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Black professor to teach Holocaust literature course

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
SAN FRANCISCO, April 20 (JTA) — Not for a second did Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, director of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, doubt that Lois Lyles would be the perfect teacher for a new course on literature of the Holocaust. The problem was convincing Lyles, an English professor who is black. Sitting in her university office, Lyles recalled the day when Zoloth-Dorfman asked her to teach the course, slated to begin this fall. “My initial reaction was, `No.’ I thought: What right did I, a non-Jew and a black woman, have to teach such an important and emotional class? But as I came to realize its multicultural potential I felt that yes, I should do it. I wanted to do it.” Made possible by a $4,000 grant from the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation’s Holocaust Memorial Education Fund, the class will be jointly offered through the university’s English and Jewish studies departments. It marks the first time the English department has offered a Holocaust-related course. Having recently completed Brandeis University’s Summer Institute Program on Teaching the Holocaust, Lyles is prepared to teach a class comprising Jewish and non-Jewish students. Zoloth-Dorfman believes Lyles will provide a “fresh lens” for looking at the Holocaust. “Her unique perspective should broaden class appeal to students from a range of cultural backgrounds,” she explained, noting that only 6,000 of the university’s 30,000 students are Jewish. Zoloth-Dorfman said there has been a renaissance in Jewish studies at the university, which offers more classes in this field than any other university in the area. Last year, some 200 students enrolled in Jewish studies courses. This year that number is up to 300. The university’s Jewish studies program began operating in 1994, thanks to a planning grant of $46,000 and seed funding of $100,000 from the federation’s endowment fund. The program, which already offers courses through the departments of history, film and comparative literature, covers subjects including the Holocaust, immigration, feminism, Zionism, biblical and talmudic literature, and issues of Judaism and social responsibility. Lyles intends to use the new Holocaust course as an opportunity to study the works of authors such as Elie Wiesel and bring in guest speakers and Holocaust experts from both the university and the outside community. “As a black person, I feel the forces of oppression and racism,” Lyles said. “I want to teach young people to reject prejudice and stereotypes and learn to hear the truth.” Several years ago, when the university became the focus of national attention following the unveiling of a controversial Malcolm X mural, Lyles demonstrated her determination to speak out against intolerance. At the time, she was arrested for attempting to paint the words “stop prejudice” on the painting. The mural was later denounced as anti-Semitic for its inclusion of Stars of David amid dollar signs, skulls and crossbones, and the words “African blood.” Now she is committed to helping her students understand why it was “so objectionable to paint that swastika on the mural” and help them gain a sensitivity to other cultures. “With professors like Lyles, they should get the message,” observed Bill Lowenberg, a Holocaust survivor who chairs the Holocaust Memorial Fund. With intolerance an “unfortunate fact of life,” Lyles called courses like the one she will soon teach increasingly necessary. “The Holocaust is not a pretty subject,” she said. “But I believe we have to study it to be fully human. It is our responsibility to provide a voice to the voiceless.”