Bluma Goldstein, Pioneer of Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley, Dies at 93
Bluma Goldstein, who was the first professor to teach German-Jewish literature at UC Berkeley, passed away on January 14 at age 93. Goldstein came to Berkeley in 1960, one of very few new women on the faculty. She loved to tell the story of how the reception for new faculty was held in the Men’s Faculty Club and, as a woman, she was barred from attending. The only reason she was sent the invitation was that the organizers of the reception did not know that “Bluma” was a woman’s name. Never willing to take no for an answer, she created a scandal and was let in.
Goldstein wrote two important books in the field of Jewish Studies. The first, Reinscribing Moses, analyzed how the Jewish writers Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud, as well as the composer Arnold Schoenberg, each gave their own modern interpretation to the biblical figure of Moses. A second book, Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives of Abandoned Wives, examined the historical phenomenon and literary manifestations of the agunah, the abandoned Jewish wife who could not remarry. Not incidentally, this book arose out of her own childhood experience.
Bluma Goldstein was born on December 15, 1929 in the Bronx. Her mother, an immigrant garment worker from Lithuania, was abandoned by her husband, Goldstein’s father, when Goldstein was only a few months old. Her native language was Yiddish and Jewishness for her was never about religion. She was raised in poverty during the Great Depression. She told the story of how, at age twelve and a half, she passed herself off as sixteen, and got a job in a book warehouse. But she couldn’t figure out how to spend the money she earned without alerting her mother that she had taken a job, so, she hid it under the linoleum in the kitchen. Her mother discovered the money and was horrified that her daughter had robbed a bank. When she learned that Bluma had taken a job, she was then terrified that she would be arrested for sending her daughter for violating child labor laws.
When Goldstein was thirteen, her mother was diagnosed with a lung disease from inhaling fibers in the garment factory where she worked, so they moved to Detroit where she had two brothers. Goldstein finished high school in Detroit and enrolled at Wayne State University where she was trained as a social worker and worked with impoverished children. But she also got her degree in German literature and decided to apply to graduate school in that field. She was accepted by Harvard University and earned her PhD there, a remarkable success in an age when universities were not particularly open to women (not to speak of a Jewish woman studying German at Harvard!).
Goldstein was a beloved professor at UC Berkeley, teaching German and Jewish literature, as well as philosophy written in German. She also returned to her native Yiddish and taught courses in Yiddish literature as well. She inspired a love for Yiddish and its rich literature in generations of students. Engaged undergraduates sought her out and a small circle of them met with her regularly for lunch. In the 1990s, she co-chaired the Joint PhD Program in Jewish Studies together with David Biale, then at the Graduate Theological Union. Students and colleagues remember her not only for her intellect but also for her acerbic wit and love of Jewish jokes.
In addition to her academic work, Bluma Goldstein was a fearless activist, working against American intervention in Central America and against Israel’s occupation of the territories conquered in 1967. Although she had risen to the pinnacle of the academic world, she never forgot from where she came, and she remained committed up to the end of her long life to fighting for those without privilege.
Contact: David Biale (firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-414-3754)