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

PASSOVER

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

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