberg, a professor of comparative literature who is affiliated with Jewish studies at UC Irvine, signed a 2009 open letter to President Obama describing Israel as “an apartheid regime” that is committing “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.” In a 2009 article, Goldberg compared Gaza to a “concentration camp” and “the Warsaw Ghetto at the time of its encirclement” and argued that the Jewish state should be replaced with a bi-national state. In 2002, he signed a petition calling on the University of California to divest from Israel.

·        –Emily Gottreich, vice chair for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)atUC Berkeley and a specialist in Moroccan Jewish history and Muslim-Jewish relations, labeled a Berkeley Jewish Journal article questioning Saudi funding for CMES, “the most extreme form of right-wing Zionism.”

·        –David N. Myers, professor and chair of history and former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, employed all the usual clichés—“cycle of violence,” “disproportionately harsh”—to single Israel out as “the most responsible party” for the “escalating violence” in a July 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed. In a piece titled, “Rethinking the Jewish Nation” in the Winter 2011 edition of the Havruta Journal, Myers argued that “Statist Zionism,” or a Jewish state, should give way to a “global Jewish collective.”

·        –David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis—and co-author of the “Irvine 11” letter, according to an email sent to Jewish studies faculty by Diane Wolf, chair of Jewish studies at UC Davis—writing in the October 2008 edition of the online journal Perush, referred to “the very real power that Jews and their allies . . .  exercise, especially in the Congress, around Israel” and claimed that the so-called Israel lobby “has the power to silence its critics.” In the same piece, Biale criticized Ruth Wisse’s 2007 book, Jews and Power, for being “an unabashed neo-conservative brief for Zionism and the State of Israel.”

Although Jewish studies academics should not be expected to provide unquestioning support for Israel, the extremism exhibited by these signatories—culminating in the demonization and delegitimizing of the Jewish state—is startling.

What’s worse, they turn a blind eye to campus anti-Semitism. None of the UC Irvine signatories who expressed support for the Muslim students disrupting Oren’s talk thought to do the same for Jewish students suffering from harassment and violence on their own campus. Their names are conspicuously absent from a May 10, 2010, open letter expressing concern—on behalf of UC Irvine faculty—over “activities on campus that foment hatred against Jews and Israelis.”

Moreover, none of the signatories signed a similar letter in June, 2010, to Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, highlighting the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the UC system. Penned by pro-Israel organizations and supported by an online petition signed by over 700 students, the letter states:

Bigotry against Jewish students has occurred over many years and on many University of California campuses. Over the last several years, Jewish students have been subjected to: swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti; acts of physical and verbal aggression; speakers, films and exhibits that use anti-Semitic imagery and discourse; speakers that praise and encourage support for terrorist organizations that openly advocate murder against Israel and the Jewish people; the organized disruption of events sponsored by Jewish student groups; and most recently, the promotion of student senate resolutions for divestment that seek to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish State.

Two ongoing investigations into anti-Semitism on UC campuses provide further evidence of this disturbing trend. Jewish student Jessica Felber is suingUC Berkeley for failing to provide a safe atmosphereafter being assaulted by Husam Zakaria, a Berkeley student leader of Students for Justice in Palestine. The assault took place during a campus rally in which Felber, paradoxically, was carrying a sign that read, “Israel Wants Peace.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is investigatinga June 2009 complaint filed by Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin detailing the poisonous atmosphere at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The complaint alleges “a long-standing and pervasive pattern of discrimination against Jewish students . . . emanating from faculty and administrators at UCSC.”

Summing up the problem, Kenneth Marcus—former OCR chief and now head of the Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research—in his March 28, 2011, article, “Fighting Back Against Campus Anti-Semitism,” writes that such examples have become sadly emblematic of a wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents that have rippled across the country, nowhere more so than in the ‘Golden State,’ which has become an epicenter for the New Anti-Semitism in America.

Yet the Jewish studies signatories to the “Irvine 11” letter are more concerned about Muslim students facing the consequences of their actions—something they decry as“detrimental to the values exemplified by the academic and intellectual environment on our university campuses”—than about the rising tide of anti-Semitic hatred and violence in their own backyard.

Unbelievably, one of the signatoriesactually opposes efforts to combat the crisis. When the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reinstated protection for Jewish students from ethnic- or race-based harassment in October 2010, UC Davis professor David Biale criticized the decision, calling it “a very bizarre tactic” because, as he put it, “the Jews are a group with power.”

This obstructionism may stem from the fact that the majority of the anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment on California campuses and beyond originate with Muslim student groups. Indeed, UC Irvine’s MSU is widely recognized as one of the worst offenders in this regard, to the point where even the Anti-Defamation League, which has been reticent to recognize Islamic anti-Semitism, has seen fit to single them out.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Jewish studies academics remain oblivious or unconcerned and, as a consequence, complicit. Oren—himself an accomplished scholar of the Middle East—is deemed less important than what is, in effect, a gang of thugs.

Perhaps such behaviorshould be expected from those who sign petitions to divest from Israel, call Israel an apartheid state, compare Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, devote conferences and research to undermining Zionism, and falsely accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing.

Samuel G. Freedman: A Passover Toast to a Rabbi Known for Social Activism, and for Kosher Coca-Cola

Source: NYT, 4-22-11

Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, of blessed memory, was born in Lithuania in 1870 and educated in the renowned Slobodka yeshiva. In the wake of a pogrom, he immigrated to New York in 1903, and seven years later he moved to Atlanta to become the rabbi of Shearith Israel, a tiny and struggling Orthodox congregation meeting in the battered remnant of a Methodist church.

