Situated on a bustling block in Old City, around the corner from the American Philosophical Society, sits a place dedicated to serious scholarship and quiet contemplation.
Penn’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies is a space for high-level post-doctoral research in Jewish studies, drawing about 20 Fellows annually from institutions around the world.
It is a place that affords scholars on sabbatical three things they desperately need: funding, time, and quiet.
“This is the only place to bring together scholars from a variety of backgrounds,” says David Ruderman, the Center’s Ella Darivoff Director, “to study a problem or issue in depth, to create a kind of collective fellowship, and to produce a new vision of a particular field.”
The Katz Center is unique, says Ruderman, because it grants fellowships to scholars not just from Jewish studies programs, but in other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, as well. This year’s scholars include professors and post-docs from history, Near Eastern studies, and Spanish and Portuguese departments. Two fellows from Penn, Rita Copeland and Jamal Elias, teach in the Classical Studies and Religious Studies departments, respectively.
The Center has worked hard to draw people from outside the United States, as well, including schools in Israel and across Europe.
“We don’t tend to take a discipline and bring the scholars … who see each other at conference after conference,” says Associate Director Natalie Dohrmann. “We’re trying to spin it so that we’re putting scholars beside one other who don’t engage with each other regularly. We find they really take a lot home from this kind of new community.”
Each year, the Center organizes itself around a theme. Last year’s was travel, and scholars explored projects as diverse as merchant travel in the Middle Ages, Roman roads, and birthright tourism in Israel.
“It often shakes scholars out of a rut if they happen to be in one or spark a lot of connections,” says Dohrmann. “Jewish studies is given a different kind of breathing room and the conversations that [scholars] develop … give a shot of energy or new direction to projects, teaching, curricula.”
Available to scholars are approximately 200,000 volumes of Judacia and Hebraica that are stored at the Center, consisting mainly of classic rabbinic and Bible texts. An additional 250,000 to 300,000 volumes are stored at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library on campus; those volumes are more modern.
The Katz Center’s library is part of Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and contains a Rare Book Room that houses about 80,000 printed books. The collection also includes nearly 500 manuscripts, or handwritten documents, that represent 24 languages in 11 different alphabets, including Hebrew, Arabic, and Sumerian. They also own 32 incunables, which are texts from before the year 1501. The earliest held by the Center is from between 1474 and 1477.
On display in the Rare Book Room are two book leaves that are part of the Passover Haggadah from approximately 1050. According to Bruce Nielsen, Judaica public services librarian and archivist, the Haggadah came from the Cairo Geniza, a burial space in which people placed documents that contain the name of God.
There is also a codex, or book, of the biblical book of Esther, which is traditionally read during services for Purim. As Nielsen explains, in order for observant Jews to meet their obligation, they have to attend services and hear the Book of Esther read from a scroll, not a codex.
“I originally thought that when we’d open it up it would be like an accordion, so you would see that it was a scroll,” says Nielsen. “This was a codex and it’s very curious. It would be of no religious value because you couldn’t meet your ‘obligations,’ but the scribe or the owner wrote [poems] in the back … that were used during Purim, which means that whoever owned that was using it for those religious purposes. It’s such a unique item.”
The Katz Center acquired most of the items in the Rare Book Room from one of the first secular institutions for Jewish studies, the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, which was, at one time, the premier institution for Judaic scholars. Dropsie College became the Annenberg Research Institute in 1986, and then a post-doctoral fellowship program. Penn merged with the Institute in 1993, and it was renamed the Center for Judaic Studies. In 2008, the Katz family endowed the Center in memory of former Board Chair Herbert D. Katz.
In addition to the impressive library collection, the Katz Center also publishes the Jewish Quarterly Review, the oldest continuously published English language journal in Jewish studies, of which Dohrmann is executive editor. The Center also holds a public lecture program in the greater Philadelphia area, two conferences a year, and collaborates with scholars and programs on campus. Ruderman recently began a joint mentoring program with Hebrew University in which 25 graduate students from around the world traveled to Israel to take seminars with some of the field’s heavyweights.
Dohrmann came to the Center as a fellow in 2001 and has worked there for 12 years. “When I was a junior scholar, this is the place that really changed me from a student to a member of the discipline, and it happens with junior scholars again and again,” she says. “It has the most brilliant people around you at every moment. It’s always fresh. Every year, my intellectual horizons are just exploded. It’s really an intellectual’s dreamland.”
Ruderman, who will leave the Center at the end of the 2013-14 school year after 20 years at its helm, says this has been the “best job in Jewish Studies in the country.” He will continue to work in Penn’s history department as the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History.
“It allows you to be a generalist in the best sense of the word and think about the totality of the Jewish experience,” he says. “If the group doesn’t ask a question, I will, even if it’s not in my field of interest.”
Originally published on April 18, 2013