by Cindy Beer
Jeffrey Haus' 13-year-old self would never have guessed that he'd grow up to be a professor of Jewish studies. That Haus has become an expert of anything Jewish is one of the great ironies of his life, he says.
"If I wasn't the worst, I was certainly one of the worst students in my synagogue religious school," says the Director of Kalamazoo College's Jewish Studies Program. "I played hooky all the time to the point of almost being expelled. I was the problem child."
Today, Haus holds a Ph.D. in Modern Jewish History and is considered an authority on many things Jewish. He has taught and lectured widely on modern Judaism and Jewish history and has authored articles on French Jewry. In March, he published a book examining the history of Jews in 19th century France.
Kalamazoo College hired Haus in 2005 after Helen Etkin '76, currently a College trustee, generously donated seed money to establish an endowment for Jewish learning and exploration. Her intent was "to help provide an environment that supports Jewish students' learning about themselves and the world and, at the same time, promotes the world learning about Judaism." Since being named Director of Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor of History and Religion, Haus has been successful in building a program of study that gives students - Jews and non-Jews alike - opportunities to think critically about the world around them through exploration of the history, religion, politics, and culture of the Jewish people. He has also made strides in creating a more comfortable environment for Jewish students on campus and in extending learning opportunities to the Kalamazoo community through public lectures and cultural programming.
Haus was granted tenure in May. Here, he talks with BeLight about his work, the breadth of the Jewish Studies Program, why it's important at "K," his views on teaching, and his hopes for the program's future.
First of all, how did you go from rejecting your Jewish education as a youth to becoming a maven in that very subject?
I guess you could say it was because of girls. I went to a private middle school that was all boys, then to a high school that had just turned co-ed, so there still weren't many girls around. When my brother joined USY [United Synagogue Youth], I noticed he suddenly knew all these girls. So I joined too. There were older high school girls who would actually talk to me. It changed my relationship with Judaism a great deal.
Eventually I got very involved in the organization, attending conventions and serving on the regional general board. When I started at the University of Michigan and had to take a language, I chose Hebrew. I had already taken Spanish in high school, and French didn't appeal to me at all - another great irony, considering that's what I now study.
I began taking more and more classes on Judaism: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Holocaust, biblical history, and so on. After my sophomore year I spent six weeks in Israel, first living on a kibbutz and then touring. I loved it there and wanted to go back, so after I graduated, I volunteered with Sherut La'Am - that's Hebrew for "service to the people." I studied Hebrew for three months in Tiberias, then taught English at an elementary school in Nazerat-Ilit.
At about that time, I decided I wanted to get a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies, then work in foreign service or politics. After working briefly in politics, I opted for an academic career in Jewish history. I was advised to study as many languages as possible, so I learned French and German. My first year in graduate school (at Brandeis University), I had to write a seminar paper based on original research about European Jewry. So I poked around the college library and found a collection of French Jewish periodicals from the 19th century. In researching the career of one the journal's editors, I became interested in the relationship between Judaism and the French state during that period. That topic eventually formed the foundation for my dissertation. It also led to several articles and became the basis for my book, Challenges of Equality: Judaism, State, and Education in Nineteenth-Century France (Wayne State University Press, 2009).
So instead of foreign service or politics, you found yourself enamored with research. How has your research progressed and where do you see it going in the future?
I got interested in education history because it seemed obvious to me that there is a close relationship between what people do and how they view the world. My book examines how the French government was able to influence this worldview based on its financial relationship with Jewish education. My future research will pursue another side of this question: the relationship between Jews and money in France. Again, I plan on exploring how a basic necessity - working for a living - has influenced the way that Jews respond to the world around them.
How did you end up teaching at "K"?
I got into the Jewish Studies field because of the research aspect, and along the way I found out that I liked teaching. I was teaching at the University of North Carolina (Greensboro) when this job announcement appeared. The College wanted to bring in a faculty member who could build a Jewish Studies program, teach classes, advise the Jewish Student Organization, and organize Jewish cultural programming for the campus community as well as the public. I thought it was worth taking a chance.
Kalamazoo College is a small school with presumably a small Jewish student population. Why do you think a Jewish Studies Program has been able to succeed here?
It's important to realize that the Jewish Studies Program is not just for Jewish students. The vast majority of students in my classes, obviously, are not Jewish. Some of them have Jewish ancestry but weren't raised as Jews and want to discover their heritage. A number of them are religion majors who have been advised that they can't be a religion major without knowing something about Judaism. Others want to study Jewish history and Judaism to better understand the world around them. Then there are Jewish students who are committed to learning more about their religion and the legacy of their people.
