Academics Blog

Jewish Studies

Name: Heather Barbakoff

Year: Class of 2009

Hometown: East Setauket, NY

Major: English, Writing Seminars

Minor: Jewish Studies, History

I guess you can sort of say that I fell into being a Jewish Studies minor. I never intended to be able to graduate with a double major (English and Writing Seminars) and a double minor (History and Jewish Studies). But that’s one of the best things about the Jewish Studies minor; it’s sneaky. You think you’re fulfilling major requirements and this class looks cool and bang! Another class out of the six you need to minor done. Like this esoteric sounding philosophy class? An art history class? A history class? Want to learn about Sex in the Garden? All cross-listed with Jewish Studies. That’s the beauty – you can fulfill the minor by studying a large variety of different things.

687px-Hebrew_Chai_Symbol.svg It began freshman year when I discovered a history course entitled “Jewish Spaces.” The real course title was long and included a variety of things I had never heard of before until I reached the word “shtetl” and thought Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition, that was something I knew about. So I took it – the class was the most work I had had (hey, I was a freshman) and the concept of taking a 300 level course scared me. But I wanted to be a history minor, and the other course offerings that semester didn’t interest me as much.

Then I found out that I could take Modern Hebrew and fulfill my language requirements with something other than Spanish or French. I saw some really interesting comparative literature classes and wouldn’t you know – they’re all in the department. It wasn’t until I was over half of the way done with the minor that I realized that Hopkins even offered one. I thought: I need to let people know!

The minor is a great opportunity to learn and read things that don’t typically appear in academia. Just take a brief look at some of the courses offered for this semester. The offerings range from history to politics to film.

AS.130.313 (01)  Incantations, Prayer, Power, and Despair: Religion in Bible and Its World
AS.130.348 (01)  Religious Law Wrestles With Change: The Case of Judaism
AS.190.408 (01)  Advanced Readings in Middle East History & Politics
AS.191.324 (01)  Spinoza: Secular Jew and Modern Thinker
AS.210.164 (01)  Elementary Yiddish II
AS.213.336 (01)  Dancing About Architecture: Jewish Humor and the Construction of Cultural
AS.214.340 (01)  Holocaust & Film

The minor requires that a minimum of six courses (at least 18 credits) be taken that have been approved by the Advisory Committee of the Jewish Studies Program. The classes must be in at least two different departments and there must be at least three 300 (upper level) classes included. You’re encouraged to take Hebrew (two classes at intermediate or higher of Hebrew can be counted towards the minor) or another language that is related to the Jewish experience – like Yiddish or Arabic. That’s it.

Amos_Oz_by_Kubik I personally would recommend the literature classes – not just because I’m an English major, but because I was introduced to a whole other realm of writers I would not have known about through taking the lit classes; men and women who wrote primarily in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Czech and other foreign languages that I would not have heard of otherwise, such as Amos Oz, Danilo Kis, and Yosef Haim Brenner. I actually had the opportunity to travel to Israel this past Intersession and in Tel Aviv, the tour guide stopped us in the middle of this old neighborhood.

“This,” said the guide. “Is a really artsy place in the city. Lots of famous writers live here, like the pioneer of Modern Hebrew literature.”

And little bells went off in my head. This sounded familiar.

He went on to talk about how before Israel had declared independence in 1948, there was a big debate going on about which language should be spoken in what was then called Palestine. A very very long story short (if you want all the details, I’d recommend you speak with Professor Marc Caplan, who’s teaching the Jewish Humor course… my traveling-friends have him to thank for my occasional rambles about the crisis of language in Israel) the guide concluded with:

“And his name was Y.H. Brenner.”

And I pumped my fist in the air, jumped up and screamed “YES! I’ve read him!”

Actually, no, I’m not that big of a dork. But I did feel really happy because I knew whom he was talking about, and I was able to contribute some information about Brenner.  I love it when things you learn in the classroom are relevant to real life; it makes you feel like you’ve invested your time well.

Fiddler_on_the_roof_fiddler I think that traveling to Israel this past January had great significance to me, perhaps beyond the traditional feelings of connection to the place due to the religious/cultural significance, due to the fact that I’m a Jewish Studies minor. I took some Hebrew, and while I was by no means able to sit down and discuss Spinoza in Hebrew with Israelis (well, maybe I couldn’t do that in English either….) I was able to enjoy recognizing street signs and tidbits of conversations. The history classes I took allowed me to know the historical significance of where we went. My trip would definitely not have been the same without having taken the courses this department offers.

But even if you don’t plan to travel to Israel – or you’re even Jewish – the department offers a plethora of intellectual opportunities that don’t stop at the classroom. Each semester, Jewish Studies hosts a series of lectures and conferences. Last March, I attended the conference on the Israeli writer, S. Yizhar, and this fall I attended a lecture about politics within the works of Samuel Beckett. This March, the department will be hosting a film entitled The Holocaust Children of the Perpetrators Confront their Parent’s Nazi Past Through Documentary Film. I am sure there will be other lectures upcoming that haven’t been announced yet. In addition to being interesting, these lectures provide the opportunity to explore subjects that are discussed in other department classes or that may not currently be offered.


Click here to access more information about the Jewish Studies Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the Jewish Studies question thread.