I was flipping channels the other day and stumbled on The Chosen, the 1981 film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel. As I watched the scene where Robbie stares adoringly at his father, Reb Saunders, dancing during a wedding, I was hit with a wave of emotions as I remembered being 14 and finding the novel in my high school library in Chennai in India.
Although Potok was not my introduction to Jewish-American fiction—that honor went to Leon Uris—The Chosen still created a thirst in my mind for knowledge about Jewish culture, which would only be quenched when I got involved with Jewish Studies at Purdue.
From 1997 to 2002, I had the privilege of taking classes from a multitude of faculty while pursuing a minor in Jewish Studies. My experiences transcended the typical face-to-face classroom experiences and allowed me to become part of Purdue’s Jewish community, even though I was not Jewish! Some of the highlights included learning Hebrew with Sonia Barash; searching for the afikoman (broken matzo set aside as dessert) during a Pesach seder at Robert Melson’s house; being part of the minyan (the minimum quorum needed) for a group prayer at the Purdue Hillel; interviewing Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor while writing for The Exponent; and reading mind-blowing works by Michael Gold, Cynthia Ozick, Amos Oz, and E.L. Doctorow.
When I put together an honor roll of the most influential professors I had at Purdue, I think of the interdisciplinary influence of Jewish Studies faculty like the late greats in history, Gordon Young and Gordon Mork; Sandor Goodhart in English; and of course, Sonia (Barash) and Robert (Melson), with whom I still communicate.
Now, more than ever, students require a rich liberal arts education with an interdisciplinary focus that provides not only a good cross section of ideas, but one that also manages to weave it all together in a palatable way. We must not lose sight of the valuable contribution of the arts and social sciences toward developing a citizenry that understands this country’s rich history and is also civically engaged.
As I try to infuse my own curricula with ideas and themes from other disciplines, I look back with fondness at my time at Purdue and appreciate more than ever how Purdue was a place where I was introduced to critical thinking and writing from faculty who took a chance on a young man from India and rewarded his interest in Judaica with ideas and philosophies that changed his life.
Shyam K. Sriram is an instructor of political science at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, the largest community college in the state. His areas of interest are Asian Pacific American politics and political science education.