07ViterbiAndrewThe Viterbi Family Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies

The Viterbi Family Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies is the first of its kind at a university.  Endowed by Erna and Andrew Viterbi and their children, the program builds on a trend in historical studies to look beyond traditional political boundaries in order to understand transnational commercial and intellectual connections between different groups of people.  The Viterbi program brings an emerging or a distinguished scholar to campus for one or more quarters of instruction.  The endowment also funds quarterly seminars on Jewish communities in Italy, France, Spain, the Balkans, North Africa, Egypt or Israel. We are grateful to the Viterbi family for their vision in establishing The Viterbi Family Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies and are deeply honored that they chose the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies as the Program’s home.

Viterbi Visiting Professorship in Mediterranean Jewish Studies

The UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies invites applications for the Viterbi Visiting Professorship in Mediterranean Jewish Studies during the 2018-19 academic year. Please click here for application.

Viterbi Visiting Professors

2018-2019: Liran Yadgar

2016-2017: Daniel Stein Kokin

2013-2014: Guri Schwarz

2011-2012: Andrew Berns

2009-2010: Sergio DellaPergola

2008-2009: Federica Francesconi

2007-2008: Robert Bonfil

2006-2007: Fabrizio Lelli

Viterbi Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies Event 2018-2019


A Place in the Sun: Italian Jews and the Colonization of Africa

Shira Klein (Chapman University)

November 14, 2018

For four decades (1890s-1930s), Italian Jews strongly approved of their country’s colonizing enterprise. Throughout Italy’s expansion to Somalia, Eritrea, Libya, and Ethiopia, Italian Jews lent their support. But the act of colonizing challenged their comfortable dual identity, namely, their ability to be both Italian and Jewish. The empire pitted Italian colonizers and colonized African Jews against each other, and Italian Jews found themselves caught in the middle.

Andrew Berns (University of South Carolina)

‘The Foundation of the World:’ the Ecological Ideas of Post-Expulsion Spanish Jews in Italy and the Ottoman Empire

Andrew Berns (University of South Carolina)

November 15, 2018

In the wake of their banishment from Spain in 1492, after nearly 1500 years on Iberian soil, how did Spanish Jews think about land and the natural world? My talk explores how Sephardic Jews developed their ideas about the proper use (and improper abuse) of land. From safe havens in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, scholars such as Isaac Abravanel, Abraham Saba and others wrote copiously about agricultural practices and land management in their commentaries on biblical and rabbinic texts. The late Middle Ages witnessed drastic changes in land use on the Iberian Peninsula, in Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean: I show how Spanish-Jewish ideas about the land (the biblical Land of Israel as well as lands of the diaspora) responded to ecological realities as well as intellectual trends.


The Legend of Khaybar, A Jewish “Kingdom” in the Arabian Desert

Liran Yadgar (UCLA)

January 17, 2019

n the year 628 C.E., a few years after the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina and the founding, in Medina, of the early Muslim State, the Jewish stronghold of Khaybar in the Arabian Desert fell into the Prophet’s hands. This marked the end of the Khaybari settlement that also served as a refuge to Medinan Jews as a result of their previous battles against the Prophet. The Khaybari Jews, however, did not disappear from history. According to Jewish legend, the Jews of Khaybar remained in their territory and lived there as a nation of mighty warriors free from Muslim rule. Their fantastic survival in the desert attracted the attention of adventurers and travelers to the Orient from the twelfth century to modern times. Even twentieth century Zionist pioneers in Palestine were fascinated with the Khaybari legend as they were looking for ancient Jewish roots in their old-new homeland. This lecture will follow the legend of Khaybar from the early Islamic period to the twentieth century.

Viterbi Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies Event 2017-2018


Primo Levi for the Public

May 6, 2018

This half-day symposium brought together an array of international scholars and writers engaged with the history, literature, and impact of Primo Levi, a chemist, writer, and humanist who survived Auschwitz and, through his writing, provided generations of students and scholars with the philosophical language to understand the Shoah—and the modern condition. The symposium celebrated the publication, in 2015, of Levi’s complete works in English (by translator Ann Goldstein, published by W. W. Norton) and probes the literary, philosophical, and historical legacy of Levi.


Maimonides and the Merchants

Mark R. Cohen (Princeton)

April 24, 2018

The advent of Islam in the seventh century brought profound economic changes to the Middle East and to the Jews living there. The Talmud, written in and for an agrarian society, was in many ways ill-equipped for the new economy. In the early Islamic period, the Babylonian Geonim made accommodations through their responsa, through occasional taqqanot, and especially by applying the concept that custom can be a source of law. Not previously noticed, however, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides made his own efforts to update the halakha through codification, in order to make it conform with Jewish merchant practice as illustrated in the business documents of the Cairo Geniza.

