Major in Political Science and Double-Minor in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies (SAS '21)
Raised in a secular interfaith family, Brianna Newman attended an Episcopal school in her small South Jersey suburb, which piqued her curiosity about religious practice. Yet it was a copy of Solomon Grayzel’s A History of the Jews, once owned by a great aunt who converted to Judaism, that later sparked her interest in Jewish Studies, influencing, in part, her decision to attend Rutgers.
“We had cultural experiences of Jewish holidays and food with my dad’s family. I also knew that his relatives fled Czarist Russia to America,” she recalls. “They endured terrible things because of their identity, then felt the need to assimilate to feel accepted here. My motivation to study Jewish history was, in a way, about not wanting our family’s Jewish identity to end with my father.”
With enthusiastic support from her grandparents, Brianna kept reading. Alain Brossat’s Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism not only intrigued her Jewishly, it also inspired her decision to major in Political Science once she got to Rutgers. She was wowed by the diversity of course offerings available and chose a double minor in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.
Brianna recalls how her first Jewish Studies classes – Professor Paola Tartakoff’s Jewish History I: Ancient & Medieval and Professor Neda Bolourchi’s cross-listed Introduction to the Modern Middle East – gave her “context, a foundation of history, and an understanding of trends” she would not have otherwise had. She found it particularly illuminating to see the dichotomy between historical Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian relations.
Professor Tartakoff, whose Antisemitism class she took as well, proved to be an outstanding mentor, both in and out of the lecture hall. “She was an inspiring teacher,” says Brianna. “She also guided me throughout my college career and even proofread my Middle Eastern Studies final paper.”
Of Brianna, Professor Tartakoff observes, “She was an exceptionally mature and engaged student. Her papers were insightful and eloquent, and she contributed meaningfully to class discussions. In addition, she was always the first to offer to help her peers, for example, by sharing her notes with students who were absent.”
For her final research paper in Professor Jeffrey Shandler’s Jews, Religion, and Media Seminar, which she took at the height of the pandemic, Brianna examined the Jewish community’s institutional response to both COVID-19 and the concomitant mental health crisis. Her other research undertakings at Rutgers bridged her various fields of interest. In her Middle Eastern Studies Senior Seminar, for example, she researched Iranian-Jewish participation in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. She later joined a team at the Aresty Research Center to study religious minorities in Iran.
The recipient of the Louis Fishman Memorial Award for Excellence in Jewish Studies, Brianna graduated in May 2021. She plans to apply to law school to pursue a career in human rights and labor justice. She also hopes to continue her research on Jewish anarchism and the development of Jewish identity and community on social media platforms.
“It was a pleasure to get to know such a kind, serious, and motivated student,” Professor Tartakoff says. “Brianna is sure to go on to do great things.”
Written by Merri Ukraincik, August 2021