Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Vanessa L. Ochs

University of Virginia

I didn't go into Jewish Studies. I landed there.

A dozen years ago, the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Virginia decided the time was ripe to create a Jewish Studies Program and a major in Jewish Studies. My partner, Peter Ochs, who has a great imagination, was asked to bring it into being and initially, I was invited to join the faculty. I was just finishing my PhD in Anthropology of Religion at Drew University at the time and was a senior fellow at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Leaning and Leadership in New York. But mostly, until that point, I was a writer who taught classes in Writing and Women in Religion.

After a year of teaching at UVA and being responsible for the fledgling undergraduates studying Judaism at UVA, my department chair told me that the dean wanted me to be the director of the Jewish Studies Program. I said I was flattered and would think about it, and the chair said, no, this was the dean's decision, not mine.

Was this plausible? I had picked up skills in fundraising and dealing with donors from my work at CLAL, so I figured I could do that part, and as one of the directors of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, I had learned to speak persuasively in public. But I had no experience in any other aspects of academic administration: creating a faculty, negotiating, programming, grant writing, hiring, and so forth. Beyond that, I didn't picture myself as a Jewish Studies scholar (I had in mind people who seemed to fit the bill: Judith Baskin, Deborah Dash Moore, David Ruderman, and the late Judah Goldin, a friend of mine at the time). True, my work as a writer and anthropologist focused on Jews, but still . . . the turn to "cultural studies" for Jewish Studies scholarship had yet to have the status it does now.

I didn't yet know that for most academics who take on administrative responsibilities, it is "Amateur Hour," at least initially. And I didn't yet know that most people who find themselves in Jewish Studies, even those directing programs, consider themselves, compared to others who are "legit," to be imposters. It turned out that the dean had good instincts: I learned on the job and embraced my new identity as the first Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies, a role that my colleague Gabriel Finder is now interpreting in his own way.