Q&A: Getting to Know Dr. Aaron Tugendhaft, History


Emily Vayner: Where did you grow up? Describe your cultural background. Did it impact your career choice in any way? 

Dr. Aaron Tugendhaft: I grew up on the Upper East Side, a block away from the Ramaz Lower School and seven blocks from the Upper School – there was no Middle School at the time. That means, I also grew up a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I worked part time for several years toward the end of high school. I think walking through those galleries which gathered material from so many cultures and time periods, and especially browsing in the bookshop (which was far more extensively stocked than it is now) really sparked my curiosity and made me want to understand it all — and not in the way that a physicist might understand the whole abstractly, by means of underlying laws, but by means of the particular, with all its historical and cultural specificity. As a result, it’s been nearly impossible for me to specialize in the way that is currently expected in academia. I tried for a while (as an Ugaritologist) but it didn’t stick. Teaching at Ramaz gives me more freedom to indulge my catholic curiosity.

EV: What are you passionate about? Any obscure hobbies or favorite pastimes? 

AT: I’m passionate about teaching and I spend a lot of time thinking about what it would mean to do it well. As for hobbies and pastimes, when I was a student at Ramaz I fell in love with opera. I went regularly with two classmates, Ben Lebwohl and Emil Kleinhaus. Now that I am back in New York, the three of us have a subscription to the Met Opera again.

EV: Do you have any fun facts about yourself or talents?

AT: Not really. I can throw a decent dinner party.

EV: What inspired you to write your book “The Idols of ISIS”? 

AT: I was an art history major and then got my doctorate in ancient Near Eastern Studies. Along the way, I also spent a lot of time learning the history of religion, medieval political philosophy, and a bunch of other seemingly unrelated things. When I saw the ISIS video of antiquities destruction in Iraq’s Mosul Museum in 2015, I realized that many of these disparate things I’d been studying over the years could be brought together if I were to write about the video. I’d finally have a chance to bring all the strands together. And so, I wrote the book.

EV: Did you enjoy your experience at Ramaz as a student? How would you describe your past self as a student? 

AT: By high school, I had discovered the joy of reading books. I wasn’t a reader as a child; I think Dr. Jucovy’s eighth grade history class sparked my interest in learning. Between the books I was reading outside of class and the cultural events I started attending in the city, I didn’t always have time to do my schoolwork. Luckily, my parents let me be. I didn’t get perfect grades, but they were good enough to get into a good college. I do regret not having put more effort into Talmud class, though, as I’ve since become deeply interested in Jewish Thought and I would have benefited from the skills I could have learned had I tried harder. Maybe one of the Talmud teachers will let me sit in on a class now that I’m back.

EV: Was your favorite subject History/ Politics, if not what was it? Did you know you would choose your current career choice when you attended the Upper School? 

AT: History was definitely my favorite subject, along with English. I was lucky to have excellent teachers in both subjects (even if my senior year coincided with the year Dr. Jucovy decided to abandon us for Dalton). As I was finishing high school, I think I was already beginning to consider an academic life for my future, but not exclusively. I had been involved in Model UN at Ramaz and was also considering a career in the foreign service. When I took the standard introduction to International Relations my freshman year of college, though, I reconsidered. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was clearly so much more profound than the works of contemporary theory that we were being assigned to read. So I dropped IR and started learning ancient Greek.

EV: How would you describe your experience now, on the flip side, as a teacher? Did your student experience shape the way you teach? 

AT: It’s only been a month, but so far, I’m loving it. My students have really been showing a lot of enthusiasm for learning. If only they could show that enthusiasm a bit less loudly. The decibel level seems to be the main difference between teaching high school and college students.

EV: Who were some figures of inspiration when choosing your career? How would you like to inspire Ramaz students? 

AT: I’ve been blessed with wonderful teachers, from high school through college and graduate school, who regularly serve as models for my own teaching. Herodotus, Socrates, and Rambam are other inspirational figures, though I never managed to meet them personally.

EV: What do you hope to add to the Ramaz History/Politics curriculum? 

AT: I’m happy to be inheriting a history curriculum that is already incredibly strong. I would like to see more attention paid to non-Ashkenazi Jewish history, and perhaps use the range of Jewish settlement as a way to expand our global coverage generally. I also wouldn’t mind finding ways to make more curricular use of my own expertise in cuneiform culture. But one has to be careful, because for everything that’s added something must be removed. It’s a delicate balance that requires careful consideration. The core history curriculum aside, I’m thrilled that Ramaz has welcomed my desire to offer courses on philosophy that weren’t available when I was a student. It seems the students are happy about this too.