Arrivals - A passion for literature and teaching

Dr. Judith Oster is Professor Emerita of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her PhD in English from CWRU in 1979 with a dissertation on Robert Frost.

Judy Oster, from Cleveland to Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Judy Oster, from Cleveland to Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sitting in Judy Oster’s classes feels like a homecoming for anyone who loves literature. Imagine reading, exploring and discussing Austen, Wharton, Faulkner, Camus, Oz, Roth, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and more. Imagine delving into the art of reading poetry and listening to the elegance of Frost, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, T.S. Eliot and others.
Consider for a moment the power of the first two words in John Donne’s poem, “A Lecture upon the Shadow”: Stand still, and I will read to thee A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
I met Judy Oster in the two classes she teaches, the Classics Reading Group and Fresh Insights into Literature, at the AACI in Jerusalem (Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel).
Dr. Judith Oster is Professor Emerita of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her PhD in English from CWRU in 1979 with a dissertation on Robert Frost. She also served as the director of composition and the Writing Center, a position she highly values.
“Me – a professor? Who would have thought it in pre-feminist days, when four days before my wedding, I received my BA,” reminisces Judy. “Women profs were few, and I had never met a married one, let alone one with a family. But I had a passion for literature and for teaching, still with me to this day, and I knew I would never be satisfied with only that BA.”
Judy remembers the day she was called by the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland to substitute for an 11th grade English class. The assignment? Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
“That was the beginning of my graduate degree!” exclaims Judy. “I worked very hard to prepare for that class and to make myself good enough to teach those brilliant high school senior girls the following year. My mind woke up.” That experience gave her the added courage to eventually follow through and return to the university.
IT WAS the 1960s, the era of the consciousness-raising The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. The phrase “feminine mystique” became the signifier for the belief that a woman found true happiness and fulfillment being a stay-at-home wife and mother. Friedan intuited that this assumption may not necessarily be so. Higher education and a career outside the home were not yet part of the accepted mainstream norms and conversation.
“I was a traditional wife and mother but what was significant in Friedan’s book was her advice – begin to prepare for 40 when you are 18. Yes, I had done just that,” recalls Judy. “Friedan made it all right to have other ambitions. When I was staying home full-time, I was afraid my mind was lying fallow, but I did have a plan to go further in my studies.” And Judy was constantly encouraged and supported by her husband, Joe, who told her, “You can’t stop now.”
At the time when Judy was completing her degree, it was almost impossible to find a position teaching literature, but there was a need for teaching composition and writing skills. Judy initiated, proposed and received a grant to develop a university-level composition program that included an intellectual challenge for non-native speakers and international students. She created and headed the unique ESL (English as a Second Language) composition program and later wrote the book From Reading to Writing: A Rhetoric and Reader.
“How do I explain the combination of language/ESL writing theorist-teacher and scholar-teacher of poetry that I have been? There really was a common thread – language – how it works, how it can at once be frustrating and glorious,” says Judy.
She describes the power of the word, “I realized that explaining fine nuances of a word or expression to an ESL student was not so very different from analyzing why just that word as no other worked so brilliantly in a poem. Getting inside language and getting my students to join me in the process was exciting.”
A former ESL student wrote to her, “You taught me how to see.”
Her abiding love for literature led to teaching literature courses and to ongoing research. Among her prolific output of books and publications is her sought-after analysis, Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and The Poet. “Every poem,” declared Robert Frost, “is... a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.”
To write is an act of bravery, an act of braving the chaotic world within and without. The writer becomes entangled in putting all that into some kind of form. “Form keeps us sane,” wrote Frost. And how brave you have to be to write, to confront yourself, to confront the world!
Judy has always been interested in what happens when we read, when as reader response critics theorize, we become “entangled” in a text – whether in identifying with it, or working to create meaning.
She explains, “To put that poem out there for readers risks, even as it desires, their entanglement. And we readers also risk being entangled, not only in the act of creating meaning, but of being somehow changed by what we read, which is one reason we feel the need to share our readings with others, to see that others, too, in their own ways, have shared that experience.”
Judy also piloted “The Immigrant Experience in American Literature,” a literature course in which students were required to read 12 books. These students, the discussions, the academic writing, the personal reflective outpouring inspired her to write her next book, Crossing Cultures: Creating Identity in Chinese and Jewish American Literature. The study examines the search for self-identity of those caught between two cultures and two languages, of those yearning for the feeling of being at home.
HERE IN Jerusalem at AACI, Judy offers a place for a community of book lovers to share their voices, to examine the possibilities in each text and to discover pleasure in the beauty of the form.
Judy is committed to volunteer teaching, whether at AACI or at Nishmat. She is involved in tutoring Ethiopian post-high school women at Nishmat with the English they will need to succeed in higher education and careers. She is also the coordinator of that volunteer tutoring program.
Judy’s four children made aliyah after completing their education. Instead of retiring, Judy arranged to be on half-time retirement for a few years so she could divide her time between university teaching in Cleveland and being in Israel near her family.
“That was the best of both worlds. It was ideal,” she says.
In 2012 Judy and her husband Joe moved to Jerusalem full-time.
I am thinking of Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass / O Me! O Life!” The poet contemplates the meaning of life and gives an answer, “That you are here – that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Judy Oster continues to contribute more than a verse.