Faculty News

New Fall Course Offering! Anthropology of Jewish Cultures

James Barnett Professor of Humanistic Anthropology Richard Sosis will be teaching a new course this fall entitled Anthropology of Jewish Cultures. The course is being developed by Professor Sosis and Assistant Professor and Director of the Research Program on Global Health and Human Rights Sarah Willen, recent awardees of the course development grant offered by the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. Credits earned from the course may be applied toward the major or minor in Judaic studies.

Anthropology of Jewish Cultures (ANTH 3098) will meet this fall from 2:00-5:00 pm on Wednesdays.

About the Course:

Abraham Joshua Heschel once poetically remarked that the Bible is not human theology but rather “God’s anthropology.” God, so to speak, has not been alone in studying Jewish life. In Western culture, Judaism has been characterized by its minority, outsider, and marginal status.  Not surprisingly, given anthropological interest in studying “the other,” anthropologists have produced an extensive literature aimed at understanding Judaism and Jewish experiences. The primary goals of this course will be to engage this literature by exploring the diversity of Jewish cultures and examining how influential anthropological theorists (e.g., Mary Douglas, Roy Rappaport, Alan Dundes, and Melvin Konner) have sought to explain the variation and commonalities of these cultures.

The course will place considerable emphasis on Jewish folk traditions as they’ve emerged cross-culturally and their tension with, as well as occasional acceptance by, rabbinic institutions.  Moreover, anthropological efforts to document these traditions, such as Ansky’s ambitious Jewish Enthnographic Program, will be discussed.  Students will be exposed to the rich ethnographic literature on Jewish cultures. These ethnographic writings will be used to explore various topics, communities, and movements within Jewish culture including: Haredim, Ethiopian Jewry, Yiddish culture in Europe and the U.S., chavurah communities, Sephardic communities in Muslim cultures, the Ba’al Teshuvah movement, women’s status within Jewish cultures, and secularization among Jewish communities.

The course will conclude by briefly examining how rabbinic writers, including Mordechai Kaplan, Neil Gillman, and Jonathan Sacks, have drawn upon anthropological data and theories to interpret Jewish teachings and provide visions for the development of Jewish life.

Faculty Book Release: American Jewish Year Book 2016, co-Edited by UConn Professor Arnold Dashefsky

American Jewish Year Book 2016  Includes Pew Study that Finds Commonalities between Orthodox Jewry and Evangelical Protestants

Arnold DashefskyThe 2016 volume of the American Jewish Year Book, co-edited by Professor Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut and Professor Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, has been recently published by Springer. The publication is supported by the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life as well as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut and the Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami. Included in this volume of the Year Book is the 2015 Pew Report on Orthodox Jews, “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” as well as a response to the report from nine distinguished scholars and a rejoinder by Pew researchers.

The 2015 Pew report on American Orthodox Jewry represents an extended analysis of the data collected in the 2013 Pew Study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  Pew, a nonpartisan research center that produces surveys on a myriad of topics, finds that while adult Orthodox Jews makeup only 10% of the American Jewish population, they represent a growing community due to their average younger age and high fertility rates. According to Pew, “if the Orthodox grow as a share of US Jews, they gradually could shift the profile of American Jews in several areas, including religious beliefs and practices, social and political views and demographic characteristics.” 

Despite the various sub-sects within the growing Orthodox community, Pew’s data find that politically and religiously, as a whole, the group more resembles white Evangelical Protestants than other Jewish groups based on the importance of religion in their lives and in that they are more likely to identify as more politically conservative than other Jews and are more than three times as likely to identify or lean Republican than other Jews.

If the divide between liberal and conservative Jews grows, significant policy implications in communal and political life could develop.  Unless dialog is cultivated and maintained across the spectrum of Jewish groups, a fractured community could come to distrust those with opposing views; and intolerance of differing viewpoints could be fostered, mirroring what we have recently seen in the wider American culture as the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath demonstrated.

American Jewish Year Book 2016Since 1899, the Year Book has served educators, scholars, lay leaders, and members of the Jewish community as an inestimable resource. Featuring chapters from eminent scholars on North American Jewish life as well as extensive lists detailing the numerous North American Jewish institutions, periodicals, academic resources, and major events, the Year Book preserves an invaluable annual record of Jewish life.

