I’m still in shock. Last week thanks to a syllabus screw up, I found myself with time to kill in the Judaic Studies Seminar I’m running this semester. So I asked them what they wanted from the Judaic Studies Program. Mostly I was asking about classes. They hemmed and hawed and didn’t really say. And then it slipped out, in three groups in this precise order:  God, Apocalypse, Afterlife,  Technology and Bioethics  Holocaust, and Holocaust and film,  Folklore. They also want  more information: more information on the website, including student testimonials and course syllabi, and they  want visual information at registration time at mid-semester in the form of flyers advertising upcoming courses for the following semester.
So is that want students want in a market-driven, technological age? Religion? There was NO, absolutely NO mention of Jewish history or “Jewish peoplehood” or Israel. It’s not what they want, or at least it’s not what they said. The student interest expressed in Religion, Technology, and Holocaust is, in fact, astoundingly “presentist.” I think we need to conceptualize, design, and pitch the study of Judaism and the Jews in new and different ways, assuming of course that as scholars, we are actually interested in what other people, in this case, our students, actually think.
Maybe it’s different at other universities and undergraduates are banging down the doors to study Jewish history. Just not at Syracuse. To be sure, Judaic Studies at Syracuse is weighted heavily towards Religion and Literature. This has to do with technical reasons relating to the fact that the study of history at Syracuse is considered a “social science” whereas Judaic Studies is a “humanities.” For screwy reasons that has everything to do with how the social studies are studied at the Maxwell School of Public Policy, which split off years ago from the College of Arts and Sciences. If I understand them correctly, the reasons had a lot to do with…money. Be that as it may, if you think the program at SU needs Jewish history, which it does, well, it’s not my dean you need to talk to.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that our students are not dumb. They know what they want better than we do, and they are much much more comfortable in the moment. Granted the students with whom I spoke represented a select group of students. Let’s assume that most Jewish students, much less non-Jewish students have no, absolutely no, interest in academic Jewish Studies. But let’s assume this interested group represents 5%, 10%, 20% of the Jewish student body. At Syracuse, the total undergraduate student body comes out to about 6000, of whom some 20% to 25% are Jewish. To get even 5% of that number plus non-Jewish students interested maybe in religion, well that would not be bad market share.
All this assumes, of course, that one can teach religious “things” like God, apocalypse, and ideas about the afterlife historically and critically. I think one can. It also assumes that there is faculty interest in teaching this kind of “stuff.” To teach Jewish theology, I think I’d start with Job, the Zohar, and Kafka.