Jewish Studies programs aren’t just for Jews

Ranen Omer-Sherman, who directs the  University of Louisville’s Jewish Studies program, teaching an undergraduate class on Jewish Humor. (Photo by Andrew Adler)

By Andrew Adler
Community Editor

This is a story about narrative. The scene is a university classroom. The subject is Judaism – sometimes reaching back millennia, elsewhere cleaving to the past century of triumph, tragedy and possibility.

File this under the heading of “Jewish Studies,” as practiced and preached before students still in their teens or barely out of them. Some are steeped in Biblical minutia, others resolutely secular, Jews and Gentiles, believers and skeptics. No matter: All are welcome to explore this sweeping landscape of history.

We begin at the University of Louisville, where a Los Angeles-born polymath named Ranen Omer-Sherman will be our guide. Omer-Sherman holds the rather grand title of “JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies, Professor of Comparative Humanities and English.” He also signs his emails “Jewish Space-Laser,” which tells you that in addition to being a Notre Dame-minted Ph.D, he suggests something of a rabble-rouser. The man is a serious scholar, but his passions run wide and, on occasion, whimsically.

At U of L, Omer-Sherman has crafted a program that is purposefully multiheaded. There’s no Jewish Studies Major. Instead U of L offers is a dual-track Humanities Minor in Jewish Studies, allowing students to focus either on Jewish Cultural Studies or Jewish Language and Culture. On the latter track there’s Hebrew, naturally. But “I often like to remind people,” Omer-Sherman points out, “that more literature and scholarship has been written over the centuries in Arabic, or, for example, in Yiddish. So we accept Yiddish if students want to go into a (language) immersion program – and of course Hebrew as well.”

That much said, comparatively few undergraduates pursue a formal Minor. Most choose to sample one or more classes as part of their overall studies. Call it a version of Know Thy Constituency.

Asked if there’s a critical mass of students at U of L interested in Judaism, Omer-Sherman answers with a reality check. “In terms of Jewish thought and Jewish life? I mean, it’s an urban university, but it’s Louisville. You’re not Penn. You’re not Brandeis, you’re not any number of places,” including the University of Miami in Florida, where Omer-Sherman taught for 13 years before coming to Louisville in 2014.

Just as old New York City subway ads declared “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye,” at U of L diversity is an academic selling point. “There are definitely a lot of non-Jewish students who are interested in our classes,” Omer-Sherman says, “or ‘Jewish-adjacent’ students – students who are aware of having a family member or some family history that’s tied up with Jewish identity, and they get to explore that for the first time here.”

Indeed, “we’ve had a lot of revelations in the classroom, sometimes personally, between faculty and individual students,” he’s observed, within an intriguing context of geographically-tinged beliefs.

“We’re in the Bible Belt,” Omer-Sherman acknowledges. “So we offer a couple of different approaches to the Hebrew bible as literature, and a sort of revamping or Midrashic approaches in contemporary retellings of the bible.” He recognizes that “there are certain challenges, because sometimes people will bring in faith expectations,” requiring instructors “to ease them into the idea of the bible as a source of literature. So teaching in this environment can sometimes be challenging, but also really rewarding.”

Professor Ranen Omer-Sherman deconstructs a celebrated Jewish joke as part of his class on Jewish Humor at the University of Louisville.

That environment is trickier still at a place like Western Kentucky University, whose home city of Bowling Green isn’t exactly a bastion of Jewish awareness. There is a dearth of active synagogues, no kosher restaurants, not even a WKU branch of Hillel. What there is, as of last fall, is Alexander Marcus: a Visiting Assistant Professor with a mandate not merely to teach courses in Jewish Studies, but to make Jewishness something more than a campus afterthought.

“My understanding is a lot of reshuffling had taken place while Covid was happening,” Marcus explains, echoing post-Covid concerns of numerous colleagues elsewhere. “So now they’re sort of recreating religious studies within the History department. We’ve got a New Testament person, global Christianity and Islam, and now me to head up the Jewish Studies program.”