The 2016 volume includes topical articles on international affairs by Mitchell Bard, which summarizes and relates yearly events through the lens of the American-Israeli relationship, and an article on the diverse dimensions of American Jewish family life by Harriet Hartman.  Population studies for the United States, World Jewry, and Canada are provided by Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, Sergio DellaPergola, and Charles Shahar, respectively.

Center Director Jeffrey Shoulson Speaks at Boston University on Early Modern Bibles

Professor Shoulson lecturesCenter Director Jeffrey Shoulson recently spoke at the Boston University Jewish Studies Research Forum and the BU Program in Scripture and the Arts on February 13, 2017.  The seminar entitled "Mapping and Unmapping Jewish History in Early Modern Bibles" examined the role played by maps depicting the Holy Land and other biblical locations—printed in Bibles as well as in other accounts of the region—in the construction of spaces construed as “Jewish."

Synopsis: Maps first appeared in printed Bibles nearly fifty years after the first illustrated, printed Bible was produced in 1483. In the century that followed, maps became an increasingly common supplement to the new Bible translations proliferating throughout Europe. Those Bibles that contained maps were overwhelmingly Protestant editions. Not surprisingly, the new emphasis Reformers placed on the literal/historical reading of Scripture sought and found support from the visual depictions of the geography of biblical texts. And nowhere was the spread and popularity of biblical maps during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries greater than in England. As the English Reformation progressed, the visualization of the Holy Land and its inhabitants functioned as a site for contested claims about a Jewish past and present that could be aligned with or distinguished from varieties of English Protestant identity.

Professor Susan Einbinder Elected Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America

Einbinder Susan 300x200The UConn Center for Judaic Studies extends a warm and well-deserved congratulation to faculty member Professor Susan Einbinder, who has been elected as a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, one of only a handful of senior scholars who are chosen for this prestigious honor every year.

Mazel Tov, Susan!

More information about the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America is available here.


Getting to Know Humanities Institute Fellow Daniel Hershenzon

Daniel Hershenzon, professor in UConn’s Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages and Judaic Studies faculty member, was recently interviewed by the Humanities Institute in a series that features their 2016-2017 Fellows. The interview can be found below.

What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

My first degree, from the University of Tel Aviv, is a double major of Philosophy and History. Before getting this degree , I was studying industrial design. I left the world of design for the university when I realized that I was enjoying the history and theory classes much more than the design workshops. After receiving my B.A., I continued to study towards a Masters degree and in 2004 enrolled in a PhD program in the Department of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was lucky to spend two years of my graduate studies researching in Spain (in Madrid, Valladolid, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands!), and another year in Florence, Italy, with a postdoctoral fellowship after I graduated. Then, I took my current position at the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, where I mostly teach medieval and early modern Spanish history.

What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am completing a book that examines the entangled histories of early modern Spain, Morocco, and Ottoman Algiers, and by extension the entangled lives of Christian and Muslim captives in the region. Captivity was a serious problem in the early modern Mediterranean, and scholars estimate the number of captives, Muslims and Christians, in 2 to 3 millions. The book argues that piracy, captivity, and redemption shaped the sea, a space integrated on the social, economic, and political levels. It demonstrates that despite confessional differences, the lives of Muslim and Christian captives were interrelated and formed part of a single Mediterranean system of bondage. These captivities were connected by a political economy of ransoming shaped by ecclesiastic ransom institutions; Spanish, Ottoman, and Moroccan rulers; captives and kin; and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian ransom intermediaries. They all interacted through texts that captives created and circulated across the sea. The history that emerges from these stories is both local and Mediterranean. It offers a comprehensive analysis of competing Spanish, Algerian, and Moroccan imperial projects intended to shape Mediterranean mobility structures. Simultaneously, the project reveals the tragic upending of the lives of individuals by these imperial maritime political agendas.

How did you arrive at this topic?

