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Jay Holstein, Department of Religious Studies

Jay Holstein, professor of religious studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Jay Holstein, professor of religious studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has taught at The University of Iowa for 37 years. He arguably remains one of the most popular lecturers on campus, with undergraduates vying for seats in courses such as Quest for Human Destiny, Quest II: Sex, Love, and Death, and Quest III: Heroes, Lovers, and Knaves. Holstein talks with fyi about his own quest for connections with UI undergraduates and why, after all these years, the journey is still interesting.

Even though you teach some of the largest classes on campus, your courses typically fill up before early registration ends. How do you explain that popularity?

I look for ways to connect with my students, and I raise questions. I almost never give answers. My smallest class has 70 people. The largest has about 600. You don’t get a lot of give and take in groups that size, so sometimes you don’t know until the midterm whether or not you are communicating with them. Every once in a while, you get lucky; all of the stars are aligned and you get them all. When that happens, you get this energy return that is more exhilarating than anything else.

My teaching style is very intense, very engaging, and in your face. I don’t tolerate a lack of civility in the classroom. I don’t tolerate sleeping. I get after people for yawning. I know that I’ve got something to teach them that I’m passionate about, and I want them to understand why I’m passionate about it.

You were raised in an orthodox Jewish ghetto in Philadelphia, and you’re an ordained rabbi. How did you end up at Iowa?

I was studying for my PhD at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati when the University offered this job to one of my teachers, who recommended me. It turned out to be my first and only job. The only teaching experience I had before this was teaching young men studying to be rabbis in Cincinnati—six intelligent, motivated students sitting around a small table translating biblical passages. I’d throw out ideas, and they’d devour them. Then I came here. I threw out ideas in my first class of about 15 undergraduates, and they just stared blankly. I realized then that, in this world, you can’t assume interest.

The beautiful thing about this university is that you can have the best and brightest students, and you also can have students who just drift into class. They are not a group of young men studying to be rabbis; they are a diverse group with diverse interests and abilities. Somehow you have to find a way to educate them all. Even after 37 years, that still makes this job very interesting.

Talk about teaching courses on Judaism in the predominantly Christian state of Iowa.

There has been a chair of Jewish studies here since the 1930s, even though there are very few Jews in Iowa. The Jews who funded the chair understood that where there is ignorance, bad things can happen.

What I’m after is giving students insight into something that without my class, they wouldn’t otherwise learn. I’m not touchy-feely about it. I love the tradition, and I love the challenge of teaching in this context. But converting people to Judaism is not my job. If they’ve listened to the lecture, hopefully what they take away is an interest in investigating their own traditions. That is what I’ve devoted the professional part of my life to, and I don’t want to fail.

How do you determine your course content?

A liberal arts education is our best weapon against ignorance. These students are going to go out and make decisions about life and love. Everything in the human situation is rooted in variations on three themes: food, sex, and death. Whether it’s a decision to slaughter animals, to drink alcohol, to what we do in the bedroom, to what we are willing to die for—from the table to the bedroom to the grave, nothing in our modern, technological world has changed this. That’s why texts like the Hebrew Bible are still relevant.

I’ve been working on developing a new course called The Biblical God and the Suffering of Animals. Six months into it, I became a vegetarian. I haven’t offered it yet, but I’ve got 200 pages of notes, I’ve researched the biblical positions, I’ve gathered data on medical research, and considered the ethical issues. Most of us eat flesh but don’t participate in the slaughter. Through movies like Babe and Bambi, this issue has been sentimentalized, but it’s a very potent topic. I’m just not ready to begin teaching it. It upsets me too much.

During this holiday season, would you share your perspective on Hannukah?

Essentially, today the holiday is a reaction against the commercialism of Christmas. It’s not a major Jewish holiday. Gifts are given for eight days to keep the children from rebelling because it’s easy for them to feel left out when confronted with all of the glitz and gift-giving of Christmas. But that has nothing to do with Hannukah.

The word “Hannukah” means “dedication” and refers to the dedication of the temple about 170 years before the birth of Jesus when the Jews rose up in an armed revolt to reclaim their land and to rededicate their temple to their god. Now the holiday lasts eight days because according to the legend, the Jews needed time to cleanse the temple, but only had a little bit of oil. The oil lasted eight days, so the holiday is for eight days.

But the leader of that rebellion—Judah the Hammer—is the reason I celebrate the holiday. He had an immense capability to lead men in battle and an extraordinary ability to lead men in peace.

Any thoughts to retiring?

In a lecture once, I told my students that I’m looking for a sign, and when I see that sign, I’ll retire. Some time after that, I was lecturing again in Macbride Auditorium, and the students in the balcony started screaming. I looked up, and a guy was walking across the aisle buck naked and waving. He said, “I guess you’ll be leaving soon.” But I didn’t take that as a sign. I’m 68. I’ll retire when my services are no longer in demand. I have my good days and my bad days, but I run 100 miles a week, and I’ve run 35 marathons. My teaching style demands huge amounts of energy, so I assume it comes from that exercise.

Tell us about your family.

I just celebrated my 10th anniversary with my wife (Ellen Holstein in the UI Center for Credit Programs). We met when she was a grad student here. She was a Lutheran minister who had come here to do graduate work, but she’s no longer a minister. She’s Jewish.

Both of my kids went to Iowa. My daughter Sarah now is an MD/PhD fellow in internal medicine in the UI Carver College of Medicine. As an undergraduate, she had a 4.5 GPA and a Presidential Scholarship. She could have gone anywhere, but she chose to stay here.

My son Joshua, on the other hand, went through more than a few majors before earning his first undergraduate degree at Iowa. Subsequently, he joined the army as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq. After his discharge, with the help of the GI Bill, he returned to The University of Iowa as a much more focused student. He earned a second undergraduate degree and now works for the government.

They are two wildly different students, but this university allowed both of them to find themselves. It is an utterly remarkable university. It’s got its chinks, but all things have chinks. How could you not love a place that’s been so good to you? I really appreciate the opportunities this university has offered me.

by Sara Langenberg

Past Profiles

Karen Copp, University of Iowa Press

Ben Kieffer, Broadcasting Services

Natasta Durovicova, International Writing Program

Kathryn Hall, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences



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