A native of the New York City suburb of Scarsdale who earned a Ph.D from Stanford, Marcus came to Western via a grant from the Louisville-based Jewish Heritage Fund. His broad campus academic portfolio has embraced courses in Hebrew scriptures and language, and more recently – as his faculty bio describes – topics “that highlight the importance of food in Jewish history and culture and the prevalence of Jewish culture, life and history in popular culture.”

Like many of Omer-Sherman’s undergraduates at U of L, Marcus’s students typically approach Biblical content from a decidedly non-Jewish perspective. And when certain long-held beliefs are challenged, provocative classroom debate often ensues.

As a prime example, Marcus recalled how “We spent a lot of time on the Sotah ritual (involving women suspected of committing adultery) and the Niddah laws around menstruation.” Another “of my favorite moments – and this was not planned – was when I gave them a couple of chapters in Genesis that detailed stories in Abraham’s life,” Marcus says.

“So they read the stories of where he keeps pretending, repeatedly, that Sarah is his sister – and they had never encountered that. Then there was a verse, when after Sarah had died, Abraham takes another wife. And for whatever reason, several of my students really got up in arms about this. One of my students said, ‘That’s not in the Christian bible.’ I had a good laugh, and we talked about what is the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Jewish bible); what is the Vulgate (the subsequent Latin translation); where does the King James come from in terms of all the different sources — those sorts of things.”

But wait, there’s more! “I love when I’m surprised by what students focus on,” Marcus says. “I’d given them this article by a Jewish scholar, discussing how (The Book of) Esther is a parody, an amalgamation of tropes of Persian romance and Greek romance and comedy, and how it seems to be parodying other parts of the bible. Several students took that argument as an attack on scripture, because maybe it’s not historically true. We had a long conversation about it. And when I figured out how to respond, it was a breakthrough.”

Whether at WKU or elsewhere, Jewish Studies courses don’t restrict themselves to what might be called traditional source material. Perhaps the most striking shared literary dynamic relies not so much on words as it does on pictures.

At U of L, “we have students who are very, let’s say, visual learners and attracted to visual culture,” says Omer-Sherman, whose books include “The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches,” published in 2008. “So now we offer a course on Jewish identity in the graphic novel and comics. There’s a very rich history there.”

It’s also an effective way to reach students who might otherwise remain with their noses pressed against the glass of Jewish culture. The University of Kentucky’s Janice Fernheimer, who directed UK’s Jewish Studies program from 2012 until 2022, is one such true believer.

“Ranen and I share similar perspectives on the power of graphic narratives,” she says. “The medium itself invites you to identify with characters in a very specific way,” as “your imagination fills the roles and the spaces between the panels.”

Fernheimer, for instance, teaches a course titled “Comics and Conflict in Israel-Palestine,” which she describes as “a class about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost exclusively through graphic narratives.”

“It was too much for one student who ended up dropping the course because they found it triggering,” she says. “It was the first time, and I’ve been teaching that graphic novel class for at least 10 years.”

Courses on the Holocaust – which within Jewish Studies programs almost always attract the most students – can be made especially impactful via such imagery. Perhaps the most celebrated work in the graphic-novel genre, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (published in book form in 1991), ushered in an entire reappraisal of how Holocaust themes could be treated within academic settings.

“Scholars have honed in on how and why graphic narrative is particularly resonant and important for traumatic events,” Fernheimer says, “because of the way it plays with space and representation in, for lack of a better term, ‘graphicness,’ what it’s like to draw the bodies of the Holocaust…It provides an (avenue) for people to connect in a way that, when maybe seeing the shock of a of a real photograph, just pushes you over the edge.”

UK, Fernheimer says, was a pioneer in making the Holocaust a fundamental component of undergraduate curriculums. Professor “Jeremy Popkin was one of the first people to start teaching a Holocaust history class” in 1979, she says, “which was a good five to ten years before Holocaust literature courses were on the books across the country.”

