The Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington has set its sights on two areas of research that play to the strengths of the Pacific Northwest and that they hope will establish the department as a premier Jewish academic and research destination.
With the third largest Sephardic Jewish population in the United States, Seattle is a natural location for an academic program in Sephardic studies, according to Sharon Perlin, outreach and development coordinator for the Jewish Studies Program.
“There really aren’t any established Sephardic studies programs in the country and there are real roots here for the Sephardic community,” said Perlin. “We see what graduate students are interested when they move into their fields and the classes [in Sephardic Studies] continue to fill up. The events we’ve had about the Sephardic community have been incredibly well-attended. We’re trying to build a Ladino literature collection and archives and then endow a scholarship. The Hazel D. Cole Scholarship is an ongoing scholarship that has brought Sephardic scholars here the last three years. We really want to be a place where junior scholars can come and do research.”
After surveying the national Jewish higher education landscape, faculty and staff in the program also saw a need for research into the American Jewish experience. It appears that no academic institution is focusing solely on immigration issues and assimilation patterns of Jews in this country and, in particular, Jewish women. The new department chair, Kathie Friedman, is a sociologist with exactly that expertise and academic research focus.
Taking over for Joel Migdal, whose three-year term has ended, Friedman is the author of Memories of Migration, which was published by SUNY Press in 1996 and deals with the Russian Jewish and Italian migration to New York in the early 20th century. She is currently doing research on how cultures and ethnic identities transmit that information across space and generations by looking at former Soviet Jews and their children. The new department chair and her husband, Resat Kasaba, who is also a professor in the Jackson School of International Studies, have been living in Seattle since 1985. The Jewish Studies Program has been a department within the Jackson School since it was founded in 1975.
“I was part of the founding faculty of the Tacoma campus and I was their only sociologist,” said Friedman. “My specialty is in immigration studies, international migration, ethnic and race relations and women studies. I teach in both the Jackson School in the Jewish Studies Program and the Women Studies Program. The Jackson School sees itself as social science and perceives the Jewish population in a global aspect. It doesn’t focus on American Jews. The emphasis is on literature and on modern and biblical Hebrew. But I don’t think we’ve done as much as we could in these other areas.”
Expanding the Jewish Studies Program in these new directions will require both funding and community support, says Perlin.
“Mostly, the Jewish Federation and Sam Stroum provided the seed money 26 years ago for (the original) two positions. The idea was that they would provide support and the state would pick it up after that and they did after three years. In 26 years, the program has grown to be a reputable Jewish studies program. We’ve created a great core program with Hebrew language and literature, [biblical] texts and Eastern European history. We want to create a center for the study of the American Jewish experience. There is not one program in the country. We have the expertise and if we want to institutionalize this, we need funding. We hope to wow the community with our upcoming programming.”
Building on last year’s programming series of Sephardic lectures and a Sephardic film series, the department is now in the planning stages of a future series that will look at the changing role of Jewish women in religious life in America, and Jewish women’s identities in American popular culture. Other lecture topics might be the role Jewish women play in society, politics and even Hollywood as well as looking at Jewish women in Israel.
“I want to provide more support for research on Jewish women,” said Friedman. “It’s a very underresearched area wherever Jews have settled in the world. We need to know about what’s going on with women, what their interests are and what their sense of Judaism is.”
The Jewish Studies Program is looking into the patterns and choices of the local Jewish community and will using the yet unpublished results of the new Jewish census conducted by the federation. According to Perlin, they have also formed visiting committees with the local community to test out ideas.
“The census will give us some indication of what’s on people’s minds but we also need to pay attention to how our program compares nationally. I would love to see us become the Brandeis of the Pacific Northwest. ”