Even though he was only four when he moved from Italy to America, Andrew Viterbi grew up in a Jewish household surrounded by Italian culture.
Viterbi started to develop an interest in his roots, and to protect and teach about his heritage, Viterbi and his family have established a $1.4 million endowment in Mediterranean Jewish studies through the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.
"The history (of Italian Jews) goes back many generations, and I would like to protect that heritage," Viterbi said. "The heritage is well known to scholars, but is not only unknown, but a contradiction in terms in the U.S."
Viterbi's interest in Italian Jewish studies, and more broadly in Mediterranean studies, was fostered mainly through his parents. His father was an owner of an ophthalmology practice in Italy when the government suddenly shut it down because of his Jewish heritage during the fascist regime. His parents left the country shortly after.
"They found the environment very unfriendly. After my father was fired, it seemed like the right thing to do to get out of the country," Viterbi said. "They escaped early."
Viterbi is a former UCLA professor of engineering and the man known for creating the Viterbi algorithm, which is used in virtually every digital cell phone to eliminate cell phone signal interference.
He said he hopes that the new Mediterranean program will generate greater understanding for the often-overlooked Jewish history in Italy and parts of the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean Jewish program is the first of its kind in the world, said David Myers, a professor of history and the director of the Center for Jewish Studies.
The new program is an outgrowth of the three-year pilot Italian Jewish studies program, also sponsored by Viterbi, and will teach about the history, art, culture and politics of Jews in that area.
The Italian Jewish studies program gained much popularity, and as a result, the center asked Viterbi if he would be interested in expanding it to include a greater area of study, Myers said.
"It draws upon our mission, the mission of the Center of Jewish Studies, to embrace Jewish culture and civilization in their widest possible forms as well as our desire to understand Jewish culture and civilization in interactions with the world around," Myers said.
"What is so significant about this gift is that it allows us to focus attention, foster scholarship and offer courses in one of the most interesting, consequential and colorful regions of the world."
Viterbi said he is excited about this new program as it encompasses a much larger area than the Italian program.
"The Mediterranean was a region that Jews thrived in for thousands of years," Viterbi said.
He said he is confident the program will bring scholars from all over the world to UCLA.
The program will be created so that an undergraduate and a graduate class will be offered in Mediterranean Jewish studies one quarter every year, starting next spring.
In addition, during the rest of the year, there will be speakers, symposiums and other ways in which the public can become more familiarized with Judaism in the Mediterranean region.
Myers said the Mediterranean program will be very similar to the Italian one, which focuses on both scholarly and cultural activities.
"We do plan to continue with an active array of programs, some more scholarly, others really fun and engaging that have to do with food, culture, music," Myers said.
One of the memorable events of the Italian Jewish studies program, Myers said, was when a famous Italian chef was invited to the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Jewish Life at UCLA to teach kosher Italian cooking, while another guest speaker spoke about the significance of the food the chef was cooking.
Myers said he hopes such interactive and informational events will be part of the Mediterranean studies program as well.
Tim Stowell, dean of humanities, said he thinks the Mediterranean Jewish studies program is great for the Jewish department.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for Jewish studies to expand in a new area of scholarship that focuses of the cradle of Jewish civilization, the Mediterranean," Stowell said.