Students in classes about Judaism at Columbia are predominantly Jewish themselves, professors say, but the opportunities for diverse experiences in academia abound at all times and in all places—even in an empty classroom in Kent Hall.
Nearly empty, that is.
Professor David Weiss-Halivny, who teaches advanced Judaic classes in the religion department, tells of having a religious Muslim girl who asked permission to come a few minutes late to class for the semester. Weiss-Halivny, an Old World Jew who survived the Holocaust, granted the request, so long as she didn't disturb the class when she came in.
Then, one day, he realized he hadn't yet done his afternoon prayers. In the few minutes before class, he stepped into a nearby classroom he thought was empty only to find, and share, a pleasant surprise.
"My Muslim student was in there, and she was davening," Weiss-Halivny said, using the Yiddish expression for the act of prayer. "I then began my prayers. So there we both were, praying together."
The student and her presence in Weiss-Halivny's class represents a growing academic trend nationwide of non-Jews taking increasing interest in Jewish classes. The New York Times recently reported that 95 percent of the students in Jewish Studies classes at City College of New York are not Jewish, according to the program's director.
Professor Dan Miron, who teaches Zionism, Hebrew Literature, and Hebrew Biblical courses in MEALAC, says the trend cannot be verified completely at Columbia.
"The Bible classes draw many non-Jews," Miron said. "Most are Christians with Christian interests, making theologically-oriented comments. This is very welcome and very interesting."
Miron noted that the interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict by non-Jews dictated their enrollment in Jewish Culture classes, saying that the majority of students in the classes are Jewish, but that does not need to be the case.
"The non-Jews who come are fair-minded people interested in a burning topic on the international agenda," he said. "They want to know more, go deeper, on an academic level. Zionism is talked about very much on American campuses, usually negatively. Once they come to the class, they learn it's a vast subject with many ideas, some conflicting, not at all monolithic."
Ruben Harutunian, CC '05, is a non-Jewish MEALAC major who has lived in Israel. He started learning Arabic and became primarily interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but now wants to expand his knowledge into the Jewish perspective.
"A lot of people come into this discussion with polarized views," Harutunian said. "Many, myself included, have not searched out to see the other point of view. But the more polarized the argument gets, I would perceive there would be less interest in the Israeli/Jewish point of view."
Miron feels that increased non-Jewish interest, such as Harutunian's, is "a very positive sign."
"Interest always indicates the sense that something important is going on; a social experiment or cultural development that affects us all," he said. "Israel was that to many Americans in the '50s and '60s. It was idealized as a pioneer society, devoid of social alienation, which was a gross distortion at the time. That petered out, and has been replaced for many by a demonization that is at least as inaccurate as the ideal was to the reality."
The "inimical, hostile" attitude on many campuses has had tangential affects on other Jewish topics, according to Miron. He cited the apparent marginalization of Hebrew literature as an example.
Many feel that the academic reservoirs of other Jewish cultural experiences and contributions remained largely untapped outside the Jewish community.
"Standard history books mention the Jews and the Bible, then they're forgotten," Weiss-Halivny said. "They reappear in the Christian period, disappear, reappear in the Middle Ages as money lenders, disappear again, and reappear as Zionists a century ago. But we never really disappeared! Our culture was quite alive that whole time."
Students and faculty seem to agree on this point.
"We've been fighting for Hebrew culture to be introduced as a Major Culture requirement fulfillment," Miron said. "The answer we've got is that ‘it's part of the Western canon, why deal with it as we do Islam, Buddhism, or Japanese culture?' It was very difficult for Columbia College to realize that Hebrew culture is more than a few chapters in the Christian translation of the Bible taught in Lit Hum. You don't hear about the Talmud, Kabbalah, Hassidism, let alone about modern Hebrew culture."
Harutunian agreed, saying that it would not be beneficial to close oneself off academically from the subject.
"We study the Greeks and Latin, but Jews and Jewish culture have contributed a lot to society," he said. "It's just that there's such a big population of Jewish students on campus, Jewish subjects become catered to them so that they can learn their own tradition. This is fine, but it phases out other people with other interests."
Miron acknowledged another problem, caused by decentralization of Jewish classes. Unlike most universities, Columbia does not have a Jewish Studies department. This spreads courses thin between history, MEALAC, and religion departments. If interest grows, Miron predicted that it would be outside of MEALAC, though he wishes things were otherwise.
"The conflict is not the end all and be all," he said. "There's a society with many manifestations beyond political and military ones. I think it would be in MEALAC's interest to provide these studies."
"For the students and the general community," Harutunian added, "it would be really good if MEALAC got together and sat down as a department and decided to present a more balanced and appealing curriculum to the student body, one that was more inclusive, fostering an organic dialogue between cultures. That way ... you have to take these classes, the way science sequences are required."