Susannah Heschel ’73

DEGREES: B.A. in religion; M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D. in religion, University of Pennsylvania

JOB TITLE: Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College; member of the Trinity College Board of Trustees

ACTIVITIES WHILE AT TRINITY: My main extracurricular activity at Trinity was as the first woman editor of The Trinity Tripod. 

What originally drew you to Trinity?
Several factors: I knew one of the religion professors, Edmond Cherbonnier; I loved the curriculum (no requirements! I was free to study what I wanted!); I loved the beauty of the campus; I loved the location within a city but also separate from the city. 

Which professor(s) had the most impact on you and why?
Professor John Gettier changed my life in many, many ways: I loved his classes (though I also loved all the classes I took at Trinity!), and he made me think about biblical studies in new ways. In fact, the intellectual agenda he set for me as an undergraduate is something I have continued to follow for the rest of my academic career. 

What was your favorite college course and why?
I loved my seminar, fall and spring of freshman year, on the Hebrew Bible. It was a very small class, perhaps five students, and we sat around a table and read the Hebrew text of the Bible and analyzed its meaning–both philologically and philosophically. It was taught by Professor Gettier. One of my classmates in that seminar, Warren Tanghe, who was a senior at that time, has remained a lifelong friend. 

What is your favorite memory of Jewish life at Trinity?
The newly formed Hillel and the services we held in dorm rooms. 

What did you do after you graduated?
I went to Harvard Divinity School to study religion!

How did you come to the position you hold today?
I would say there were two things that were most important about my home life. It was academically intense; my parents were always reading. It was also a very religious life; out of that came my father’s involvement in the civil rights movement and against the war in Vietnam.

As for my career path, I went to college, then graduate school, and then got my Ph.D. My first teaching position was at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and then I went to Case Western for six or seven years. Then Dartmouth offered me a tenured position.

How did Trinity help guide you in your life?
I already mentioned the seminar with John Gettier. It was a two-year sequence on the Hebrew Bible, and in my freshman year, they were already on the second year. I was able to take it because I had a background in it. I was living in South Campus that year, and I had a bicycle, a blue three-speed Raleigh bicycle, that I rode. I had a cape, a black and white herringbone cape with matching pants, and I can remember riding my bike, wearing a cape–which was a new thing for me–to a seminar with upperclassmen. The class was fantastic. It felt as though we were doing serious scholarship. I felt intelligent, mature, grown up, that my work was important. I was actually doing the work that scholars do; I was learning the tools and the methods. I remember when I was riding my bicycle, I was thinking, “This is what it means to be euphoric.”

What was your involvement in the Jewish community at Trinity?
We somehow would put the word out and would have a Friday evening Shabbat service in someone’s dorm room. We got together, and it was fun. There were a lot of Jewish kids at Trinity. Nobody felt in any way isolated; everyone felt fully integrated. There was an atmosphere of enormous respect for all kinds of religious backgrounds. Trinity is a college that has a great deal of respect for its own religious roots and for the various religious commitments of everyone in the community. People at Trinity respect being religious.

What role do you think Hillel plays at Trinity?
The Hillel at Trinity seems to be terrific … thriving. In terms of its role, it’s a social organization for kids to meet each other. Kids also want different things: they want a place to pray, to socialize, to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and to talk about what it means to be Jewish in this diverse world.

What do you hope to see from the upcoming generation of Jewish college students?
I would hope college is a time when students will mature and come to know themselves, making decisions about career and family. A lot of this is connected to one’s spiritual life. I know students are concerned to explore their spiritual connection, whether it is through religious services or poetry; these are ways to understand oneself.