For Deena Aranoff, Jewish study is countercultural.
Aranoff, who recently became director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, is a scholar of medieval Jewish studies who has devoted her career to teaching traditional texts both to graduate students and in the Jewish community at large.
“Having a relationship with the Jewish tradition both in terms of my practice of Jewish life and my engagement with the ideas of Judaism over time has been a huge and enriching part of my life,” said Aranoff, 40. “To the extent that there are others who find meaning in it, I’m so honored to be part of it.”
Aranoff grew up as one of six siblings in a Modern Orthodox family in Brooklyn. After graduating high school from Yeshivah of Flatbush, she attended Columbia University for her undergraduate and graduate studies. She completed a Ph.D. in Jewish history in 2006 and has spent the last 10 years as a professor of medieval Jewish studies at the Center for Jewish Studies.
As she steps into her role as director (outgoing director Naomi Seidman, who held the position for 16 years, will stay on the faculty), Aranoff said she’s looking forward to continuing the center’s commitment to high-quality humanities programs. Fostering critical thinking and engagement with challenging cultural texts is a way to counter today’s popular culture, she said, which she believes breeds “discontent, distractedness and pessimism.”
The Center for Jewish Studies encourages students to unite contemporary scholarship with ancient themes by emphasizing a strong grounding in classical Jewish texts, while supporting thesis projects on subjects that range from moon worship to tattoos to Jewish female ballads. The small program enrolls about 25 students at a time, mostly master’s students who may end up pursuing doctorates or applying to rabbinical school, Aranoff said. The center also hosts about 20 public programs every semester.
“Our hope is it contributes to more subtle thinking in the Jewish world and beyond,” Aranoff said. “I’m very excited to be the custodian of that process for our degree students and for the larger Bay Area community.”
In fact, Aranoff regularly teaches in programs outside of GTU. She’s taught for Kevah, the Berkeley-based organization that facilitates small, community-based Jewish learning groups, as well as for the Wexner Heritage Program, and she runs a Talmud Circle for Lehrhaus Judaica.
“A critical understanding of Judaism is an avenue of engagement,” Aranoff said. “It’s not that I have to check my historian’s hat at the door. I am the same teacher in all of those environments.”