Sol Gittleman returns to Intro to Yiddish Culture this spring, reflects on 50 years

Professor of Judaic Studies, and former University Provost, Sol Gittleman returned to teach Intro to Yiddish Culture this semester. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Professor Sol Gittleman began his time at Tufts over 50 years ago. Since then, he has become one of the most enduring and respected members of the school’s faculty and holds the title of Tufts’ longest-serving provost. He has taught a number of undergraduate courses, and his Intro to Yiddish Culture course, taken by students across disciplines, is still one of Tufts’ most popular classes. After complications from a hip replacement surgery, Gittleman was unable to teach Intro to Yiddish Culture the past two semesters, but he has returned this semester to teach his popular class.

Although most students at Tufts know Gittleman mainly for teaching Intro to Yiddish Culture, he has had a long and winding journey during his years on the Hill.

Gittleman recalls that, after receiving his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1961, he had a brief stint teaching at Mount Holyoke College before eventually arriving at Tufts in search of new teaching opportunities.

“I wrote to Tufts in 1961 when we were leaving Ann Arbor — I didn’t want to be at a research university: I wanted to be at a liberal arts college,” Gittleman said. “The first place that answered was Mount Holyoke, and we accepted it sight unseen.”

After spending a year at Mount Holyoke, Gittleman and his wife came to realize how small and isolated the college felt.

“Tufts wrote a letter the next year, and said ‘Would you like to come now? We have an opening,’” Gittleman said.

His acceptance of the position marked the beginning of his celebrated tenure with Tufts.

“So much in life is accidental,” he said. “We thought we’d be here for a few years. It’s almost 51 and counting.”

Gittleman said that he admired Tufts’ emphasis on undergraduate education.

“It turned out to be a school that cared about teaching, and yet if you wanted to do research, you could … that’s the way it was then,” he said.

Despite the changes that the university has undergone, Gittleman asserts that Tufts has remained true to its roots.

“It never lost its DNA, which was undergraduate teaching,” he said.

Gittleman also took on an administrative role within the university, serving as provost for 21 years.

According to Gittleman, he was not interested in the job at first since it encompassed all the Tufts campuses.

“They changed the job description to have nothing to do with the downtown campus,” he said. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s better for me.’”

Even when Gittleman assumed the position of provost, he still continued to teach, just as he had before.

“I was able to do two large lecture classes each semester,” Gittleman said.

Many of the courses Gittleman has taught have been at the introductory level, which, he said, reflects his respect for general education.

“I believe in general education; I believe there should be a lot of courses that have no prerequisites,” he said.

Intro to Yiddish Culture, which Gittleman is currently teaching, carries no prerequisites. Students are evaluated based on two take-home exams for which they are given at least a week to complete.

“I think that Professor Gittleman is a really fun lecturer,” Miranda Siler, a sophomore currently enrolled in the class, said.

Siler said that she took the class not only as a credit for her religion major, but also because of the class’ long-standing reputation.

“I’d heard from a lot of different people that it was the kind of class that I need to take [and that] the professor was really awesome and had been teaching it for so many years; I have some friends whose parents took the class,” she said.

Siler also said that she is taking the class to learn more about her heritage.

“I come from Yiddish culture, essentially … Yiddish is spoken in my house, so I thought it’d be interesting to learn a little bit more about my own background,” she explained.

According to Gittleman, there are close to 300 students in the class, including both undergraduates and locals from the Medford/Somerville area who audit the class.

Gittleman also teaches the course America and the National Pastime, a class in the history department about baseball.

“I wanted to teach American baseball history while I was still able to, and I made up that course, and the history department invited me to give it after the man who taught sports history at Tufts died,” he said.

In recognition of Gittleman’s contributions, Tufts established the Sol Gittleman Professorship, an interdisciplinary position in the Department of Film and Media Studies, according to the Tufts Office of the Secretary and Faculty website. 

“When Sol stepped down as provost in 2002, the Board of Trustees and the University Advancement Office started the Gittleman Endowment for Excellence in Teaching to catalyze the establishment of the professorship through group fundraising efforts,” Christine Sanni, executive director of advancement communications and services, said.

According to Sanni, the Academic Affairs Committee voted to establish the professorship in January 2011.

“The provost has the discretion to allocate where the professorship will reside within the university,” Sanni said, with regards to this decision. “The provost gave the Dean of Arts and Sciences the discretion to select the department.”

“There were over 100 people who contributed to [the fund] to establish it … it’s totally donor funded.Sanni said.

Despite the growth and changes he has seen in the university since his arrival, Gittleman attests that the student body has remained the same.

“Most of them still see pediatricians, they all start out as 17 or 18, they grow to the wise old age of 21 or 22 — and they’re kids, still,” he said.

Gittleman said that he views college as just the beginning of a lifetime of learning.

“It’s called commencement; it’s the beginning. Whatever they think they know, they’re going to know more in the next 40 years. What counts is what happens after [those] four years,” he said.