The flourishing of Jewish Studies in American universities has been one of the crucial stories in Jewish culture since World War II. Ruth Wisse, a professor of modern Yiddish literature at Harvard University, recalls that when she was an undergraduate in the 1950s, only three professors in the United States held full-time appointments in Jewish Studies. Today the Association for Jewish Studies, the professional organization for scholars in this field, boasts a membership of about 1500 academics. In a major recent population survey, 41% of American Jewish college graduates reported that they had enrolled in at least one Jewish Studies course during their higher education, meaning that Jewish Studies reaches substantially more young Jews than day schools or yeshivas.
Along with this incredible growth of Jewish Studies have come changes and challenges, including the development of a dizzying range of research fields, methods, and specialties. In a typical Jewish Studies department, a medievalist who spends her days poring through Judeo-Arabic fragments from the Cairo genizah might sit on a curriculum committee with a sociologist who interviews Israeli army veterans and a philosopher who teaches courses on the Christian elements of Talmudic logic. What do Jewish Studies scholars hope to achieve, exactly, when they research and teach in American universities? In this series of short interviews, dynamic scholars explain their fields and explore what their academic endeavors and research agendas offer to Jews outside of the ivory tower.
SarahÂ Abrevaya Stein is Professor of History and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. Her first book,
Making Jews Modern
(2004), compares the developments and characteristics of the Yiddish and Ladino presses in the Russian and Ottoman empires. Her second,
(2008), describes the boom and bust of the ostrich feather market between 1905 and 1914, when Jewish farmers and merchants in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas earned and lost fortunes catering to a contemporary fashion craze. Analyzing sources in a wide range of modern languagesâ€”from Russian and Yiddish to Ladino and Turkishâ€”Stein’s prize-winning scholarship reveals the astonishingly international scope of modern Jewish experience.