The History of Jewish Studies at Vassar College

by Andrew Bush, Professor of Hispanic Studies
January 2011
Program Website

Jewish Studies remains a newcomer to Vassar's rich array of multidisciplinary programs—so much so that several of its founding members remain active on the Steering Committee to this day. In the College's long history, the story of the Program is very much a matter of living memory.

After a brief experimental period in which Jewish Studies was introduced at the College as a correlate sequence under the auspices of the Department of Religion, a degree-granting program in the field was approved by the Vassar faculty and the State of New York during the 2000-2001 academic year. Both the faculty and student groups that were promoting the creation of the Program had argued convincingly that the study of Judaism, that is, the religion of Jews, was crucial to but insufficient for the understanding of Jewish experience, which required, rather, a multidisciplinary approach. The burgeoning of multidisciplinary programs at the College in the period since the idea of a Jewish Studies Program had first been raised nearly two decades earlier made for a propitious educational environment. Hence, drawing on a cultural studies model, whose theoretical foundations lie in anthropology, history and literary criticism, and on faculty from those and other curricular areas of the College, including the continuing participation of faculty from Religion, an intellectually innovative curriculum was set in place. It was thus possible to address several goals. First, Jewish Studies would contribute to Vassar's commitment to diversify the educational community by representing that diversity in its course offerings. More broadly, the particularities of Jewish history would contribute to the general education by fostering critical discussion of such often unexamined premises as the equation of modernity with secularity and the organization of topics by reference to the system of modern nation-states.

Faculty members from at least 10 different home departments have participated on the Steering Committee or in the classroom in the first decade of Jewish Studies at Vassar. The generous support of Suzanne ('55) and Dr. Lawrence Fishman has made possible an annual faculty seminar, led by a distinguished visiting scholar—and, this being Vassar, often attended by advanced students as well--that has enabled those faculty members to develop new areas of learning, extending and deepening the Program curriculum. Further alumnae and alumni support has made possible travel courses to Israel and Central European Jewish sites, as well as faculty and student research projects. With this help from our friends, and the enthusiastic participation of students and faculty alike, the first decade has been a great success.