The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Students, faculty push for Jewish studies at Grinnell

Recently, many students and faculty have pointed out the lack of a Jewish studies curriculum at the College, and some have been taking steps to introduce more opportunities to study Judaism and the Jewish people at Grinnell.

Vance Byrd, German, said, “It was really this academic year after Pittsburgh, where students and some faculty and staff started asking more active questions about what is the place of Jewish studies within the academic program of Grinnell, what is the history, like why don’t we have it, and what are the possibilities of introducing programming. … I think there is more of an awareness of the absence that was maybe exacerbated by the absence of a rabbi on campus.”

Since 1990, there has never been a year at Grinnell without a rabbi on campus. Harold Kasimow, who was a religious studies professor at Grinnell from 1972 to 2001, remembers a time when, in the absence of a rabbi, he became, in his words, “the unofficial advisor to the Jewish students for about 10 years.”

Kasimow specialized in teaching Judaism, along with major Asian religions and Islam. He taught many courses that have no surviving equivalent in the College’s catalog, such as Modern Jewish Thought, The Golden Tradition: Jews of Eastern Europe, and a seminar entitled Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Jewish Saint of the Twentieth Century.

“Because I was qualified to teach Judaism, Islam and also Asian religions to some degree, they said they needed two people to replace me, and that gets really political, but they decided to replace me with an Asian studies person,” Kasimow said. He now has professor emeritus status.

However, he has always assumed that there would eventually be a new professor to take his place.

He said, “There was a tradition here where these Jewish courses were being offered. I don’t know of any college of Grinnell’s standing … every other college has someone who is teaching Judaica. Macalester, they had two rabbis who were teaching.”

Professors and students feel the absence of Jewish studies in other departments as well, including German.

Byrd said that when he went to graduate school for German in Germany, “German Jewish studies was somehow part of the departmental fabric. In my department we had Yiddish studies, we had poets, we had people doing Hebrew, we had people doing Jewish writers, we had several graduate students writing dissertations on Jewish studies topics, and before I came to Grinnell I just thought that this is how things were, and when I came to Grinnell I was struck by the absence of academic Jewish studies coursework.”

Dan Reynolds, German, said that, although the German department already teaches many Jewish authors in classes, “the question is, where do you find that in the catalog? … It’s kind of dispersed in the curriculum and I think the challenge for us right now is to make visible those components of it that we already have but also to advocate for something a little more robust.”

Currently, due to leave schedules, the German department is able to search for a two-year visiting professor who could teach upper-level classes, some in English, which would focus on the study of German Jews.

Another route for introducing a more robust Jewish studies curriculum to Grinnell is through an endowed professorship, which would be sponsored by a donor. Although professors in these departments have made it clear to Development and Alumni Relations that this is an area they would love to see an endowed professorship in, it could take years, or never happen.

Reynolds said, “I think there are several places on campus that have expressed interest in getting a chair endowed in the area of Jewish studies, and that could be located in a number of places. It could be in the German department, it could be in the religious studies department, it could be in anthropology. Those are probably the places where we are most frequently talking about it. I think the field of Jewish studies is interdisciplinary in nature. … I hope that we continue to develop extracurricular programming to address the absence of curricular programming.”

Reynold’s academic specialty is Holocaust remembrance, although as he points out, “I wouldn’t want to reduce Jewish studies to the study of the Holocaust. The two have major overlap, but they are not identical.” He helped bring the exhibition “Architecture of Murder” to Burling, which, centers around the documentation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Other programming which addresses this absence includes speakers brought to Grinnell. Additionally, Byrd and others are working on setting up a roundtable discussion next year on Jewish studies topics with the Rosenfield program.

Professor Katya Gibel Mevorach, anthropology, is teaching a class about antisemitism for the second semester in a row, though she adds that antisemitism does not define the Jewish people and more comprehensive coursework in Jewish studies is necessary at the College.

Mevorach said, “What is outstanding is that for the most part there is no discussion of Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, Jews as a global population in the whole world, so that Jewish history does not begin with the Nazis and Jewish history does not begin in Europe, it actually begins in the Middle East. … One can talk about the Jewish presence throughout the curriculum, and in that context we need to get the discussion started. … All of these are questions that can arise in political science, in history, in philosophy, in religious studies.”

Mevorach is currently advising Dylan Caine ’21, who is designing an independent major in Jewish studies.

Caine said he chose to undertake this independent major after he realized Jewish studies was an important framework for understanding the world. He said, “I don’t think anyone that goes into college thinking they want to do Jewish studies would come to Grinnell, just because there is no curricular representation here and I certainly didn’t know I wanted to do that. It started a lot from Mevorach’s seminar on antisemitism. I just realized, in so many of my other subjects I’ve been reading Jewish authors, reading texts that touch on Jewish life, and I just realized that there’s a whole side of academia and a side of Jewish thinking that I wasn’t exposed to, and that was something that kind of bothered me.”

Jewish students have especially felt the lack of Jewish subjects in their classes. Caine described the experience of a Jewish student who read Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in an English class which did not discuss any of the antisemitism in the play. The student felt uncomfortable as the only Jewish student in the class, and did not feel they had the academic background and language to point out their professor’s oversight. Caine said that it is important to make the Jewish presence felt in academics and to arm students with the academic framework to talk about Jewish topics in class so that this situation does not happen again.

Another way for students to gain this type of experience with Jewish studies could be by establishing a Jewish studies concentration. Amelia Geser ’19, a member of Chalutzim, wrote in a document shared by email with The S&B, “There is NO WAY there will ever be a Jewish studies concentration unless students create traction and work together to build this program from the ground up.”

She wrote, “The goal for the immediate future is to create and generate VISIBILITY — by creating a list of existing courses that highlight Jewish content and discussion, students who are interested in Jewish studies can engage in these topics in the semesters before a fully-formed Jewish studies program comes into existence. We also plan to speak to faculty about engaging with Jewish topics in their classes. Many faculty have peripheral knowledge (such as knowledge of Ladino language, etc) which they can choose to bring into their classes. However, it is up to STUDENTS to start the discussion and encourage faculty to share knowledge that usually remains on the sidelines.” To do so, she wrote, “please reach out to myself, ( Professor Katya or Dan Reynolds if you are interested!”

She also added that, in the meantime, Chalutzim plans on attempting to create “a new Jewish Studies area in the library, a Jewish and Hebrew Film collection, and a one-credit study group for students to talk and brainstorm,” so that students have opportunities to learn about Jewish studies before a concentration is hopefully created.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *