Shooting the Breeze With a Jewish Scholar
Since joining the Federation team and entering the new-to-me world of Jewish philanthropy, I’ve had several noteworthy experiences. I’ve been to galas and fancy kosher dinners; Hebrew classes and Israeli zumba lessons. I’ve traveled to conferences across town and across the country.
Last week, there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. I had a few meetings, a happy hour that involved line dancing (okay, that one was out of the ordinary), and a phone call with a Jewish scholar.
I didn’t expect that this five minute phone call would rank right up there as one of my favorite experiences. But now – now that I’ve had an eye-opening and hilarious conversation with a Jewish scholar, I have to say… I’m kind of a groupie.
The Jewish scholar in question is Dr. Benjamin Gampel, who happens to be visiting Minneapolis this weekend as part of Jewish University for a Day. Sponsored by the Minnesota Context partnership, the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, Jewish University for a Day is a day of Jewish learning from local and national scholars. But this isn’t your Bubbe’s Jewish education — topics range from the expected biblical discussions, to politics, and then off the beaten path of Jewish learning to pop culture.
After speaking with Dr. Gampel, I can say with total confidence that his plenary talk, “The Brilliant Career of Maimonides”, will be equal parts educational and entertaining. Gampel, Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), is described by JTS as an “energetic” teacher, and I can add to that description that he is also an “energetic” phone conversationalist.
After our introductions and pleasantries, Dr. Gampel cut right to the chase.
“What do I need to say about my talk, other than I’m utterly convinced that everyone who comes to this lecture will have their lives transformed?” Dr. Gampel asked, and I swore I could hear a playful wink through the phone line.
This was when I knew we would get along.
When I asked why Maimonides was such a fascinating topic for a plenary session, Dr. Gampel’s tone became serious — but no less enthusiastic.
“Maimonides is probably one of the most well known Jews outside of biblical figures, but even still, a number of people could give plenaries on him and there wouldn’t be that much overlap,” he said. “There’s so many contexts; so many different ways to catch a glimpse of Maimonides. What you want to explore about Judaism, you can find in Maimonides. He was such a great thinker.”
Dr. Gampel’s talk will in part explore how Maimonides’ philosophies apply to the modern Jew, although he admits that’s quite a long list. Among the ways that Jews everywhere can relate to Maimonides’ teachings is what Gampel calls “the eternal question”: How do we navigate the culture in which we find ourselves, while maintaining our loyalty to Judaism?
At the end of Dr. Gampel’s and my phone chat, I said something slightly facetious (as I am wont to do). There was a suspenseful moment of silence where I got nervous and contemplated hanging up the phone. Then, finally, Dr. Gampel let out a hearty laugh.
Relief washed over me, and so did a proud, happy feeling — similar to the one you get when you make a silly face at an infant and they burst into peals of laughter. Take it from me: making a Jewish scholar laugh is nearly as rewarding as making a baby laugh.
When he’s not lecturing to large Jewish groups across the country or charming interviewers over the phone, Dr. Gampel is either entertaining and educating undergraduate, graduate and rabbinical students at JTS, or poring over medieval archives and documents in Spain. An expert in Iberian Jews in the Middle Ages, Gampel has written a book on the topic, The Last Jews on Iberian Soil, and is working on a second concentrating on the forced conversion of Jews in 1391 and 1392.
Gampel’s passion about this topic is evident in his six part “Introduction to Medieval Jewish History” video podcast, available on YouTube. Seated in front of shelves and shelves of books (fitting, since I imagine scholars of any sort must always be surrounded by books), Dr. Gampel tells an animated and compelling story of Medieval Jews.
JTS raves that Gampel “is dedicated to bringing the history of the Jews to a broad public audience”, and after watching his podcast and speaking to him, I concur. I predict those in attendance at Jewish University for a day this Sunday will be captivated by his enthusiasm and teaching style.
Jewish University for a Day is this Sunday, June 9, at the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. Dr. Benjamin Gampel’s plenary session begins at 11:30 am and is followed by a light kosher lunch and two breakout sessions (click here to see a menu of the diverse breakout sessions offered, from Bob Dylan to musical theater to Islam!). Register now to ensure your place in the class of your choice!