Not surprisingly, the subject also lies at the core of U of L’s relationship with Judaism.

“What we’ve been able to do is expose a broader range of students to Jewish studies who wouldn’t normally take a Jewish class at all,” Omer-Sherman says. “And I’m always very, very much aware that when I teach the relatively large Holocaust courses, this will often be the only exposure to Jewish culture that a student has.”

In contrast, WKU has some catching up to do. Marcus, who hopes his current one-year appointment will be extended, recognizes that it’s largely up to him to return the Holocaust to the academic foreground.

“It’s been taught in the past,” he says, “but I think not for quite some time. I think the plan is for me to teach something in the fall.”  

By dint of its demographics, Western must take toddler steps compared to its larger, wealthier in-state brethren. So like U of L, UK has the resources to offer a Jewish Studies minor, anchored in a pair of required courses surveying Jewish Thought and Culture (“From Ancient Israel to the Middle Ages” and “From the Expulsion from Spain to the Present”). Students can choose from among such electives as “Islamic and Jewish Philosophy and the Classical Tradition,” “Jews in America” and “Women in Judaism.”

Not that everything must be formal and academic. “I once taught a class, Introduction to Global Jewish Food – we have a demonstration kitchen on campus, like they do for cooking shows, and (students) got to make the recipes we were learning about.” In a similar vein, “we had a sukkah built on campus, so they were able to learn a little about Sukkot: to eat in the sukkah. That’s something that wasn’t necessarily possible when I first started directing (the Jewish Studies Program) 10 years ago.”

Students, by the way, don’t necessarily have to be young. Omer-Sherman has opened his classes up to auditors, most of whom are older Louisvillians, who can attend and participate at no cost.

“I think that it helps me as an instructor who often finds himself almost the sole Jew in the classroom” Omer-Sherman says, “to have senior citizens who, more often than not, are Jewish auditors. And they can contribute a really wonderful, intergenerational perspective on the issues we’re talking about.”

Take, for example, Leslie Marlin, a retired investigator with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights who’s an avid coursework consumer. At age 65 she audited Omer-Sherman’s class on Jewish Humor, where discussions could be as free-wheeling as the subject matter.

“There were maybe 20 or 25 students, I think,” recalled Marlin, describing herself as “Jewish but not observant.” “None of us really knew what to expect from the title. 

A typical undergraduate, asked to riff about Betty Boop, might well respond with a blank stare. Marlin, not surprisingly, knew precisely who she was (BB, by the way, is Jewish).

Marlin, a U of L-trained lawyer, relishes lively in-class discussions. “In all the classes I’ve taken, I’ve never felt a separation because of age,” she says. “And of course, I’ve lived through things they haven’t,” which adds flavor to the academic mix.

As a U of L undergraduate during the 1980s, Marlin’s scholarly interests were voraciously eclectic. They still are.

“I just go through course offerings and scour every topic that I might be interested in,” she explains,” particularly “anything to do with Judaism, discrimination or civil rights. So I began to work investigating discrimination claims. It’s still a subject that’s dear to my heart.  And a lot of those courses, like Jewish Humor, weren’t offered in the ‘80s.”

No matter what the course context, it’s difficult to escape the rough-and-tumble issues surrounding contemporary Israeli politics, and their often uneasy relationship with Americans – whether devoutly religious or resolutely secular.

“Everyone brings very, very strong worldviews and life experiences,” Omer-Sherman says, “and I’ve tried to honor all of those divergent worldviews and life experiences. There are people who may have (gone on) a Birthright trip, and, you know, who’ve been brought up on these heroic narratives of Israel that so many of us have. What I’ve tried to do in the classroom is to surprise people, to look at the writer as someone who is often very empathic to the other side.” 

Writers – and you may count Omer-Sherman among their ranks — “want to represent the trauma and the struggles of their own people, but are often surprisingly interested in humanizing the other and complicating the conflict.”

Call it a very Jewish way of teaching – and living. 

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