UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, January 8, 2018 - Y&S Nazarian Center Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin isn’t your typical historian.
“What I do with my research and writing is follow themes rather than time periods,” he explains.
This thematic focus distinguishes Stein Kokin from many of his colleagues and has allowed him to transition from his doctoral work at Harvard University in the early 2000’s on Hebrew in the Italian Renaissance to teaching courses today sponsored by the Y&S Nazarian Center on modern Israel. These include the Fall Quarter class “Symbolic Places and Spaces in Modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories” and the Winter Quarter courses “Settlement in Israeli History” and “Europe and Israel: History of a Vexed Relationship.”
The Assistant Professor at the University of Greifswald in Germany attributes this ability and willingness to span time periods to the educational foundation he received while pursuing his BA at the University of Chicago.
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Stein Kokin had been fascinated by ancient Jewish history and the legends surrounding the kings David and Solomon and the ten lost tribes. But when he arrived in the Windy City, he decided to take a new path.
“When I went to Chicago, I wanted to look at more universal topics, not Jewish issues specifically,” he said. “In particular, the Core Curriculum and Classics education I encountered as an undergraduate encouraged me to think more in terms of issues and questions, as opposed to times and places; or perhaps better: to use particular times and places as backdrops against which to ponder issues and questions of ultimately universal import.”
This thematic outlook has stuck with him since finishing his undergraduate degree and was underscored when he decided to shift his academic focus from the Classics and ancient history to the Renaissance.
“I didn’t want to confine myself to the ancient world,” Stein Kokin said. “The Renaissance is rooted in Greco-Roman antiquity, but it also offers a way to look at how what are considered the classical works evolved through changes in the understanding of those texts.”
After completing his BA, he also felt increasingly compelled to address his deep interest in Jewish culture. This led him to spend two years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a Visiting Research Student. His goal was to deepen his competency in the field of Jewish Studies and in the Hebrew language.
“There’s of course nowhere better than Israel to develop that sort of knowledge,” he highlighted. This knowledge proved essential for completing his dissertation at Harvard, "The Hebrew Question in the Italian Renaissance: Linguistic, Cultural, and Mystical Perspectives.”
Shortly after finishing his doctoral studies in 2006, Stein Kokin began to think about how his educational background related to Israel. During his tenure as the Blaustein Postdoctoral Associate in Yale’s Program in Judaic Studies, he had the opportunity to teach for that university's freshman Great Books program "Directed Studies." While preparing a lecture on Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, he couldn’t help but reflect on themes that reminded him of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including cultural contrasts between warring parties, the question of the potential for a society to change course, and the relevance of the concept of justice in political conflict.
Since leaving Yale in 2009, Stein Kokin has taught Jewish Studies at the University of Oregon, the University of Greifswald and also in UCLA’s Department of Italian as the 2015-16 Viterbi Visiting Professor in Mediterranean Jewish Studies, where he offered a graduate seminar on "Rome and the Jews" and an undergraduate course, "The Italian Jewish Experience."
This year he has embarked on a new journey with the Y&S Nazarian Center, which has allowed him to explore themes he had covered previously, but which he now has the opportunity to focus on in the context of modern Israel.
“I think of Israel as a book from which one can learn a great deal about the universal questions faced by all societies,” Stein Kokin explained. “And what I gain through that reflection, I can then in turn use to draw conclusions about the particular circumstances and challenges faced by Israel.”
“I’ve always been interested in how political and cultural identities get formed and how they’re subject to revision through evolving ideology or through political opportunities or historical developments,” he added. “And that was a theme I was able to explore alongside my students in the course ‘Symbolic Places and Spaces in Modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories.’”
Stein Kokin also described his hopes for students who took the Fall Quarter class, which go beyond learning about the important sites that have played a role in the development of Israeli and Palestinian national and religious identities.
“I hope that students understand how the sites we discussed are creations of humans and that their importance depends on people,” he emphasized. “But I also hope they can then take that knowledge and approach and use it to assess other important sites around the world.”
In the evaluations of the course, one student underscored that Stein Kokin did succeed in imparting more than just knowledge about the sites covered in the class to his students.
“My favorite part of this class was that it…forced me to think critically,” the student evaluation read. “This class was paradigm shifting in many ways.”
Stein Kokin sees his Winter quarter class “Settlement in Israeli History,” as a complement in many respects to his Fall course.
“With ‘Symbolic Places,’ we looked at holy places and other important sites for Israeli and Palestinian national, political, social and cultural identity, sites that have often proved to be flashpoints in the ongoing conflict,” Stein Kokin says. “'Settlement in Israeli History' will examine the wide range of communities that were founded in pre-state and modern Israel and how the variety of settlements are also symbolic places that help constitute Israeli identity and at another level, how Israelis’ identity is shaped by the settlements they live in or choose to live in.”
The course will examine the diverse range of communities that were founded in pre-state and modern Israel, from the cooperative agricultural settlements (Kibbutz and Moshav) set up on largely socialist principles, to the "Development Towns" built to populate Israel's periphery with new immigrants, and down to the bedroom settlements and hilltop outposts of today's West Bank.
“Israel has been an extraordinary laboratory for planned communities,” Stein Kokin pointed out. “And communities have exerted a tremendous influence on Israeli identity and have in many respects come to symbolize or represent Israel abroad, including, for example, the kibbutz, the West Bank settlement, and with the success in Hollywood and now on Broadway of ‘The Band's Visit,’ the Development Town.”
The Visiting Assistant Professor will teach an additional course in the coming quarter, “Europe and Israel: History of a Vexed Relationship,” which will explore the political and cultural relations between Israel, the European Union and individual European countries.
“The fascinating thing about the European story has been that there has always been a key partner for Israel in Europe,” Stein Kokin says. “And yet that partner has changed over the decades for a variety of political and historical reasons.”
Also of interest, he added, is how Europe and Israel each use the other to delineate and clarify their own identity.
In the future, Stein Kokin hopes to have more opportunities to link the present to the past.
“My dream is to teach courses that bridge the modern and pre-modern,” he concluded. “And I’m happy to be doing that already to a certain extent with these courses I’m teaching thanks to the Y&S Nazarian Center.”