It’s All Good
The holiday period finds us on the road to Clara (see the previous Blog entry), but it’s also time to reflect on the year winding up. For me, there is little doubt that the major milestone was taking and passing my Ph.D. comprehensive exams. While I know most will agree that’s important, it pales beside the accomplishments of other members of the family. Terri has once again hit the ball out of the park as Dean of Arts and Sciences at U-Tenn. Ephraim completed his MS degree in Geography (specializing in GIS systems) and has found his first real job. Shoshana has configured her life in a way that allows her to both work in a vitally important profession (critical care for our veterans) but still finds lots of time to spend with Clara. And Karl completed a term as interim director of his federal agency and has returned to the scientific role he loves.
About that Ph.D.
Some might think I’m being overly modest about passing that exam, but after all it isn’t my first time at this stage of academic progress. Twice before I’ve reached the point of writing a dissertation, and twice before life intervened to direct me to other pursuits. I regret none of that–my choices allowed me to find Terri and I had a good and rewarding career as a professional in the campus Hillel at UC-Berkeley followed by more than twenty years in Information Technology at U-Michigan. During those decades I kept up my Hebrew and Jewish studies by, among other things, teaching regular courses at Lansing’s Congregation Kehillat Israel.
I would see the attainment of a Ph.D. at this point in my life as something of a vanity quest if it weren’t for the fact that I am teaching courses at U-Tenn now. The primary meat-and-potatoes of this new academic career for me are courses in the Religious Studies Department of U-Tenn such as Beginning and Intermediate Biblical Hebrew and Introduction to Judaism.
The latter is an interesting exercise. I never taught the course by the same name at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica where I spent 9 years. At least during that time it was always taught by a rabbi and was seen as a gateway to conversion to Judaism. That would certainly not be an acceptable way to teach a course at a public University! In fact, it is critically important that we study Judaism in the same way that we study Christianity, Islam and other religions in order to obtain as objective as possible an understanding of the contributions and issues that these intellectual and ethnic movements and ideologies have raised in the world in which we live.
As rewarding as these courses have been for me, they are all at the most basic level because with just an M.A., that is what I am allowed to teach. If I want to have a chance at teaching something more advanced, I have to have that Ph.D. And so that is the motivation. But it’s a bit of a vanity quest too. 🙂
Now that I’ve passed the exams, I have three more upper level classes to complete all of which can be part of my dissertation effort and one of which has to be the start of that process. But enough of process! I’m sure at least some of you are wondering what I intend to work on. 37 or so years ago I was interested in political, ethnic, and military history. I arrived at graduate school in Berkeley having completed a prize-winning undergraduate thesis which was a study of what can be known about an obscure conflict between Jews and Romans that took place during the term of the Roman emperor Trajan. You might think you have never heard of Trajan, but if you’ve ever looked at a map of the Roman Empire, you will usually find one that says something like, “The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan.” In other words, by many measures, Trajan was the most powerful emperor in the history of that world power. And the Jews in North Africa, Egypt, Cyprus, Syria, and Babylonia all rose against him.
My attempts to learn about this episode in Jewish history did not bear much fruit in the usual sense. The truth is we will probably never know very much about it. Unlike the major revolt documented by Josephus decades earlier, we have no Josephus for this era. Even the Bar Kokhba revolt a few decades hence has more documentation. So what began as a quest to learn about this event turned into a quest to understand just what the historical sources could actually be for such an event. And that led me to Jewish, Christian, and pagan sources, inscriptions, paintings and all sorts of arcane things. My interests broadened to the social and religious, and in recent years I have become fascinated by the question of just how different Christianity and Judaism were in the first two centuries of the followers of Jesus.
And in other parts of life
While teaching and studying consumed a large part of my waking hours last year, I’m happy to say that there was so much more! The previous year I at long last faced the music and had my left knee replaced, and that has led to a resurgence in my physical activities. I’m now going to the gym three times a week again and walking an average of 8 miles a day.
Terri and I have a wonderful and full social life which includes many dinners with friends, and enjoying many of the plays and music that Knoxville has to offer. As I hope you already know, Tennessee is the “Music State”–and that isn’t limited to Country music. Broadway shows come to the magnificent Tennessee Theater. The University sports three stages which are used for the incomparable productions of the U-Tenn Theater department, one of just a few combination professional/educational companies in the country. And if that isn’t enough, Knoxville has a wonderful volunteer company called the Tennessee Valley Players. Knoxville has a professional orchestra which performs symphonies and opera. And the School of Music has more productions than we can keep track of, and I have thoroughly enjoyed every performance I have been lucky enough to hear.