Rabbi Tuvia Geffen

During his early decades at Shearith Israel, Rabbi Geffen established Atlanta’s first Hebrew school and oversaw its ritual bath. He stood by Leo Frank, the Jewish man falsely accused of murdering a young Christian girl, and after Frank’s lynching in 1915, the rabbi urged his congregants not to flee the South in fear.

At Passover in 1925, he spoke eloquently and presciently against Congress for passing immigration restrictions that “have slammed shut the gates of the country before the wanderers, the strangers, and those who walk in darkness from place to place.” As early as 1933, he warned about the Nazi regime in Germany. Long before feminism, he advocated for Orthodox women who were being denied religious divorce decrees by vindictive husbands.

But all those achievements are not why we invoke the name and memory of Rabbi Geffen today, more than 40 years after his death. No, we come to honor his least likely yet most enduring contribution to the Jewish people and his adopted nation: kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola.

Yes, observant Jews of today, searching supermarket counters for those bottles with the telltale yellow cap bearing the Orthodox Union’s certification, and yes, Coke die-hards of any or no religion who seek out those same bottles for the throwback flavor of cane-sugar Coke, you owe it all to Rabbi Tuvia Geffen…READ MORE

Robert Abzug: The growth of Jewish studies in academia has brought new meaning to Passover for many

Ceremonial knowledge: The growth of Jewish studies in academia has brought new meaning to Passover for many

Source: Houston Chronicle, 4-18-11


The holiday marking the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt begins at sundown today.

The Seder: A tradition-filled feast, observed on the first two nights of the holiday.

The Haggadah: The script for recounting the story of the Exodus.

Four questions: Asked by the youngest person at the Seder, to prompt the telling.

The foods: A special plate is prepared with six items, arranged in a special order: a shank bone, a hard-boiled egg, bitter herbs, a paste of apples, nuts and wine, a non-bitter root vegetable and lettuce.

Passover, which begins at sundown today, is the perfect opportunity.

Passover is among the Jewish holidays that most often introduces outsiders to the faith, particularly because of the Seder — a ceremonial feast held on the first two nights to commemorate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

“It is one of those holidays where you can be a religious Jew or a secular Jew or a non-Jew, and the ceremonies are imbued with all sorts of Jewish meanings and more universal meanings,” said Robert Abzug, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at UT, which is expanding through private funding even as state budget cuts force other university programs to retrench. “It’s not conversion, it’s just participation in what is a historically and morally weighty ritual, but also a good time.”

Jewish studies as an academic discipline is relatively new, springing up in the decades since World War II and especially over the past 30 years. Like other ethnic or gender studies programs, it is interdisciplinary, drawing students from a range of backgrounds to study everything from language, history and literature to the Talmud.

“Some students come because they have friends or family who are Jewish,” said Laura Levitt, a religion professor at Temple University and former director of the Jewish studies program there. “Others come because they are devout Christians or Muslims, who want to learn more and see connections between the Abrahamic faiths.”

But Jewish studies isn’t just about religion, she said.

Abzug said the Schusterman Center at UT is “a big-tent Jewish studies program. We’re interested in Jewish religion, in the state of Israel, in Jewish literature and art. … We take the definition of what it means to be Jewish and contribute to the world in a Jewish way quite broadly.”….READ MORE

Diane Cole: Is Passover the New Christmas?

Americans of all religions now embrace the holiday celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

Source: WSJ, 4-15-11

Of all Jewish holiday traditions, the most popular remains the Passover seder—the festive ritual meal, celebrated next week, at which family and friends gather to recount the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and deliverance from bondage to freedom. It’s so popular, in fact, that these days more and more of those seated at seder tables are non-Jews. Not only that: An increasing number of churches now offer their own versions of the Passover seder.

The Passover seder’s embrace by Christians seems an unlikely phenomenon. The Passover haggadah—the book that guides the seder service as prescribed by Jewish tradition—is designed to fulfill the Torah’s commandment that Jews remember and retell the journey from slavery to freedom every year. The haggadah’s reminder is explicit: “If the most holy, blessed be He, had not brought forth our ancestors from Egypt, we, and our children, and children’s children, had still continued in bondage to the Pharaohs in Egypt.” Jews are taught to celebrate each Passover as if they themselves were embarking on that journey from Egypt.

What makes Christians’ embrace of Passover all the more unusual is that for centuries—even into the 20th—the holiday’s proximity to Good Friday and Easter routinely sparked violent anti-Jewish riots and pogroms, especially in Europe.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, churches world-wide began to reconsider their relationship to Judaism. In the U.S., another major factor was the cooperation of blacks and Jews in the struggle for civil rights. The Passover seder’s core theme of liberation began to inspire interfaith “Freedom seders.” Those, in turn, opened the door to other liberation-themed seders and haggadahs, thus further broadening the appeal of the holiday.

The changing demographics of American Jewry have played a role, too. Before 1970, only 13% of married American Jews were married to non-Jews. By the turn of the 21st century, that figure was 47%, according to the National Jewish Population Survey. As a result, interfaith couples and families have had a growing presence at Passover seder tables, both as guests and as hosts.

Getty Images

People of various faiths and nationalities attend an interfaith Passover celebration in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

For some of these families, the seder—which has a recognizable theme and generally takes place at someone’s home, rather than at a synagogue—provides a comfortable introduction to Jewish ritual. That’s one message of the recently published book by journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts, “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families.” Themselves an intermarried couple (he’s Jewish, she’s Catholic), the Robertses have for decades hosted a Passover seder, mostly for other interfaith families.

While such Passover seders are often multicultural, the observance remains grounded in Jewish religious ritual, tradition and meaning. That has been the case with the seders held by President Obama in the White House. But that is not necessarily the case with seders aimed at Christian audiences….READ MORE