Mazel tov: UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies celebrates 35 years

LEADING THE WAY: For 25 years, Richard Chess has been the director of UNC Asheville's Center for Jewish Studies. The center serves both the university and the community, offering programming on and off campus. Photo by Thomas Calder

A year ago, Marty Gillen was approached by members of the steering committee at UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He was asked about making a short film documenting the center’s 35-year history. When Gillen agreed (offering to produce the documentary for free in exchange for creative freedom), he was given a file highlighting the various programs, seminars, lectures, performances, readings and film festivals that the center organized. “It was 11 pages,” he says. “It was unbelievable how much had been produced for the faculty and the students and the community over all these years.”

Gillen’s film, The First 35 Years, will debut Thursday, March 23, at UNCA’s Reuter Center. The documentary launches a multiday series celebrating the CJS’s 35th anniversary. The festivities also include literary readings, discussions and musical performances both on and off UNC Asheville’s campus, through Sunday, March 26.

To capture the CJS’ history, Gillen conducted 30 interviews with former university chancellors and professors, as well as members of the steering committee, the president and co-president of the UNCA Hillel and other people impacted by the center. It amounted to roughly 26 hours of footage, all of which, Gillen notes, had to be trimmed down to 20 minutes. “I don’t go year by year,” he says. “No one wants to see that. They want to see how people feel and react to what has been done.”

One of the names that comes up often in the film is Richard Chess, director of the CJS. For the past 25 years, Chess has helped develop the program into what it is today. He’s also a poet and chairs the university’s English department. “Rick brought in these amazing writers and speakers and poets from all over the world,” says Gillen. “People who would never have come to Asheville for any other reason.”

Chess’ lecture,  “On the Border: Defining, Defending, Protecting, Crossing, Erasing, Transcending,” takes place Thursday, March 23. He’ll share a series of poems from acclaimed writers Yehuda Amichai, Rodger Kamenetz, Jacqueline Osherrow, Shirley Kaufman, Peter Cole and Robin Becker, all of whom the CJS has hosted. “What I want to do is look at the role borders — both literal and figurative — have played in some Jewish lives,” Chess says. “We’ll look not just at political borders, but linguistic, religious and cultural borders. And I’ll be teasing all of these observations out of these poems I’ve selected.”

The works, Chess continues, range from the funny to the moving to the sad. And while they focus on the Jewish experience, Chess says they speak to the universal. “They cross the border of the culture itself,” he says. “You don’t need to be a Torah scholar. … You don’t need to know a lot about Jewish history to be moved by one of these poems.”

Events continue Friday, March 24, at the Reuter Center, at 3 p.m. The Passion, the Beauty, the Heartbreak: Israel through Poetry and Music, a free event, will be led by Danny Maseng, a former Israeli pop star-turned-acclaimed-musician and actor. “He has an unbelievable voice,” says Chess. “And an incredible repertoire. … He’s going to show how, by listening to these poems and songs, and paying attention to both the lyrics and the music, you can gain some deep insights into the inner experience of Jewish life in modern Israel.”

Maseng will conclude the celebration with a second performance on Sunday, March 26, at Isis Music Hall, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. The concert, notes Chess, will be an eclectic mix of Jewish and world traditions.

Chess points out that the festivities won’t directly address the present-day conflicts facing Israel and the Palestinian territories, or the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S., but he hopes the poems he’s selected for his talk will call to mind these current issues, as well as offer possible solutions.

“Instead of building a wall — literal or figurative — let’s cross the street,” he says. “I know some places are dangerous to cross. … But a lot of places that we think are dangerous are not dangerous. … If anything, it might be the solution to one of the problems facing Jewish life.”

Chess notes that a similar approach is applicable to current social and political matters confronting the U.S. He views the struggles abroad as “a microcosm of the same kind of tensions that exist in American life.”

WHAT: UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies 35th anniversary celebration
WHERE: Reuter Center, 1 Campus View Road, and Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road
WHEN: Thursday-Sunday, March 23-26. Schedule at


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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