So the fact that "K" is a small college with a small contingent of Jewish students really has no bearing on the program's success. What does have bearing is, first, the students' desire and willingness to understand the world more fully and, second, the program's ability not just to teach them about Jewish history and culture but also to get them to use that knowledge to think critically about the world. By exploring the experience of one group of people, our students begin to understand the experience and interrelation of all of humanity. They confront important social and ethical issues and respond with thoughtful discussions. This intellectual process reflects the goals of a liberal arts education.
In what other ways do students benefit?
Our students should learn about as many different groups who are not themselves as they can. That's the currency of the world right now, being able to move in different worlds comfortably. It's the currency in the business world. If you're a doctor, you need to be able to relate to different kinds of people; if you're a lawyer, you need to talk to different kinds of people. The Jewish Studies Program opens their eyes to people of a different culture and history.
I don't think you can really understand Christianity, for example, without understanding something about Judaism. Many students tell me they understand their own traditions better after taking my classes. They'll say, "I never read the Bible that way." It's a different Bible, when it's seen from a historical rather than a theological perspective, and from a Jewish rather than specifically Christian one.
The program also contributes to a sense of diversity on campus. "K" has worked to become more sensitive to racial and gender diversity; I think religious diversity is the last hurdle. Students have also told me that they are comfortable identifying themselves as Jews on campus, some identifying themselves as Jews for the first time anywhere. To me, that's one of the great values of the program: for students to discover things about themselves, discover things they're interested in and want to learn more about.
Can you talk about what it took to build a Jewish Studies Program from scratch? What does the program look like today?
From the outset, I wanted the program to connect students with a variety of disciplines and areas of knowledge. At the same time, I thought it would benefit the College and the students if the program reached out to the broader Kalamazoo community as well. The academic side was the easiest part to get started. Because I had a lot of Jewish Studies experience, I came to Kalamazoo with five or six courses ready to go. I also drew from what already existed here. The Religion Department was teaching a class on the Old Testament, so I brought that into the program. There was a political science course on the politics of the Holocaust, so I brought that in, too. Today the program typically offers six or seven courses in a given school year (see sidebar).
I supplement the academic program with guest lectures once or twice a year. To my mind, college is about exposing yourself to different ideas, but when you're the only person in a particular field on campus, it's very easy for students to think you know everything there is to know. So bringing in people from the outside to talk about their work expands the knowledge available for the students. The more they can learn from as many people as possible, the better off they are. Also, on a professional level, it helps me maintain my contacts and keep up with what's going on in the field.
When I bring a guest lecturer in, it's usually in conjunction with a class I'm teaching. The students typically will have read something the speaker wrote so they can talk about it. I also ask the guest to give a public lecture for the community. In 2008, for instance, I was teaching a class called "Women and Judaism." One of the course books was Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Ritual, which examines the status of women in Jewish law by looking at certain lifecycle rituals. To supplement the coursework I invited the book's author, Rochelle Millen, to visit campus and meet with my class. She also gave a public lecture at the college that was attended by the wider Kalamazoo community. Other visitors have been Arnost Lustig, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and writer, and Anthony Polonsky, one of the top scholars in Polish Jewry. And they're not always academic lectures. Michael Ungar, a "K" alumnus and rabbi from Columbus, Ohio, gave a very interesting talk about leading a Jewish mission to Cuba. All of these events gave students the opportunity to meet people they would not have ordinarily met, and learn from experts in their respective fields.
Earlier you mentioned that you also serve as faculty advisor for the Jewish Student Organization. Can you tell me about the organization and how you're involved?
The JSO promotes Jewish life on campus. The students do a great job organizing all kinds of programs, from Shabbat dinners and bagel-and-movie nights to programs on the genocide in Darfur. They host a campus-wide Passover Seder each year, which is very popular, and have brought in various speakers.
Being a faculty advisor can mean anything from signing checks to having a more hands-on involvement. Each year can be different in terms of how much the students want me involved. It's their organization, so I try to take the lead from them. But I do like them to take responsibility for themselves as much as possible. That's really the essence of my entire professional approach: Take responsibility for your education.
What have been your greatest challenges these last four years?
