Academic journal article Shofar

Teaching about Jewishness in the Heartland

Academic journal article Shofar

Teaching about Jewishness in the Heartland

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Cultural anthropologist Misha Klein reflects on a Jewish Studies course, entitled Anthropology of Jews and Jewishness, taught at the University of Oklahoma. The recent explosion of interest in the anthropological study of Jews and Jewish cultures has occurred in large part because of the ways Jews provide a lens through which to examine core concepts and concerns within anthropology. As Klein conceives it, the course is an exploration of these core issues, including race, ethnicity, identity, kinship, migration, diaspora and transnationalism, gender and sexuality, religion and ritual, foodways, language, national identity, and globalization. A sample syllabus is provided.

The University of Oklahoma Hillel sells a bumper sticker that says "Uni- versity of Oklahoma" in Hebrew letters, white on crimson, the school col- ors. Across the street from the picturesque heart of campus, the imposing white-columned Boyd House, where the President of the University lives, has a mezuzah on its doorframe. Alongside these tiny gestures of philosemi- tism, the University has small but growing Judaic Studies and Hebrew pro- grams which enjoy support from prominent Tulsa Jewish families. Tulsa is also home to one of the finest small Jewish museums in the country. Jewish presence in Oklahoma dates back to the first non-Native settlers, before statehood, when Jewish families tended small dry goods stores in the tiny towns that popped up across the territory, and when oil was found they did well supplying the field equipment. However, Oklahoma has never been a hub of Jewish culture. Indeed, Oklahoma is considered a "fly over" state by most of the U.S., including my family and colleagues on the coasts, a place with little to offer in the way of "culture." Since coming to this state nine years ago to teach at the University, I have found that Oklahoma is a fasci- nating place from which to relearn U.S. history, here at the crossroads of so many cultures. Yet, somehow this place at the very center is invisible to those with another narrative of what it means to be "American." Perhaps this is part of what makes it a fitting place to teach a course about Jews in other places, Jews on the ideological margins, places that are usually not marked prominently on the global Jewish map.

Given the small population of Jews in the state (officially less than 5000 in 2012, representing 0.1% of the population), it is not surprising that the flagship state university has a very small number of Jewish students (and a good many of those are from Texas, especially the Dallas-Forth Worth area). Indeed, I know more Jewish and Jewish-descended faculty (all from out of state) than the total of Jewish students out of the thousands of stu- dents who have ever taken a class from me at this university. All of this is to say that OU is not a particularly "Jewish" place, by which I mean that there is not an obvious constituency for teaching a course about global Jewish cultures. Many of the students who pursue Hebrew or Judaic Studies are Christian, even Evangelical, and their interest in Jewish topics stems from their interest in roots Christianity, rather than in Jews per se. The only stu- dent who has ever missed my classes for the Jewish holidays was a funda- mentalist Christian, who among other things set up a sukkah on the shores of a nearby lake with his friends. As I write, I have one former student who did her honors thesis with me on a Jewish topic who is overseas on a pro- tracted Christian mission, while another (Christian) anthropology major with a minor in Hebrew is studying for the semester in Israel. However, most of the students who have taken my Anthropology of Jews and Jewishness course come with little to no knowledge about Jews. For those on the coasts it may be hard to imagine a student body that is unfamiliar with even the shallow knowledge of Jewishness that comes from living in proximity and that infuses popular television and film, but the great majority of students here really are ignorant in the simplest of ways. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.