Portland State University's new professor of classical rabbinic Judaism said he accepted the job because, "They were looking for me."
Loren Spielman is the third tenure-line professor hired for PSU's Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies. The university was able to hire Spielman thanks to a Jewish Studies Expansion Project grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, which covers half the cost of the position for two years. Though five universities got the grant, PSU is the only one to turn the fellowship into a permanent professorship.
"I get to concentrate on the ancient period," said Spielman, whose dissertation focused on Jewish attitudes toward Roman spectacle entertainment from the reign of Herod the Great (37 BCE) to the Muslim conquest of Palestine (640 CE). "In many places, Judaic studies professors teach introduction to Judaism and other general courses. I get to use my expertise."
PSU's Judaic Studies Academic Director Michael Weingrad, also a professor in the department, agrees that Spielman is a good fit for the growing department, which will soon hire a fourth faculty member and start a major in Judaic studies. In early 2009, Natan Meir became PSU's second full-time JS professor when he was hired as the Lorry I. Lokey Chair in Judaic Studies.
"Loren's expertise in Jewish culture in antiquity allows our program to cover much more of the broad sweep of the history of the Jewish people," said Weingrad. "He is an excellent scholar, and moreover his wonderful touch as a teacher was evident from the moment he interacted with our students."
This fall, Spielman is teaching a class on ancient Jewish history, focusing on the second Temple period. Next quarter he will teach a rabbinic literature and culture class and a history of the Israelite religion. In the spring, he will teach "Rereading the Bible," about early biblical interpretations including midrash and early Christian interpretations.
"I think it's more interesting to talk about how people read the Bible than the Bible itself," he said.
Weingrad said Spielman's teaching load will increase after he completes his two-year fellowship, which includes other time commitments such as working with the cohort of five fellows on pedagogic issues and creating cultural programs locally.
Spielman earned his Ph.D. from the Jewish Theology Seminary of America this year. While JTS trains rabbis for the Conservative Movement, Spielman said The Graduate School is a non-denominational program in Judaic studies.
Spielman said that after a decade on a campus that also trained rabbis, "I am passionate about bringing academic Jewish studies to the pulpit and congregations."
"I'm also passionate about bringing a responsible and nuanced narrative of early Jewish history to all kinds of those culturally affiliated and to Jewish artists who work with Jewish texts," he said, noting he also wants to give college students studying ancient history a view of Jewish history in the era of the Romans and early Christianity.
His desire to reach out to the community fits in well with part of his mandate as a Schusterman fellow, as well as with PSU's community focused program. As part of his fellowship, Spielman will plan several cultural events over the next two years.
"His role planning public events as the Schusterman Teaching Fellow is perfect for our community-focused program," said Weingrad.
One community program Spielman has already signed on for, though not as part of his fellowship, is the Institute for Judaic Studies' Weekend in Quest Shabbaton event in March (see story below left). He said he is eager to be the scholar for this program because "I get to talk about the strange and esoteric texts I love." For instance, one of the weekend sessions will examine a third-century BCE Greek tragedy based on the story of Exodus.
In addition to finding a program that so closely meshed with his interests, Spielman said he also accepted the post because his wife, Michelle Flax, consented to move here.
He said as native New Yorkers who have spent nearly their entire lives in New York City, moving to Portland has been a bit of a culture shock. Though one thing they have found is that it is "unbelievably easy for us to get around on public transportation." A good thing, since neither has a driver's license, though Spielman said they are working on that. For now the MAX and bicycle are their primary mode of transportation.
Despite the culture shock, Spielman said, "I'm impressed with PSU and Portland in general. It's a cohesive Jewish community with a lot going on."
Jewish Review, 2010