UC Santa Cruz approves new major in Jewish Studies

June 24, 2010


Jewish Studies at UCSC had its origins in the mid-1980s after a campus visit by Schindler's List survivor Leopold Page--nearly a decade before Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning film. "He came to a conference on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz," said UCSC professor Murray Baumgarten (below). "Before he left, he suggested we should teach a course about the Holocaust."
Murray Baumgarten, Professor of Literature

Students at UC Santa Cruz will now have the opportunity to work toward a B.A. degree in Jewish Studies, beginning this fall.

The Jewish Studies major will provide knowledge of Jewish thought, literature, art, and history--with classes taught by faculty across the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences divisions.

UC Santa Cruz dean of humanities Georges Van Den Abbeele noted that the launching of the new major is largely due to the efforts of Murray Baumgarten, who has been teaching courses and mentoring students in Jewish Studies for several decades at UCSC.

"Jewish culture has responded to-and been shaped by-interactions with the major cultural, political, and social movements since ancient times, and has had a role in shaping them," observed Baumgarten, a professor of English and comparative literature.

"Our program builds bridges between Jewish culture and the many other cultures that exist in today's world, and illuminates what it takes to navigate in a diverse world."

Jewish Studies at UCSC had its origins in the mid-1980s after a campus visit by Leopold Page--Schindler's List survivor number 173.

Page's visit took place several years after he had told his story to Australian author Thomas Keneally, but nearly a decade before Steven Spielberg turned Keneally's bestselling book into an Academy Award-winning film.

"Leopold Page came to a conference on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz," said Baumgarten. "Before he left, he suggested we should teach a course about the Holocaust."

That suggestion led to the birth of The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, an annual upper division class at UCSC with a popularity that has surprised even its professors, Baumgarten and history professor Peter Kenez.

"As Peter always says, we thought there would be less and less interest in the subject as time passed, but we could not have been more wrong," said Baumgarten.

Using funds contributed by Page from a Los Angeles Jewish organization founded by Holocaust survivors, Baumgarten and Kenez began to bring in guest speakers, present film screenings, and organize conferences on the UCSC campus.

They also made it a point to have survivors of the Holocaust visit their classroom. One of those survivors was UCSC Foundation Trustee Anne Neufeld Levin.

Levin and her family escaped from Austria and immigrated to the United States in 1939. Nearly 60 years later, she donated the Neufeld Family Archive to the UC Santa Cruz Library's Special collections, and established the Neufeld Levin Endowed chair in Holocaust Studies at the campus.

Because of this endowment and significant gifts from such organizations as the Koret Foundation, the David B. Gold Foundation, and the Helen Diller Family Foundation, UCSC was able to expand its Holocaust curriculum, adding new courses exploring its relationship to music, film, art and literature.

This led to the establishment in 2000 of UCSC'S interdisciplinary Jewish Studies Program which, until now, only offered a minor in the study of Jewish culture.

"We've conceived the Jewish Studies Program at UCSC as an international program crossing borders and national boundaries," said Baumgarten. "We are developing programs and exchanges, for example, with the Education Abroad program in Israel, and the newly established Venice Center for International Jewish Studies in Italy."

"We have brought new resources to the campus for the study of fundamental aspects of the humanities," Baumgarten added. "It is clear that some knowledge of the history of Jewish culture is one of the pre-requisites of being an educated human being in the 21st century."

Dean Van Den Abbeele observed that a remarkable number of UC Santa Cruz alumni have gone on to become distinguished scholars of Jewish studies.

The Humanities Division brought back 10 of those former students to campus last year for a conference where they discussed the impact of UCSC on their intellectual development and research.

"We are hoping to endow a chair in Professor Baumgarten's honor that will further consolidate his achievement in building the premier Jewish Studies Program in California," noted Van Den Abbeele.