In October, CSME staff interviewed Dr. Stephen Katz. That interview served as the basis for this biographical article. Stephen Katz is Professor of Jewish Studies and Near Eastern Languages & Cultures. Dr. Katz's expertise put Hebrew Studies on the map at Indiana University, a great achievement for a university so far removed from the geographic regions typically associated with the field.
For Stephen Katz, the foundations of academic life began at an early age. Unlike many with advanced degrees in his and related fields, Dr. Katz was able to gain his primary reading languages at an early age. His relationship with Hebrew Literature is not only academic, but personal, deep, and long-lasting.
Dr. Katz had a foundational education in religious schools in Israel. The State of Israel has different tracks among its public schools, both secular, religious, and intermediate. His parents gave Dr. Katz a a strong foundation in Biblical and religious tradition at the elementary level by sending him to a religious school. There he learned to read medieval Hebrew sript and received a basic Biblical education.
In the fall of 1959, the young Stephen Katz came with his family to the United States and entered public school. His parents insisted he continue his studies in Hebrew. After finishing High School, but before finishing his Bachelor's Degree, Katz had decided to pursue a career in Hebrew Literature. In his words, "What is it that [I] enjoy doing and [am] doing well? I wasn't very good at Math, and I saw there were too many History students around, and I was impressed by my teachers of Hebrew, modern Hebrew literature especially... and I decided to model myself after them."
During his undergraduate career at Hunter College, one of the colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY), Dr. Katz majored in Modern Hebrew Literature, with work towards a History Major. As a college tasked primarily with preparing future teachers, Hunter infused each of its majors with many courses on pedagogy and educational theory. According to Katz, these courses have helped in his teaching career at Indiana University, especially the practicum in student teaching, largely a hands-on experience entailing going into classrooms.
Following course work at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in Albany, New York, Dr. Katz entered the job market. While there a visiting professor explained that Indiana University in Bloomington was looking to build their Hebrew Literature faculty. In Dr. Katz's words, "In Albany, we had a visiting professor who happened to have spent a semester here in Bloomington. And his advice was, Why don't you try it out? I'll give a call to Professor [Henry] Fischel, the Hebraist there. And Professor [Wadie Elias] Jwaideh was the Chair [of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures]. I'll put in a good word for you, you prepare your CV, send it out, and I know they're looking to hire."
Dr. Katz arrived in Bloomington with his wife in 1976. Over the course of the following years, Dr. Katz finished his Doctor of Hebrew Literature (1979) and joined the faculty both in the newly renamed Department of Eastern Languages and Cultures and the newly formed Robert and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program. He and his wife raised four daughters in Bloomington, which they regarded as a very child-friendly community.
The East and West coasts and Israel itself host the major institutions of Hebrew Studies. And yet, Indiana University ably provides for students interested in Hebrew Studies of all sorts. Increasingly, students come to Bloomington deliberately to study Hebrew. In many ways, the integration of Hebrew Studies into Near Eastern Languages and Cultures has been very beneficial. Professor Katz is one of several ties that intrinsically link the two institutions.
Regarding Dr. Katz's current and ongoing interests and projects, the professor is proud to mention a forthcoming book that unearths for Hebraists the fact that there was a fruitful period in America of Hebrew production. A good part of which was directly influenced by the American literature of the early 20th century. "That," says Dr. Katz, "has been under-appreciated in Hebrew Literary Studies. It is my hope, as well as that of several other colleagues, that a gradual recognition and adoption of this relatively large group of people and their work will become integrated into the corpus of Hebrew Literature. It is an American scene, in terms of genres and representations of America and the problems encountered, including assimilation. It's been overlooked, and now we are at an age where diversity will allow us to look at these Hebrew authors of the beginning of the previous century. Hopefully IU students can one study American Hebrew Literature, in depth and in graduate courses. It is my hope to prepare a course like that. There is a huge amount regarding Native Americans, inspired by their folktales and Longfellow and the anthropologists publishing at the time - and of course these works are all in Hebrew! These Hebrew writers were writing about the times, and the times they lived in are so interesting and intriguing and informative on the present."
Regarding more traditionally studied Hebrew literature, apart from the scriptures, Dr. Katz is happy to provide some suggestions for the Hebrew illiterate:
"The greatest writer in Hebrew literature since Biblical Times is a man by the name of S. Y. Agnon. He is the greatest Hebrew prose writer, ever. He has a very modern, complex, sophisticated sense of looking at the world around him. I'm mesmerized by his works. One can invest a lifetime learning his literature. They are great works. In terms of works available in English, IU Press recently put out a survey on the history of Hebrew prose fiction, a work written by Shaked [shah-KED]. It's an introductory work, perfect for the person looking to learn the general state of the genre."