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Modern Judaism 20.2 (2000) 209-225

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The Beginnings of Judaic Studies in American Universities

Frederick E. Greenspahn *

Among the notable developments in American higher education over the past generation has been the emergence of Judaic studies programs and departments throughout the country. This is part of the nationwide trend that has also spawned programs in such areas as black and women's studies and that is obviously connected to the civil rights and feminist movements, as well as the rising ethnic consciousness, that have played a dramatic role in American society over the past several decades. However, the growth of Judaic studies cannot be fully accounted for by the same forces responsible for the others, inasmuch as the initiative has not usually come from within university communities themselves. The initial funding for Judaic studies programs has typically been external, resulting in a high proportion of endowed chairs in Judaic studies. 1 Although this clearly demonstrates the Jewish community's desire for such programs and has ensured their survival even when analogous programs are being discontinued, it also reflects a lack of commitment on the part of the universities where they are housed.

One indicator of the discipline's success has been the growth of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), which began in 1969 with forty-seven members and now numbers over fifteen hundred. 2 Even that number may be conservative, although it likely includes most of those whose training and interests are specifically rooted in Judaic studies rather than in other fields, such as history or literature.

Although the flowering of Judaic studies programs was very much a product of the 1960s and '70s, those within the field usually trace its origins back forty years earlier to two towering figures, Salo Baron and Harry Austryn Wolfson. Baron, who was trained in Vienna, came to the United States to teach at New York's Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) before receiving what started out as a part-time appointment at Columbia. Wolfson, a Lithuanian Jew, studied at what is now Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and received his academic training at Harvard where he joined the faculty in the early 1920s having also taught at JIR. 3

The importance commonly attached to these figures is easily illustrated. For example, Bernard Cooperman writes that "the first regular [End Page 209] professorship of Jewish Studies at a secular university [had] not come until the 1920's, when Harry Wolfson was appointed at Harvard and Salo Baron at Columbia." 4 Over a quarter of a century earlier, Leon Jick, the first president of the Association for Jewish Studies, had said much the same: "In the recent past, the pursuit of Jewish Studies was virtually unknown in secular American universities. [Aside from] Chairs at Harvard, Columbia and Yale . . . the Jewish 'presence' on most college campuses was limited to student service organizations and an occasional lectureship. Jewish learning was confined to the seminaries." 5 More recently, Arnold Band, another of the AJS's founders and its third president, noted that its organizers were "aware of a new reality on some campuses, that something was happening outside of Harvard and Columbia, where there had been distinguished professors of Jewish Studies since the 1920's." 6

Although widely held, this view of the field's history is demonstrably incorrect. Far from being "confined to the seminaries," Jewish learning, including "distinguished professors of Jewish Studies," could be found on leading American campuses well before the 1920s and not only at Harvard and Columbia. 7

The earliest element of Judaic studies to be taught on American campuses was Hebrew. Following a longstanding tradition in Christian circles, Jews were engaged to teach Hebrew in several institutions in the early part of the nineteenth century, albeit most often on a part-time basis. 8 These include a Mr. Horowitz, who taught Hebrew as well as French at Dartmouth College in 1811. 9 Twenty years later, Joshua Seixas, son of New York's renowned Gershom Mendes Seixas, taught Hebrew at Oberlin and Western Reserve Colleges in Ohio. 10...