Jane S. Gerber: An Appreciation

Brian M. Smollett

It is a daunting task for me, especially as a student of Jane Gerber, to do justice to her life’s work as a teacher and scholar in so few words. I am assuaged by the fact that so many of those close to her, including the contributors to this collection, will have appreciations and anecdotes all their own to share outside of this volume.

Jane Satlow was born in 1938 in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewishly and Hebraically committed family. Her parents, David Satlow and Elsie Kliegman, were highly educated, both holding multiple graduate degrees, and successfully endeavored to pass their love for learning on to their children.

Jane’s father, a collector of Hebrew books, enrolled his three daughters in The Center Academy at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, where Jane received both her primary and secondary education. This school, highly unique in its time, sought to combine immersion in Jewish, Zionist and Hebraic culture along with secular studies taught according to the most cutting-edge pedagogical methods. As Jane recalls, “[My] nine years of elementary education were filled with art, music, many hours of experiential celebration of Jewish holidays, and singing the songs of the Yishuv. No instructional separation existed between the Judaic and secular curricula since the philosophy of the school was to create a new, integrated, American Jewish person.”1 Along with Jewish culture and Hebrew language, these early years also allowed Jane’s love of music to grow and flourish. Having begun the study of violin at the age of seven, she would eventually perform throughout New England as founder and second chair of Wellesley College’s String Quartet.

Jane’s arrival at Wellesley College in 1956 marked a significant departure from the ethnic-urban, and Jewishly rich milieu in which she was raised. At the time, Wellesley was not home to many Jewish young women, and though a rich intellectual opportunity, the school sought to inculcate traditional, genteel, culturally Protestant values which, as Jane remembers, included “the advancement of the career of one’s spouse, service within the broader American community, and an unspoken suppression of Jewish particularism or Zionism.” In this context, Jane began to explore Jewish history and identity as part of her work. She spent a semester in Israel and a summer with a French family in Grenoble who had been part of the résistance. The capstone to her undergraduate experience was her thesis, which focused on Jewish themes in the writings of Marcel Proust.

Jane would continue her graduate work at Harvard, where she studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history. This stage represented a point of departure, as Jane did much of her coursework at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and began to gravitate more to the intersection of Jewish and Islamic history. Jane pursued her doctoral studies at Columbia University where she worked primarily under the direction of Salo W. Baron, Zvi Ankori, and Gerson Cohen. Her dissertation was a social and political history of the Jews of Fez, Morocco which both reconstructed the profile of the community in the mid-late fifteenth century and demonstrated the very significant cultural and communal shift that took place following the arrival of the Megorashim (exiles from Spain) as they soon became far more influential on the structure and development of Jewish life in Fez than the Toshavim (indigenous Jews). Jane graduated from Columbia in 1972 as Salo W. Baron’s last doctoral student. She later revised and published her dissertation as Jewish Society in Fez, 1450–1700: Studies in Communal and Economic Life (1980).

Commencing her teaching career immediately upon graduation, Jane was hired as Assistant Professor of History at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Many students at Lehman were the first in their families to attend college, an aspect of teaching there that Jane found particularly rewarding. There was also, as she has recalls, a particular shift to the embrace of ethnic identity that characterized her students in the early-mid 1970s. This led many of her students toward an interest in Holocaust studies and the study of antisemitism, which Jane addressed through her course offerings though far from her primary field of training and research.

Jane’s move to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 1978 meant an end to the large classes full of curious undergraduates that she enjoyed at Lehman, but provided a fruitful platform for her research, writing, and administrative work. Amidst several visiting professorships, including at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Harvard, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jane directed the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the Graduate Center for close to three decades. Perhaps most notably, outside of the context of CUNY, she served as President of the Association for Jewish Studies (the first woman to serve in that role) from 1979–1981. Much of her work as President was to oversee the lively and at times tumultuous transition of the Association from a small, mainly self-selecting group, to a more mainstream learned society. As such, her tenure saw the inaugural issue of the AJS Review and the launching of initiatives aimed at joining the American Council of Learned Societies.

Jane’s publications over the years included many articles, reviews, and edited volumes including Pluralism in Israel (1986), Sephardic Studies in the University (1995), The Jews of Spain, which was awarded a National Jewish Book Award in 1992, and Jews in the Caribbean (2014). Her most recent book, Cities of Splendour in the Shaping of Sephardi History (2018), is an expansive exploration of the Sephardic history of seven different cities in both Christian and Muslim contexts during key points of cultural development in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Alongside her academic research and teaching in Sephardic history, Jane’s commitment to public history and especially to the integration of Sephardic studies into various levels of Jewish education has led to her extensive work with the American Sephardi Federation along with the Maurice Amado Foundation.

Jane’s scholarship, teaching, and service to the field of Jewish Studies speak for itself. But her deepest conviction, in a life full of accomplishment, is the love of her family. With Roger, her husband of over 50 years, she is the proud mother of three daughters—Dina, Debbie, and Tamar, and the adoring grandmother of Rachel, Leora, Abigail, Shira, Amiya, Shiloh, Oren, and Livia.

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