For Professor Jeffrey Shoulson, the new director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, the classroom is only the starting point for highlighting the University’s expanding focus on scholarship related to Jews and Judaism.
“We’re talking now about what I’m calling the ‘Judaic Studies Road Show,’” says Shoulson, who came to Storrs in the fall from the University of Miami, and is also the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies.
“We’re looking at doing lectures and presentations that will happen not just here on campus, but throughout the state,” he says. “One of the challenges I’m most interested in engaging is to bring what we have to offer to the whole community, and not just the Jewish community.”
That ambition is part of the overall approach to Judaic Studies at UConn, which grew last year not only with Shoulson’s appointment, but with the arrival of Professor Susan Einbinder from Hebrew Union College as well, joining Professor Stuart Miller in the literature, culture, and languages department.
That means the University can offer three times as many courses in Judaic Studies, which as part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences draws on everything from literature to history to the study of languages.
“One of the things I want to encourage in our program is that interdisciplinary focus,” Shoulson says. “We’ve got a lot of overlap with departments like anthropology, philosophy, art history. It’s very exciting.”
UConn’s Judaic Studies program will also differ from other colleges and universities in the northeast by focusing on the classical, medieval, and early modern periods, Shoulson says. Many Judaic Studies programs are almost exclusively focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, and while those aspects of Jewish life and culture will be present in UConn’s program, expanding the scope of scholarship provides a fuller and more complex picture of the Jewish experience.
Miller, for example, is a renowned expert on Roman Palestine, while Einbinder is nationally recognized for her work on medieval European Jews. Shoulson is a widely cited authority on the early modern period, including the ways in which ideas about Jews and Judaism influenced English culture and civilization even after the expulsion of most Jews from the country.
His latest book, Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England, to be published next month by the University of Pennsylvania Press, examines how this process touched on everything from the so-called King James translation of the Bible, to the pseudoscientific discipline of alchemy, to radical 17th century religious sects.
“The book makes the argument that while it’s perplexing that there could be this influence despite the absence of a visible Jewish community, it’s ultimately that absence that helps makes English fantasies about Jews and Judaism so powerful,” he says.
Shoulson, a Princeton alum who earned an M.Phil. at Cambridge University and Ph.D. at Yale, says that one of the things that drew him to UConn was the unique climate of growth and expansion, as evinced by initiatives like the effort to hire roughly 300 additional tenure-track faculty launched by President Susan Herbst.
“I was really struck by what’s going on at UConn,” he said. “We’re in a period of time when a lot of institutions, especially state institutions, are shrinking, and UConn is going in the other direction.”