By Sharadha Kalyanam
Aside from teaching Jewish studies and comparative literature, Sheila Jelen enjoys spending time with her children, swimming and writing fiction she hopes to publish some day.
Jelen is an associate professor of English and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland (UMD) and the director of the program in comparative literature. She has taught at UMD for over a decade and said that she loves teaching her students how to trust their critical instincts when it comes to analyzing literary texts.
As a woman who grew up in a Jewishly-connected household in Chicago, Jelen straddled a lot of roles, steering her toward Jewish studies.
“To a large extent my interest in that came from my having been raised within an Orthodox community as a girl,” Jelen said. “Even though my family wasn’t particularly religious, I did go to Orthodox day schools and emerged from that experience as an egalitarian Jewish woman because my family did not impose the kind of segregation that my schools imposed on me.”
One of the periods of Jewish history that piqued Jelen’s academic interest was the Modern Hebrew Renaissance, which she said was a highly gendered movement.
“It was really supposed to be an egalitarian, secularizing kind of movement, and yet mostly men were in it,” Jelen said. “If women tried to break into it they were basically dismissed because they weren’t understood to have the kind of facility with the language that men had.”
In her book “Hebrew, Gender, and Modernity: Critical Responses to Dvora Baron’s Fiction,” Jelen wrote about the work of one of the Modern Hebrew Renaissance’s most prominent woman writers and the way Baron’s work addressed the inequities of the era.
Currently, Jelen is studying how literature and photography are used in the modern era to reconstruct the life and culture of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust. She said she was interested in the topic because she comes from a family of Holocaust survivors.
Jelen said she as identifies as an observant Jew and does not affiliate herself with any movement.
“For a long time my family was praying [at] different synagogues,” she said. “One was a very liberal Conservative synagogue and the other was very right-wing Orthodox synagogue. Right now, we basically pray in an Orthodox synagogue just because of the proximity from my home.”
However, Jelen said she does value Jewish literacy for her children.
“Orthodoxy is not egalitarian, and I don’t believe that a non-egalitarian society is divinely dictated,” Jelen said. “I can’t really ascribe to that. I keep a lot of the Jewish laws. I don’t teach on holidays.”
A past student of Jelen’s, Margalit Rosenthal (‘08), said she appreciated Jelen’s character and lessons. Rosenthal is currently the senior director of Birthright Israel Experience at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“Personally, she modeled how a young Jewish woman could be respected, smart, driven and a feminist, while also valuing Jewish tradition and Jewish life,” said Rosenthal, who majored in English language and literature and minored in Jewish studies.
Rosenthal said that on the first day of class, Jelen taught her not to assume that everyone in the room “speaks the same language.”
“She said that it was important to define our terms — especially when referencing Jewish text, tradition and history,” Rosenthal said. “This understanding has been hugely important in my career within the Jewish nonprofit community and my drive to make more open and embracing Jewish spaces.”
This story has been updated since its original publication Nov. 4, 2014.