When I was on the job market, someone advised me, "Whatever you do, don't take a job where you have to be a Hillel* director and a teacher at the same time," because on Friday night, you're the students' buddy, enjoying Shabbat dinner with them, then on Monday you have to
"I try to get them to think about how things fit together."give one of them a D on a test. And that's true; I have had this issue with a few students. But generally I've been able to make it work.
The greater challenge has been positioning the program to be approved as an official concentration. Right now, I teach most of the courses that go with the program. To offer Jewish Studies as a concentration, we need other faculty members. That way, if I go on leave or sabbatical, students with a Jewish Studies concentration can still take courses.
* Hillel is a national Jewish campus organization. The Kalamazoo College Jewish Student Organization is affiliated with national Hillel but is not Hillel-accredited.
What has been the College's attitude toward the program?
The College remains very committed to the program. Fundraising for the endowment is ongoing, and both the President and the Provost are involved in it. I'm very grateful for that. For them to grant me tenure in this economic environment without a full endowment is an indication of their support for the program and the fact they think it's valuable. But the program doesn't start and stop with me; it needs to grow in the future The best thing we can do now is make friends for the program, create a network of people who think that we're building something important. Slowly but surely we're getting people on board. My dream is to have one other full-time person who teaches topics I don't teach, maybe rabbinical texts, the Hebrew language, Hebrew literature. There's a great deal of interest among students to study Hebrew, and not just among the Jewish students. It would really increase interest in Israel for study abroad. Typically we send one or two students to Israel each year; the student who went this year, who isn't Jewish, would have loved to have studied Hebrew before she went.
I'd also like to be able to do more cultural programming for students, faculty and the community, maybe bring in a contemporary Jewish music band from Chicago or a Jewish-oriented drama performance.
You seem to have something of a reputation among students for being a tough teacher. Does that surprise you?
No, because I do put a lot of demands on my students in terms of honing their ideas and making them as sophisticated as possible. What I want in any course is for students to develop their critical and analytical skills and to express those ideas clearly in their writing. It's important, for example, that students understand the purpose of an essay. It's not to show me how many different sources they used and how much they know. I want them to tell me what they think about an idea and to make a case for why they think they're correct. I try to get them to think about how things fit together. If they find that things that don't go together, based on their ideas, they need to change the information or change what they think. Changing the information usually isn't an option, so they have to change what they think to fit the evidence before them. It's a very difficult thing for many people to do, but students should want to be challenged. I tell them that if they think a class is easy, they should feel like they're getting ripped off.
What do you like most about working at "K"?
There are many reasons I enjoy being here, but above all, I enjoy the students and my relationships with them. I've taught in six places now, and it's clear that this institution is different than the others. Classroom dynamics aren't that different, but I find I can have a higher level of conversation with many of the students.
Your research was your springboard to teaching and remains an important component of your work. Do you think of yourself as a professor who does research, or as a researcher who teaches?
I think of myself as a scholar, and a scholar is someone who not only goes out and learns but also researches and teaches. I don't think those two functions need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I like to create a connection between my research and my teaching whenever possible. In my Modern European classes, for example, some of the discussions about the relationship between education, identity, and citizenship have come directly out of my research. I think my next research topic will translate even better to a course setting.
It's very difficult to be a good college instructor if you're not engaged in some sort of research. The students get really excited if you're excited about what you're teaching them. And it keeps you from giving them the same old, yellowed lecture notes every year.
What does being tenured mean to you?
Receiving tenure is one of the highlights of an academic career. It's a great feeling of accomplishment. But I don't view getting tenure as the end of anything. This, for me, represents a step in a longer journey. The first step in the College's commitment to the Jewish Studies program was hiring me; the next step was tenuring me. Now, work needs to done in order to build on those two things - in terms of programming and in terms of financial support, from alumni and from other sources.
I look at being tenured this way: I would never have bought furniture with my wife when we were dating, but when we got married, it was time to start thinking about what kind of couch we wanted. It's the same now between the College and me: the dating part of our relationship is over, and now we can go buy furniture. To take the analogy further, let me say I'm optimistic that the College and I will soon produce offspring who teach Hebrew language and literature.
Jeffrey Haus recalls the day he discovered this serigraph by Ben Shahn at the Upjohn Library. He had been working on revisions to his book when he happened to look up and glimpse the art on the wall. Titled Warsaw, 1943, the serigraph laments the futile attempt by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to resist the Nazis. The Hebrew text comes from Jewish prayer liturgy commemorating earlier Jewish martyrs killed because of their religious faith. Haus has pointed this print out to visitors, and has since come across other Jewish-themed artwork hanging in the library.