For Jewish studies center’s new director, music is a bridge

Ben Brinner has been appointed the new faculty director for UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies, a center that brings together faculty, students and visiting scholars for research and debate across Jewish studies’ wide academic landscape.

Ben Brinner 300Brinner, an ethnomusicologist and longtime professor in the music department, brings a deep interest in Israeli ethnic music and how musicians relate to one another during performance.

“I’m really interested in how people interact in making music — how they influence each other, sometimes have to help each other out, sometimes compete with each other,” he says.

Brinner grew up in Berkeley, but has strong ties to Israel, having studied for decades the role musical collaboration can play in times of conflict. “Musicians aren’t going to single-handedly change the political landscape,” says Brinner. “But performing together is to create a common cultural ground.”

Na'am@HaifaFestival in Israel

Members of the Israeli band Na’am, which includes Jews and Arabs, performing at the winter “Festival of Festivals” in Wadi Nisnas, the heart of the Arab area in Haifa in December 2013. (Photo by Ben Brinner)

Brinner first studied in Israel as a high school exchange student in the 1960s and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in musicology at Hebrew University, where he worked as a research assistant at the Jewish Music Research Center.

His interest in Jewish music and the power of collaboration continued to grow. Eager to further his scholarship, Brinner headed back to his hometown to receive a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from UC Berkeley in 1985, and began teaching courses on topics from Indonesian music to music of the Middle East to Jewish music, first in Israel and then in the United States.

Since 1990, Brinner has returned frequently to Israel to conduct research on Israeli ethnic music, which he describes as “local Jews, Christians and Muslims mixing elements of many musical practices from the eastern Mediterranean and beyond to create new means of musical expression.” This research led to the publication of his 2009 book Playing Across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters.

Dalal Peace Concert in Oakland

Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian musicians perform at a Middle East peace concert at Temple Sinai in Oakland in October 2012. (Photo by Ben Brinner)

Now, as director of the Center for Jewish Studies, Brinner hopes to add his expertise in Israeli and Jewish music to “a very rich field of Jewish studies we have at Berkeley.”

The center is new — it opened in October 2013 — and Brinner is working to build its presence on campus, hoping to expand its faculty and courses, to make it a staple in the campus’s curriculum. Currently, the campus coordinates both a “designated emphasis” that allows Ph.D. students to specialize in Jewish studies while earning a degree from a range of disciplines, and a Jewish studies undergraduate minor.

One of its key partners — the Berkeley Institute of Jewish Law and Israel Studies — aims to incorporate Jewish and Israel studies courses in a range of fields, including political science, economics, law and journalism.

Faculty director, Ben Brinner, Professor Kenneth Bamberger, graduate student Daniel Viragh (seated), Professor Jill Stoner and Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman discuss details of UC Berkeley’s new Center for Jewish Studies. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski)

Ben Brinner, faculty director (left); Professor Kenneth Bamberger (center​); Daniel Viragh (seated), of the Magnes Collection; Professor Jill Stoner; and UC Berkeley Hillel Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman (UC Berkeley photo by Peg Skorpinski)

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art, another partner, was established in 2010 in the Bancroft Library. The collection is a diverse archive of art, objects, texts, music and historical documents about Jews in the global diaspora and the American West.

Brinner emphasizes that classes through the Center for Jewish Studies are open to everyone. “It’s not a matter of identity or ethnicity,” he says, “but of intellectual study and research.”

The Jewish studies program at UC Berkeley has long been regarded as one of the world’s leading graduate programs in the field, and its Ph.D. students regularly have become faculty members at major universities in the United States and Israel. It also is known for its expertise in the study and teaching of both religious and secular texts, including ancient, Late Antiquity, modern, Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish materials.

Learn more about the Center for Jewish Studies on Berkeley News or on the center’s website.