By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Professor C. Beth Burch, professor of English education and formerly the dean of Binghamton University’s Graduate School of Education, recently became the new chairwoman of the university’s Judaic Studies Department. The courses she teaches for that department focus on American Jewish literature, including “Survey of American Jewish Literature,” “The Jewish American Novel” and “American Jewish Women Writers.”
In an e-mail interview, Burch noted that, as the new chairwoman, “my first work – and obligation – is to maintain the sterling academic reputation of the Department of Judaic studies established by my predecessors. Naturally, I also want to see Judaic studies grow, flower and attract more students. That Judaic studies constitutes a vital campus presence, which is also important to the university and the community.”
Her work focuses on literature, something she sees as “the wellspring of empathy, which is a particularly Jewish concept. Besides, literature fills in the outline of history.” Burch quoted from a New Yorker interview of Lois Lowry (who is not Jewish), author of the young adult novel “Number the Stars,” to explain her point: “Literature, for all of us, is a way that we rehearse life,” Lowry noted.
Burch sees this idea as important for all the students she teaches – Jewish and non-Jewish. “Literature enlarges our isolated individual experiences and opens our perspectives,” she said. “Jewish literature teaches us how Jewish people, live, think and learn. I like to believe that reading Jewish literature de-mystifies and makes real Jews and Jewish life and explodes stereotypes about Jews.”
This is especially important for the non-Jews taking her classes. “Often my courses provide the first and only contact with Jews and Judaism that students have ever known,” she said. “Through literature, we go inside Eastern European shtetls, cosmopolitan cities, dangerous sea voyages, yeshivas, sweatshops, libraries, summer camps, ghettos, courtrooms, forced marches, movie sets, shops, factories and homes of yesterday and perhaps tomorrow. Transported in time and space by reading, we live through characters’ words, images and thoughts. And as we read, we internalize scraps of our reading. A thousand times we’ve heard Jews described as the people of the book – and while the phrase most certainly refers to Torah, it also applies to all other Jewish books and to the transmission of Jewish culture and thought.”
Burch has a wide variety of interests – from Phillip Roth to the Holocaust – but all of the works she teaches have something in common: They all feature “good stories, first. Nimble writing and subtle command of the language. A text that is a puzzle to be plumbed,” she added.
She noted, “My doctoral work was in American literature with a special field in Jewish American literature and a dissertation on Jewish American women writers, all under the guidance of Leslie Field, (OBM), prominent Malamud scholar; and William Stafford, Americanist, at Purdue University. Mid-career (2003), my husband Paul-William [Burch] and I participated in the first-ever seminar on Holocaust literature offered by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Twenty scholars chosen from across the country and led by Geoffrey Hartman of Yale read and discussed Holocaust literature and scholarship for two weeks at the USHMM in Washington, DC. Before that signal event, Holocaust studies had focused almost solely on history. But literature speaks what history can’t feel – and that’s why it’s important.”
To help create good literature, Burch has taught grammar and writing at Binghamton University, the University of Alabama and Purdue University, where she earned her Ph.D. For her work at BU, she has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. For her, what matters is “good stories and fine writing!”
Burch noted that the community can audit classes at BU. “Many Judaic studies faculty welcome community members to audit our courses, and if you are interested in being part of a course informally, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org),” she said. “Some courses may be full, but we’ll do our best to accommodate you. Also, let me know if you’d like to be included on our mailing list to receive our department newsletter and information about Judaic studies community events.”