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Teaching prize awarded to historian of Jewish culture

By Claudia Morain on March 8, 2011 in

UC Davis historian David Biale, a leading expert on Jewish intellectual and cultural history, is the winner of the 2011 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Established in 1986, the $40,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country; it is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation.

On March 8, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi interrupted Biale’s History of Modern Israel undergraduate class to announce that he had been selected as the 24th recipient of the honor.

"It is a privilege to award the 2011 UC Davis Teaching Prize to a scholar and educator of David's caliber," said Katehi. "His students describe him as engaging and inspiring, and his colleagues describe him as a brilliant scholar and source of pride for his department. The UC Davis prize recognizes, in particular, David's ability to help his students create the intellectual tools to be successful thinkers in a global community."

Biale, the holder of the Emanuel Ringelblum Chair in Jewish History, has been a prolific and dynamic thinker and leader since arriving on campus in 1999.

He founded the Jewish studies program and is now the chair of the history department. The author and editor of 10 books and 74 articles over his 33-year career, he is a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biale will receive the 2011 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement on Thursday, May 12, at a gala dinner in his honor at the Conference Center Ballroom.

“I am deeply grateful to the donors at the UC Davis Foundation who established this prize and to all of my students and colleagues for making this possible,” said Biale. “Teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels provides its own rewards when working with young minds. I’m humbled and incredibly honored by this award.”

Biale said he looks forward to using the award money to strengthen student opportunities in the history department, particularly in the areas of graduate education and the Jewish studies program.

‘Pivotal’ professor

According to Ron Mangun, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, Biale embodies the attributes of the ideal scholar-teacher envisioned by the donors who created this award. Biale has also twice won the Associated Students of UC Davis Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“Professor Biale’s leadership has been pivotal in creating the highly esteemed program in Jewish studies, a favorite of students and faculty alike,” Mangun wrote in a letter nominating Biale for the prize.

Jamie Forrest, a third-year student double majoring in history and political science, said that Biale teaches history as a “discipline concerned with the human experience rather than as a list of dates and events. He has allowed me to form an emotional and intellectual connection to the historical material he covers in class.”

Alan Taylor, history professor and recipient of the 2002 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, described Biale as both a demanding and thought-provoking instructor.

“Even in the largest classes,” Taylor said, “David invites students to explore the most profound questions about human nature and the interplay of despair and hope, of violence and peace, and of oppression and resistance. He expects much from his students, but they rise to his challenge because they recognize the great insight, care and energy that David invests in helping them.”

Biale describes his teaching approach as “old-fashioned” and participatory. His love for Jewish history, traditions and culture comes from the heart, he says.

“I mostly lecture without notes,” he said, “and even in large classes of more than 200 students I try to get them involved. For me, my personal experience with the subject is the greatest help.”

In the past two years, Biale has taught courses on the history of the Holocaust, the memory of the Holocaust, comparative genocide, secular Jewish thinkers and the history of the end of the world.

“Students are very excited by ideas and books. In history, we take our students on time travel to faraway times and lands, and that is an exciting opportunity for young minds and their intellectual development and imaginations,” he said.

Biale earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at UC Berkeley, and his doctorate at UCLA.

As a young student, Biale was greatly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century rationalist who laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment; Gershom Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism; and Jacob Katz; a leading historian of the Jewish people.

The most formative influence was Amos Funkenstein, a Jewish historian under whom Biale wrote his doctoral dissertation.

“He was truly a Renaissance man in terms of intellectual range,” Biale said of Funkenstein. “He was probably the only genius I've ever met.”

Biale, who describes himself as a secular Jew, wrote his dissertation on Scholem. He is the author of “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought” (Princeton University Press, 2010); “Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians” (University of California Press, 2008); and “Cultures of the Jews” (Schocken, 2006).

Peace, higher education

Biale was born in 1949 in Los Angeles. Even back then, he had a connection to UC Davis. His father, an immigrant from Poland who would go on to teach plant physiology at UCLA, studied at Davis in 1929. At the time, the campus was still considered an agricultural outpost of UC Berkeley.

“We used to stop at Davis on the way back from Lake Tahoe ski trips and see former students of his who were on the UC Davis faculty,” said Biale.

Interestingly, he started out as a chemistry major at Berkeley. But with the social upheaval of the late 1960s and 1970s rippling across campus and beyond, Biale soon found himself drawn to wide-ranging discussions about cultural and historical issues. He changed his major, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From 1986 to 1999, Biale served as Koret Professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. During the same period, he also served as adjunct professor in Near Eastern studies and history at UC Berkeley.

Biale has lived in Israel, and his wife, Rachel, was raised on a kibbutz, a collective agrarian community in that country. The Biales have two children, Noam, 28, and Tali, 25, and live in Berkeley in a house with a backyard that includes three egg-laying chickens. Three of David’s hobbies are bicycling, sourdough bread baking and piano playing.

If Biale could make a couple of wishes about the future of the world, he’d choose peace between the Israelis and Palestinian peoples and greater public support for public higher education institutions like the University of California.

“I’m a product of the UC, and grateful for and proud of it,” he said. “One does not create an educated citizenry by privatizing public education. I’m willing to pay higher taxes to support public university systems.”

About the prize

Kevin Bacon ’72, chair of the UC Davis Foundation, said, “This prize, which is funded by generous donors, is emblematic of the importance of philanthropy in supporting excellent teaching and scholarship at UC Davis. The trustees are proud to recognize David Biale, who is a shining example of UC Davis’ best.”

Created by philanthropists, the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement is an annual award to recognize faculty excellence. The prize honors one UC Davis faculty member each year, selected for his or her outstanding achievements as a teacher of undergraduates and a scholar.

Each year, a selection committee composed of faculty, students and representatives from the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees chooses the recipient.

The prize originated in 1986 when Alan Hoefer, a UC Davis alumnus and then-trustee of the UC Davis Foundation, created an endowed fund and made the first gift for the prize. Over time, other generous donors also made philanthropic contributions to the fund, including members of the UC Davis Chancellor’s Club, UC Davis Foundation Trustees and Trustees Emeriti, alumni and other friends of the university.

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