Q&A: Robert Alter on Jewish studies’ new campus home

UC Berkeley recently announced the creation of a new Center for Jewish Studies, which will serve to deepen, expand and coordinate campus scholarship related to Jewish culture and history. Professor Robert Alter, an internationally renowned scholar and translator of Hebrew literature and the Bible, will serve as the center’s founding director. Alter sat down recently with the NewsCenter to talk about Jewish studies at Berkeley – its character up to now and its future under the umbrella of the new center.

Q.  What’s the impetus for the Center for Jewish Studies’ creation?
Robert Alter

Center for Jewish Studies founding director Robert Alter (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photos)

Jewish studies here at Berkeley, at least on the graduate level, has been a world-class operation. We have an international reputation and we’ve placed our doctoral students at major universities, even at times when hiring has been difficult in other fields.

But we’ve not had a lot of coherence as a program, and until now we haven’t had substantial financial support from the campus. Now the university has made a serious commitment to the founding of the center. I view that as a real vote of confidence.

Q.  What does the center make possible that wasn’t possible before?

I’d use two terms: coherence and visibility. In the past we were a good program but a stealth program. People hardly knew we were there. For much of the time we had no office and minimal staffing. Now we have a very nice space in 4401 Dwinelle with hopes for a larger permanent space in central campus, a 40 percent staff person (to handle the undergrad minor and graduate students) and a full-time center administrator.

The undergrad minor has been a low-burner operation for about five years. We want to invigorate it — recruit more students, add faculty, and possibly create an undergraduate major. On the graduate level we’ve applied for a designated emphasis in Jewish studies. So graduate students doing Jewish studies work — in fields like comparative literature, history, Near Eastern studies — could take three required courses and get certification of competence in the field.

Oct. 30 inaugural events

Members of the campus community are invited to attend inaugural events hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies on Wednesday, Oct. 30 in Northgate Hall.

A reception will be held in the Northgate library from 5 to 6 p.m. Founding director Robert Alter will give a lecture from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in 105 Northgate. His topic: “The Untranslatable Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.”

For information, including a calendar of upcoming events, see the Center for Jewish Studies website.

Q.  “Jewish studies” might signify the study of a religion, culture, nationality or the state of Israel. What’s within the center’s purview?

All of the above.

Q.  What have been UC Berkeley’s major contributions to the field up to now?

With the exception of history, our strength has been in the study of texts — mostly Hebrew, also Aramaic and Yiddish — especially in ways that are innovative and interdisciplinary. We’re still interested in texts, but we’re trying to expand from our base. So the center’s founding faculty includes two people interested in the sociology of religion, someone in legal studies and a musicologist who studies Israeli music. I think it’s a healthy development that we keep, but expand upon, the text-based scholarship for which we’ve become famous.

Q.  For some the Berkeley campus is not seen as a welcoming place for Jewish studies or students. What’s your take on that?

This is a tricky question. Some Jewish students have felt uncomfortable or even in some way threatened. There have been some anti-Semitic incidents over the last few years – swastikas painted on Hillel House, for example, and some fairly virulent anti-Israel political activity. I’m not objecting to anybody’s prerogative to criticize policies of the state of Israel; I myself am critical of a lot of those policies. But a movement to eliminate the state of Israel does make many Jewish students feel uncomfortable.

Jewish history class

Professor John Efron teaches an undergraduate course in modern Jewish history.

The campus political climate has not had a visible impact on our teaching of Jewish studies, however. If history professor John Efron offers a course on the history of the Holocaust, the existence of some hostility on campus toward Israel (and maybe toward Jews, too) doesn’t affect his teaching or his course registration. And that’s true for all of us.

Q.  How do you think the existence of the center will affect campus climate?

Having Jewish studies offerings will not necessarily have much effect on the campus’s political environment, though the fact that there’s a Jewish Studies 101 survey course, where students can get an academically informed sense of Jewish history and culture, may be psychologically reassuring.

It will be important socially and psychologically for there to be a space where students can come to, knowing “This is where Jewish studies is happening.” I think that will do a lot for student morale.

People in the community have a perception that the Berkeley campus is in the clutches of radical anti-Israel and anti-Semitic elements. That’s not true at all; it’s a small, if vehement, element.

Q.  What scholarly resources does the campus have to support Jewish studies?

In addition to the Robbins Religious and Civil Law Collection and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society, both at the law school, we have one of the major Judaic collections in the country; it’s very strong in Hebrew literature. We have a dedicated Hebrew-Judaica librarian at Doe who, with dwindling resources, keeps up the collection and is extremely helpful to students and faculty. We also have the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. It’s quite unusual for a major U.S. university to have a large archive and museum of this nature at its disposal, to facilitate research and teaching.

Q.  How is the center being funded?

George Breslauer, the executive vice chancellor and provost, has provided generous startup funds to cover the operation of the center for the next three years. Going forward, we hope to enlist substantial financial support from the donor community, and ideally, as I’ve said, to secure a larger central-campus space.

Q.  Are there initiatives you’d like to start or areas of study you hope center scholars will address?

At the moment we have no medievalist, focusing either on history or literature, nor a scholar who specializes in Jewish thought. There’s also a growing interest in Yiddish among our students, but no faculty member solely concentrating on teaching the Yiddish language. If we were to add two or three faculty positions over the next few years, it would help us broaden the program in important ways.

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