I became interested in captivity when I wrote a seminar paper analyzing the autobiographies of former Spanish captives. I was fascinated by how ex captives sought to convince their readers that they did not convert to Islam during their captivity, and yet, their accounts abound with different forms of religious, cultural, and imperial boundary crossing. I also began to see how problematic the absence of Muslim captives from this history is. Finally, I was struck by the importance of writing for captives—not only as a medium to make claims about one’s past after ransom, but also during captivity. Captives constantly wrote letters trying to arrange their ransom, and in its turn, this epistolary circulation extended the boundaries of maritime communities across the sea, putting captives in charge of channeling information about community members who had died, converted as captives, or suffered martyrdom. As importantly, researching Mediterranean captivity allowed me to spend two years in the Mediterranean.

What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

As a historian, I engage in debates on the emergence of European territorial identities, cross-Mediterranean maritime networks, the political economy of forced migration, and the struggle between state and church over that mobility’s control and meaning. I do so by analyzing early modern interactions among 17th century Christian and Muslim captives, enslavers, redeeming friars, merchants, and rulers who struggled to shape piracy, slavery, and redemption according to their shifting vision – religious, economic, and political. The multiple cross-maritime interactions I explore do more than counter an image of a declining 17th-century Mediterranean dissolving into nation-states. They force us to rethink early modern Europe and its others questioning how seemingly European territorial identities were shaped by transnational maritime networks and their transformation. In this sense, the framework that my book proposes for the history of the early modern Mediterranean and Europe have repercussions beyond that specific history and can provide a lens through which to understand the current ongoing crisis surrounding mobility across the sea.

The original post by the Humanities Institute can be found here.

Remembering Louis Gerson

Emeritus professor and political science department head at the University of Connecticut, Louis Gerson, passed away on October 16, 2016. Gerson led an extraordinary life; he fled his native Poland just months prior to the Nazi invasion and fought with the United States Army in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war ended, he studied political science and diplomatic history at UConn, where he would meet his future wife Elizabeth Shanley. Gerson completed his doctorate in political science at Yale, afterwards returning to UConn to teach. This led to a 40-year career at UConn where he made many notable contributions to the political science department and the university as a whole.

According to Stuart Miller, Academic Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, Gerson “was certainly an early and prime mover in getting UConn to pursue the study of the Holocaust, Eastern Europe, and Human Rights.” Gerson, with the help of grants and scholars from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and Oxford University in England, secured important Holocaust records in Poland. While UConn did not become the official repository for the material, Gerson was crucial in committing the university to support Judaic studies. His work helped attract the interest of Simon Konover, who would become the Center for Judaic Studies’ major benefactor.

The Hartford Courant article featuring the life of Louis Gerson can be found here.

Holocaust Memorial Exhibit Relocates to the University of Hartford

By Jillian Chambers

After 25 years at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, a Holocaust memorial exhibit is moving to the University of Hartford thanks to efforts by Mandell JCC executive director David Jacobs, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford executive director Estelle Kafer, and Professor of Modern Jewish History and Director of the Museum of Jewish Civilization Avinoam Patt.

The Museum for Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford will become the new home for the Holocaust memorial exhibit. It contains descriptions of Jewish life in Europe pre-World War II, during the Holocaust and after the war. There is also a display of artifacts and documents provided by local survivors who settled in Hartford. According to the Connecticut Jewish Ledger article “Hartford Remembers the Holocaust,” school groups often visited the room, where they had the opportunity to meet with survivors. Some artifacts and documents were returned to the survivors and their descendants, but the rest was incorporated into a new exhibit titled “Hartford Remembers the Holocaust.”

The new exhibit opened at the Greenberg Center’s annual Holocaust Educators Workshop on Oct. 31, guided by the theme “Teach for the Future: Holocaust Education in the 21st Century.” The workshop featured a panel discussion of six Greater-Hartford survivors, who are also very involved in local Holocaust education. In the near feature, the exhibit will feature video testimonies from survivors who came to the community but are no longer with us. Most of these video testimonies are from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University.

Professor Patt told the Jewish Ledger that this exhibit will allow them to “provide the local connection for students and community members to understand that this is not just something that happened long ago in a faraway place, but still continues to have an impact on people who live in our community and on their descendants – who are committed to teaching about the Holocaust to make sure that it never happens again.”

