The case for en­rolling in Jewish stud­ies

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - ANNA SHTERNSHIS SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

Iwas born and raised in a coun­try where the com­bi­na­tion of words “Jewish” and “stud­ies” of­ten pro­voked con­fu­sion, laugh­ter or both. Most peo­ple did not con­sider study­ing the lives, culture and his­tory of the Jewish Peo­ple wor­thy of aca­demic in­ves­ti­ga­tion. For years, I did not tell my for­mer neigh­bours and ca­sual ac­quain­tances in Rus­sia what I do, as try­ing to ex­plain to them the pro­fes­sion of teach­ing Yid­dish or Jewish his­tory was awk­ward at best.

Now I work as the di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto’s Cen­tre for Jewish Stud­ies. Here, no one I know laughs when I say “Jewish stud­ies.” Our cen­tre has a beau­ti­ful of­fice. The en­trance proudly wel­comes vis­i­tors with the large sign, fea­tur­ing the word “Jewish” on it. I go through these doors daily and ev­ery day, I can­not help but get a lit­tle tickle from this sign. On some level, it still sur­prises me how many stu­dents of all back­grounds are in­ter­ested in Jewish stud­ies: Jewish ethics, law, tra­di­tion, his­tory, culture, lan­guages – all of which are dis­ci­plines that we teach and re­search.

Jewish stud­ies has been taught at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, in one form or an­other, since the 19th cen­tury, and it has truly flour­ished over the past 20 years, with the gen­er­ous sup­port of the Toronto Jewish com­mu­nity. Very few uni­ver­si­ties in the world host six en­dowed pro­fes­so­rial po­si­tions in Jewish stud­ies like we do, and have such gen­er­ous en­dow­ments sup­port­ing our grad­u­ate and un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents. We rou­tinely bring vis­it­ing schol­ars from Is­rael and host over 30 public events per year.

Our stu­dents are as di­verse as the city it­self – it is not un­usual to fill the class­room with learn­ers born in China, Pak­istan, Mex­ico, Europe, South America and Africa. We try not to sched­ule im­por­tant tests on the Chi­nese New Year, or talk about food too much dur­ing Ra­madan. My col­leagues and I of­ten dis­cuss chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties that come with such di­verse stu­dent bod­ies. In many ways, teach­ing non-jews forces us to re­think our dis­ci­plines and ap­proaches, which makes our work (al­ready the best job in the world) even more ex­cit­ing.

At the same time, I can­not help but no­tice that ev­ery year, we get fewer and fewer Jewish stu­dents in our class­rooms. We used to be fre­quented by grad­u­ates of Jewish day schools, nu­mer­ous Jewish Sun­day schools, as well as young men and women that iden­tify them­selves as Cana­dian Jews. But now, these groups con­sti­tute less than 20 per cent of our stu­dent body. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a Rus­sian speaker re­veals him­self or her­self as com­ing from a Jewish fam­ily, or, some­times, an Is­raeli back­ground sur­faces. But this, too, hap­pens less and less fre­quently.

Why is that? Some of it can be ex­plained by a dra­matic de­crease in en­rol­ment in the hu­man­i­ties and social sci­ences world­wide. Stu­dents ev­ery­where now tend to choose business or tech­ni­cal ma­jors for their un­der­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion. Sec­ond, Jewish day school grad­u­ates of­ten think that they had “enough” Jewish stud­ies in high school and want to do other things at uni­ver­sity. And of course, there is a big, third rea­son: Jewish stu­dents are now much less likely to study in Toronto, at U of T or York, com­pared to 20 years ago, in part be­cause of a per­ceived fear of anti-semitism and anti-is­rael sentiments.

Our cam­puses have a ter­ri­ble rep­u­ta­tion among some Jewish par­ents – they imag­ine them as cesspools of boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) sup­port­ers, rad­i­cal ac­tivism and pop­u­lar anti-semitism. Sto­ries of pro­fes­sors crit­i­ciz­ing Is­rael, or giv­ing poor grades to stu­dents who de­fend Is­rael in their pa­pers, float in dis­cus­sions at school park­ing lots and higher ed­u­ca­tion fairs. I can­not blame par­ents for their con­cerns. In­ci­dents of anti-semitic be­hav­iour, no mat­ter how rare, are ex­tremely dis­turb­ing. But they have to know that U of T is ul­ti­mately safe and ben­e­fi­cial for Jewish stu­dents.