Viterbi Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies Event 2016-2017

Daniel Stein Kokin

12/7/16 – Rome in the Jewish Imagination

Daniel Stein Kokin (UCLA and Universität Greifswald)

As capital of a mighty empire and missionizing church, Rome for Jews has often appeared a source of unyielding oppression and persecution. Yet Jews have lived continuously in Rome for more than two thousand years, longer than in virtually any other city in the world. Stein Kokin explores the more than two millennia of vexed ties binding the “eternal city” and “immortal people” (as Mark Twain described the Jews).

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Daniel Stein Kokin studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard and taught at Yale, the University of Oregon, and the University of Greifswald in Germany. Stein Kokin is the recipient of fellowships from Villa I Tatti: The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, and the Käte Hamburger Kolleg at the Ruhr University Bochum (Germany). His research interests span Jewish and Renaissance studies: he has published on Renaissance humanism, Jewish-Christian relations and polemic, Christian Kabbalah, Jewish visual culture, early modern political thought, reception history, and Israeli film. He is currently completing his first book, The Hebrew Question in the Italian Renaissance and an edited volume, Hebrew between Christians and Jews.

Cosponsored by
UCLA Department of Italian
UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies


3/16/17 – Memory and Continuity of the Southern Italian Jewish Legacy

Fabrizio Lelli (University of Salento, Lecce)

Lelli’s project looks at the history of Apulian Jewish culture and its major intellectual achievements in the late Middle Ages and also concentrates on written and oral testimonies of former Jewish refugees, who at the very end of WWII resided in the United Nations transit camps established in the Apulian region. In this talk, Lelli will focus on the extraordinary spiritual rebirth of contemporary Judaism, by comparing it with other intellectually significant phases of Apulian Judaism in the past.

Cosponsored by
UCLA Department of Italian
Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles

Jewish Visual Culture in the Mediterranean Basin

4/27/17 – Jewish Visual Culture in the Mediterranean Basin

DANIEL STEIN KOKIN (UCLA and Universität Greifswald)
STEVEN FINE (Yeshiva University)
TALYA FISHMAN (University of Pennsylvania)

What motifs, themes, and tendencies have characterized the visual expression of Mediterranean Jews across the centuries? What religious meanings have they conveyed or experiences stimulated? And what relationships do they reflect with surrounding cultures and religions? These are among the questions to be addressed in this symposium.

Cosponsored by
UCLA Department of Italian
UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies
UCLA Department of Art History


Viterbi Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies Event 2015-2016

Shira Klein

Why Italian Jews liked Fascism

SHIRA KLEIN (Chapman University)

What did Jews think of Fascism in interwar Italy? Using a lively selection of sources from memoirs to photographs to songs, Klein explains why Jews rarely opposed Mussolini until 1938 when the Fascist government enacted a series of racist laws against them.

Cosponsored by
UCLA Department of History
UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies
UCLA Department of Italian

Viterbi Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies Event 2014-2015


Jewish Refugees in Apulia

At the end of WWII, more than 250,000 Jewish refugees lived in DP camps in Germany, Austria and Italy which were set up under the aegis of the UN and the Allied Forces, with the support of international Jewish organizations. Since 2000, Fabrizio Lelli has been collecting documents and personal testimonies from former refugees in the Apulia region of southern Italy. Traumatized, unable or unwilling to return to their former homes, many were stuck in a Mediterranean limbo, trying to recover from the war but without knowing where they would—or could—go next. Through his Jewish Refugees in Apulia project, Lelli has published the moving stories of 36 refugees on his website. His work also played a role in convincing an Italian municipality to preserve three murals painted by a Jewish refugee in a building slated for demolition.


Viterbi Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies Cosponsored Events 2014-2015


Ladino’s Controversial History

For more than a century, everything related to the history and use of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) has been a matter of disagreement among scholars. In this talk on the Ibero-Romance language used by Sephardi Jews in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean in the 16th through mid-20th centuries, Borovaya will offer a history of the Sephardi vernacular and elucidate some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the language.

schechter geniza

Languages of Everyday Writing in the Medieval Islamic World: History, Methodology, Digital Prospects

The Cairo Geniza consists of over 380,000 fragments of writing composed between 870 and 1896 CE. While most are biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinic texts, the Geniza’s 8,000-18,000 ‘documentary’ fragments offer a unique window on daily Jewish life. However, since the contracts, doctors’ prescriptions, shopping lists, and business letters are written in dialects of medieval vernacular Arabic in Hebrew characters, often interspersed with Hebrew and Aramaic, very few scholars have direct access to them. This academic workshop, intended for faculty and graduate students, is part of an effort to develop a research website to make these remarkable primary sources more accessible.