A project titled “In Their Own Words” featuring interactive videos conducted by the Greenberg Center and Voices of Hope will also be incorporated into the exhibit. The opening of “Hartford Remembers the Holocaust” was on Wednesday, November 9 at the Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford. The original article featured in this story can be found here.

Panel Discussion on Defending Space: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality, and Human Rights in Uncertain Times

What will be the future of interdisciplinary spaces in a Trump administration? Will they come under direct attack from federal authorities, and if so, how? How has the knowledge produced in such spaces prepared us for the political turn that we are now seeing? What kinds of solidarity can our students and faculty expect to find in this moment of danger? And what is our strategy going forward?

A panel discussion entitled “Defending Space: Race/Ethnic Studies, Gender/Sexuality Studies, and Human Rights in Uncertain Times” will be held in the Dodd Research Center’s Konover Auditorium on December 5 from 3:00-5:00pm.  

The panel will bring together leaders and faculty of interdisciplinary units devoted to social justice at UConn to address these questions, and to engage the audience in dialogue.

The panelists include:

Debanuj DasGupta, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies

David Embrick, Africana Studies

Kathryn Libel, Director, Human Rights Institute

Glenn Mitoma, Director, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center

Mark Overmyer-Velàzquez, Director, El Instituto

Cathy Schlund-Vials, Director, Asian and Asian American Studies

Jeffrey Shoulson, Director, Center for Judaic Studies

Chris Vials, Director, American Studies


This event is co-sponsored by the UConn Humanities Institute, American Studies, Institute for Asian and Asian American Studies, El Instituto, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Africana Studies, Judaic Studies, the Dodd Center, and the Human Rights Institute.

Center Director Jeffrey Shoulson Reflects on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

By Jillian Chambers

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, to the surprise of many, was awarded to the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Center Director Jeffrey Shoulson was recently featured on Trash Flow Radio, a radio program in Cincinnati, to discuss the implications of, and fallout over, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award the prize to Dylan.

Professor Shoulson began by explaining that there have been two general reactions in the world of literature, both on the extreme side of the spectrum: those who are thrilled and those that are disappointed. Especially in the age of social media, response has been swift and decisive. Shoulson recalled how he found out: a friend messaged him saying “Dylan WTF?” and, not having heard the news himself, he thought that Bob Dylan had died until he checked Facebook.

There have been many objections to awarding Dylan the Prize, the most common being that popular music is not legitimate enough for a Nobel Prize in literature. Shoulson found fault with this objection, arguing that if other forms of writing can be recognized, so should music. He also commented on the influence of Bob Dylan and the debate over measuring the quality of literature. Should the measure of the quality of the literature be independent of its influence? Is influence even relevant? Shoulson said that, in his estimation, easily two thirds of the people who had been given the award have had significantly less influence than Dylan and are not nearly as well known. At the same time, there are also writers who, despite their extensive influence and literary importance, never received the Prize.

Another objection raised by the radio host during the interview was that songwriting is different than prose or poetry because the lyrics of a song cannot be separated from the music. In choosing Dylan, Shoulson argued, the Academy has signaled that it is going to be more expansive in what and whom it considers literary. Dylan’s prize is also an acknowledgement of poetry’s roots. Before it was ever written down, poetry was sung; the term “lyrics poetry” takes it name more a musical instrument, the lyre, which was the standard ancient accompaniment to poetry, not at all unlike the acoustic guitar Dylan strums when he sings.

In addition to the last two objections, people have taken issue with Dylan’s plagiarism. Shoulson offered the counterargument by saying that Dylan’s work does not diminish what he borrowed, rather he “refined and raised it to the level of brilliance that we associate with Dylan’s music.” Shoulson added that this is a common feature of the folk tradition, and the literature Prize to Dylan is a recognition of the American folk tradition.

Shoulson and the radio host also discussed Dylan’s religion Dylan was born Jewish but converted to Christianity in the late 1970s. Some people have protested Dylan receiving the award by arguing that if the Academy was going to choose a Jewish American writer, it should have chosen someone like Philip Roth. Shoulson countered both Dylan and Roth have notoriously fraught relations with their Jewish roots.

You can listen to the podcast below: