Jewish Studies celebrates 50 years with speakers, conferences

The Jewish Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences is celebrating its 50 anniversary and the growth of its program with a series of events.

Launched in 1973 with a focus on Hebrew language and literature, today the program includes four endowed faculty positions, 28 affiliated faculty from more than 15 departments, nearly 40 courses offered each year, scholarship funds available for undergraduate students, research funding for graduate students, a visiting speaker series and – beginning last fall – the opportunity for students to major in Jewish studies.

“Thanks to the faculty leadership of the Jewish studies program for the past half century, especially in the last decade with the previous directors Professors (Jonathan) Boyarin and (Deborah) Starr, Jewish studies at Cornell is in an excellent position to thrive for a long time to come and to be known nationally as an innovative and robust program,” said Jason Sion Mokhtarian, the Herbert and Stephanie Neuman Associate Professor in Near Eastern studies and the current director.

Anniversary events kicked off this month and continue throughout this semester and into the fall. They include:

  • March 23: Jessica Marglin: “The Shamama Case: Contesting Citizenship across the Modern Mediterranean” (part of the Jewish Histories of the Modern Middle East lecture series)
  • April 12:  Lior Sternfeld: “The Jews of Iran in the 21st Century” (part of the Jewish Histories of the Modern Middle East lecture series)
  • April 19:  Christopher Silver: “Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa” (part of the Jewish Histories of the Modern Middle East lecture series)
  • April 20:  David Nirenberg: “How Can History Help us? The Example of Anti-Semitism
  • April 25-27: “Filming Jewish Life”: A film series at Cornell Cinema celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jewish studies
  • An exhibit opening this semester in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, in Carl A. Kroch Library
  • Sept. 7: A “Jewish Studies Celebration” at the Cornell Club in New York City
  • Oct. 23-24: “Biography in Jewish Studies,” a conference on campus featuring some of the country’s preeminent scholars in Jewish studies, including Derek Penslar, the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History at Harvard; Yaacob Dweck, Professor of History and the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton; and Mark S. Smith, the Helena Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Faculty credit alumni for their support of the program through the Friends of Cornell Jewish Studies, established in 2017 and spearheaded by Eric ‘74 and Laurie Roth ’75. The Roths also endowed a new chair in modern European Jewish history. Other core support has come from Herb Neuman ’53, Bob Katz ’69, Tom ’64 and Diann ’66 Mann, and Fran ’60 and Bob ’60 Malina. Former President Hunter R. Rawlings III and former Board of Trustees chair Harold Tanner also deserve much credit for the program’s growth, faculty say.

“It’s a challenge to be able to represent the range and depth of Jewish culture, texts and history adequately,” said Boyarin, the Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies (A&S). “But with this support, and especially the tireless work of Eric and Laurie Roth, we have been able to provide the range and depth that we need at Cornell to teach Jewish studies as an interdisciplinary field in a serious way.”

This semester, Hyrum Edwards ’25 signed up as the first Jewish studies major.

“I knew it was the right thing for me. I’ve always been interested in languages, religion and culture,” said Edwards, who isn’t Jewish. “I knew going into Cornell that I wanted to learn more about the world.”

Classes in the Hebrew bible and Persian language his freshman year cemented his interest in those fields. He’s also been encouraged by many of his Jewish friends, who’ve invited him to Shabbat (sabbath) services and whom he joined on a winter break trip to Israel sponsored by Cornell Hillel.

“I think many Americans grow up with a somewhat two-dimensional view of Jewish life, history and culture, not knowing what it’s like to be a Jew today,” he said. “I love that every time I take a Jewish studies class, my ability to understand the world becomes bigger.”

Mohktarian said the program will continue to grow and expand, with fundraising underway for a permanent endowment, efforts to increase enrollments in the Jewish studies major and minor and a new initiative to create a graduate Ph.D. minor in Jewish studies.

“The fact that we’ve had this explosion of growth along with a new major, it feels like we are at a crescendo moment,” he said. “But we still have a lot more work to do.”

Read the full story on the College of Arts and Sciences website.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli