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A New Face in History and Religion

Jasreen Gupta | New University
Jasreen Gupta | New University

UC Irvine professor of history chosen to fill vacant position of Teller Family Chair in Jewish History.

At the beginning of the fall quarter 2012, the Department of History in the School of Humanities appointed Dr. Matthias Lehmann as the Teller Family Chair in Jewish History.

Before this appointment, the Chair had been vacant for six years. However, with Dr. Lehmann hired as the director of the Jewish studies program, as well as an affiliated faculty member in both the religious studies program and the history department, the School of Humanities hopes there will be a considerable amount of growth both in Jewish studies and in the religious studies program.

Lehmann, born in Germany and educated at the University of Berlin, specializes in history and Jewish studies. He studied during his post-doctorate years in both Jerusalem and Madrid, where he narrowed his area of study to Sephardic Judaism. Eventually, he moved to Indiana Bloomington University, where he spent 10 years teaching at its Jewish studies program, and last fall made the official move to Irvine.

Before his appointment as the Teller Family Chair in Jewish History as well as the director of the Jewish studies program, Lehmann remarked on the difficulty students would experience if they wanted to complete a minor in Jewish studies.

However, he now sees the department’s growth as “cautiously optimistic,” with many goals within sight, such as an endowed chair in Israel and Jewish studies, scholarships for study abroad in Israel and funding to keep the Hebrew language program alive.

“I propose to grow religious studies and draw people from the wider community to our events, but my main mission is to teach students, so there is still much left to do,” Lehmann said.

Already Lehmann has begun to achieve his goal by implementing several new courses offered through the School of Humanities, including History 100W, “Jews in the Age of Discovery,” and History 132H, “3 Religions 3000 years.”

In an increasingly difficult academic climate, especially for the discipline of humanities, the reinstatement of an ethnic studies program could seem unwise due to the need for expenditures; however, Lehmann is not perturbed.

“I don’t think it is a difficult climate [for the reinstatement of Jewish studies] since the Humanities are central to any major,” Lehmann said. “It does teach certain skills, as well as to think about other cultures, literatures and traditions, which is a good way to facilitate reading and writing.”

The program of religious studies is an interdisciplinary program that seeks to integrate classes from different majors, as well as schools, on UC Irvine’s campus: in particular, the program lists the schools of Humanities, Social Science, Social Ecology, Medicine and the Arts, according to the program’s website.

The Jewish studies program will add to an increasing number of classes, as well as the point-of-view that all students who are part of interdisciplinary programs can benefit from.

“Religious studies allows you to explore other cultures,” Lehmann said. “We live in a global age, and we can’t escape the reality of our global environment. Therefore, religious studies is to prepare people for the world, and eliminate the ‘us vs. them’ type of thinking.”

Lehmann stresses that in order to function to the best of its ability, humanity requires an understanding of different cultures in order to broaden perspectives and allow for a more tolerant approach to life.

“I may not convince a science person to add a minor in religious studies, but they might end up taking a class or two. It still has a place in higher education: to enhance humanities skills,” Lehmann said.

“We have a different way of producing knowledge in the Humanities that not everyone appreciates. [However,] in order to have a functioning democracy, the way that Humanities teaches you to think is crucial because it is about the art of interpretation.”

For more information about Dr. Lehmann, visit the religious studies and the Jewish studies programs’ websites, or the School of Humanities counseling office.