Knoxville is, of course, one of the major centers of the Appalachian region and that means Bluegrass music and moonshine. I haven’t found the latter to be all that appealing, but the former is a constant great pleasure. No matter where you are reading this, you can enjoy some great live Bluegrass music every week day at noon (Eastern Time). Just point your computer to WDVX.com and for that lunch hour you’ll hear two different music acts live on stage. If you’re in town, the performances are held in the main room of the Knoxville Visitor’s Bureau, downtown. The station plays recorded Bluegrass and old-time Country music the rest of the day. All sorts of live music acts are held at two theaters–the Bijou and the Laurel, and on just about any night you can hear good music at bars and clubs sprinkled throughout the area.
I can’t leave the theater/music scene without a mention of a rather extraordinary experience Terri and I enjoyed during this holiday season. We were invited to Pigeon Forge (best known as the home of Dollywood) to hear the Christmas Show at a venue called the Smoky Mountains Opry (not to be confused with Nashville’s Grand Old Opry). This is one of many entertainment venues in the area, but it is quite amazing. The auditorium easily holds as many people as the largest theater in Knoxville. The Christmas show was not at all what I expected. It resembled the show at Radio City Music Hall (NYC) more than anything else in my experience. The first half of the show was winter and holiday music with a distinctive Tin Pan Alley/Broadway sound. Almost nothing of a religious nature. After the intermission, the second half built towards a number of the best known Christmas carols–but that would have been true at Radio City for their Christmas show too. In addition to the singing (which was polished and professional) there was a plethora of comedy, ballet, and magic acts. Yes, there was an Evangelical cast to the production, and you’d have to be deaf and blind not to notice the Christian (and not Catholic) overtones, but I found it all tasteful and and not as heavy handed as I had feared making the journey up to Pigeon Forge. Our host lamented that as good as the production is, and as well attended as it seemed to be, the company is having a tough time financially. He noted that although there are many tourists to the area, these venues are all heavily dependent on local patronage, and Appalachians don’t have the money to spend that would turn operations more plentiful. ‘Nuff said on that point.
The Malcolms joined us for Passover Seder this year, and we have this photo of Ephraim and Karl enjoying some TV while Miss Clara naps at her uncle’s side.
We did have a summer vacation this year which took us north to Lansing, Traverse City, Marquette, Houghton, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. I know I’m risking overstaying my welcome with you, so here is just one photo of Terri enjoying the scene on Portage Lake.
I can hardly believe that we have been in Knoxville for 4 years now, and my first ‘term’ as Dean will wrap up June 30. Do not worry — I very much enjoy this very busy job and if asked I expect to continue for another term. Our first year I did not think we would ever acclimate to the climate, but we have — and I have even succeeded in creating a small, successful vegetable garden that was planted the first weekend of April, and I finally gave up protecting from light frost just before Thanksgiving. As a midwesterner, I marvel at the duration of the growth season, as well as the wide variety of plants that are successfully grown in this area.
I love my job because it takes me into all corners of this exciting university, all over the state of Tennessee and into most major cities in the eastern half of the country. I never imagined that I would so enjoy the job of “selling” my college and university — but, I guess it is true that when you believe in your “product” it is not hard to do so. It is not always easy, and helping to push a college/university into its best self is always slower than one would prefer. But, after 4 years, it is very clear to everyone on campus that we are modernizing and improving at a rapid rate. I give much credit for the success to the university’s leadership and their willingness (need) to involve everyone from top management, professors, facilities staff and students. Sometimes these gains come despite the state’s local politicians!
Wrapping up — we have made many wonderful new friends of all ages, learned to enjoy and adapt to (if not always love) the local cuisine, and love the breadth of music, theater and dance. While we may not always agree with all the local political perspectives, it has led us to be very active with the Jewish community and the League of Women Voters. And no matter what, the conversations are civil and people are invariably kind and polite. I have found Tennessee’s culture has much to recommend it! As Jack always says — we are in the cross-roads to many places with I-75 and I-40 crossing very near us. So y’all drop in and visit — we have plenty of room! If you particularly love growing plants, come visit the Smoky Mountains in late April for the Wildflower Pilgrimage. It is inexpensive, wonderful way to learn a great deal while spending a day or three in the beautiful outdoors.