The dan­ger of this neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of U of T, or the anx­i­ety about it, is that it

Our stu­dents are safe, they are chal­lenged and they be­come global lead­ers.

can pos­si­bly di­vert smart, tal­ented Jewish stu­dents away from the best uni­ver­sity in Canada. It is a loss for us Jewish stud­ies pro­fes­sors and it is a loss for the Jewish com­mu­nity. There is ab­so­lutely no rea­son to stay away from U of T, York, Mcgill and other uni­ver­si­ties in Canada that of­fer world-class train­ing in Jewish stud­ies. Our stu­dents are safe, they are chal­lenged and they be­come global lead­ers.

Yes, some class­rooms en­gage stu­dents in con­tro­ver­sial de­bates. Some of these de­bates in­volve Is­rael. Most Jewish stud­ies classes, how­ever, do not deal with Is­rael at all. I my­self teach Yid­dish and Rus­sian Jewish culture and rarely ad­dress any con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal sub­jects. Con­trary to pop­u­lar per­cep­tions, pro­fes­sors are not al­lowed to bring pol­i­tics into their class­rooms – ev­ery­thing that we teach has to in­volve close read­ing and anal­y­sis. Tak­ing cour­ses on sub­jects such as the Is­raeli-pales­tinian con­flict, mod­ern Jewish his­tory or lit­er­a­ture can teach stu­dents di­ver­gent points of view, which might chal­lenge or strengthen their own. It would teach them how to de­bate with those who might dis­agree with them, rather than al­ways talk­ing to peo­ple who are on the same page. En­gag­ing in ed­u­cated dis­course makes us stronger as Jews and sup­port­ers of Is­rael.

Mod­ern ed­u­ca­tors and phi­lan­thropists worked hard for the in­clu­sion of Jewish stud­ies into uni­ver­sity cur­ric­ula in Canada over the past 150 years. They saw Jews and non-jews learn­ing to­gether about the Jewish civ­i­liza­tion, as a key fac­tor in pro­mot­ing cross-cul­tural di­a­logue and un­der­stand­ing. Jews should be ben­e­fit­ing from the field of Jewish stud­ies, not avoid­ing it. I can­not help but go back to think­ing about my own youth. When I went to uni­ver­sity in Rus­sia, I did not hear the word “Jew,” not a sin­gle time – not while study­ing the Middle East, not while study­ing Rus­sian his­tory, not even in cour­ses about World War II. One day, a group of my class­mates came to a class on mod­ern Euro­pean his­tory dressed in brown Nazi uni­forms. They said they wanted to do this to stress that fas­cism was “bet­ter” than com­mu­nism.

My friend and I con­fronted them and said that this ide­ol­ogy killed mil­lions of Jews. Their re­sponse was, “why care about a small mi­nor­ity,” when the greater good is in question? I lacked the ed­u­ca­tion back then to re­spond to them prop­erly.

In some ways, en­gag­ing in Jewish stud­ies as a ca­reer was my way of en­sur­ing that no Jewish stu­dent lacks ar­gu­ments against big­otry again. I do not want the Cana­dian Jewish youth to miss out on op­por­tu­ni­ties to study their his­tory, culture and phi­los­o­phy in a uni­ver­sity set­ting. Be­sides, one never knows how Jewish stud­ies will be­come use­ful later in life. Just ask our re­cent alumnus from China, who landed a pres­ti­gious bio­med­i­cal in­tern­ship af­ter her in­ter­viewer was shocked to learn she spoke Yid­dish.

Anna Shternshis is the di­rec­tor of the Anne Ta­nen­baum Cen­tre for Jewish Stud­ies and an Al and Malka Green as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in Yid­dish stud­ies at Uni­ver­sity of Toronto.

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