Renowned Scholar of Judaic Studies Brings Fresh Perspective to New MA

September 2011

Columbian College is taking the study of Jewish expression to an exciting new level with the Master’s Program in Jewish Cultural Arts, the first of its kind in the country. This month, we sat down with Jenna Weissman Joselit—the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and director of Columbian College’s Judaic Studies Program—to learn more about the new MA and the motivation behind its creation.

What inspired you and your colleagues to launch a master’s program in Jewish Cultural Arts? How will the degree add to the discipline of Judaic Studies?

For several years now I’ve been thinking about how best to preserve, transmit, and build on the rich cultural patrimony of the Jews. The new MA will provide the resources and the infrastructure needed to engage, train, and inspire a new generation to cultivate, create, and promote Jewish culture. The program underscores the primacy of culture in all of its varied expressions—the visual arts, dance, film, music, theatre—to Judaic Studies. Jewish cultural arts are central, even indispensable, to understanding the Jewish historical experience. By integrating them into the curriculum, the repertoire of sources on which Judaic Studies rests will be greatly expanded and enriched.

The program is multi-faceted, combining training not just in Judaic Studies, but also in museum studies, fine arts, marketing and fiscal management. For what type of careers will the degree prepare graduates?

The objectives of the program are two-fold. First, it will train students to become cultural arts ambassadors, entrepreneurs and impresarios as well as the purveyors of other forms of inventive cultural programming such as gallery managers, educators, and organizers of film festivals and concerts. Second, our program will produce graduates who will emerge from their training as informed citizens of the republic of Jewish arts and letters and will be committed to the ongoing cultivation of Jewish culture.

You’re currently writing a book about America’s relationship to the Ten Commandments. Tell us more about that project.

Much like the MA, my book explores the complex and imaginative ways by which a culture gives voice to its sense of self. The book project—which moves from the discovery in antebellum America of a Ten Commandments’ stone in an Indian burial mound in Ohio to the planting of six-foot monuments in the civic squares of postwar America—looks at the historical process by which Americans made the Ten Commandments their very own.

What is the one thing about you or your work that would most surprise people?

My abiding fidelity to the study and interpretation of the ordinary and the commonplace, the intimate details of daily life, or what Grace Paley, one of my favorite writers, evocatively called the “little disturbances of man.” 



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