By: Gavriel Factor  | 

Bringing Jewish History to Life: The Inspirational Story of Prof. Steven Fine

Yeshiva University has an outstanding and unique Jewish history department. A distinguished professor in this department is Prof. Steven Fine. Fine is a renowned scholar in his field and seeks to be an inspiration to his students and peers. He is the director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies and works actively as a historian specializing in the Greco-Roman world. He has written many books, such as “Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World,” and opened numerous exhibitions with YU such as “The Arch of Titus” and “The Samaritans: A Biblical People.” Fine currently lives in New York with his wife, sons and dog. 

Fine has always loved to learn and gain exposure to new subjects. He has a curious mind and is constantly seeking to grow in his knowledge. Growing up in San Diego, Fine was brought up in an extremely small Jewish community, and thus brings a special perspective to the YU community. During his early schooling, Fine always had the urge to learn. “I was the kid who just wanted to know,” he shared. “The whole community took care of me. It was a great place to grow up.” 

While in high school, the Jewish Federation of San Diego, a non-profit organization that serves to educate and raise money for the Jewish community there, sent Fine on a transformative trip to Israel. He was able to interact with Israeli speakers and experience Israeli culture at a young age. Another key experience for Fine occurred during high school when he had to write a long thesis for an art history class. Fine wanted to write about Puritan tombstones in Massachusetts, but his teacher encouraged him to write about something Jewish. “I did something that surprised everyone,” he said. “I took the pesukim of the description of the menorah and I took art from the beginning till the 20th century. I asked myself, how did all of these artists interpret those pesukim? Little did I know that that was a new thing to do. No one had ever thought to do such things. From that moment on, I was extremely visual.” 

Just as Fine's high school art history teacher did with him, Fine shares the same encouraging spirit with his students. He wants his students to be enthusiastic about their interests and studies, similar to how he finds meaning in his everyday life and work. Every day wherever he is, he sees and breathes Jewish history. Through his hard work, he is able to create a sense of meaning. For example, when he is hiking he sees not only the hike but the history behind the hike and the significance of where he is. This helps to create a constant environment conducive to learning: “This is how I live. Right? Some people have hobbies; my hobby is Jewish history. My life is Jewish history … this [outlook on life] became a constant laboratory for learning.” 

During college, Fine took a gap year at Hebrew University. He took a course on Jewish folklore (midrash Aggadah) and through this Fine was given the opportunity to intern in Jewish art at the Israel Museum. Additionally, during this time, Fine was introduced to topics in Jewish history, such as the history of the Samaritans, which he would later study extensively. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in Jewish studies, Fine returned to Israel to study at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in order to further his Jewish education. Throughout the course of his life, he described, “Everyone was supportive. And I can't tell you how many people just opened doors that I didn't know existed. People whose names are all over the books, just sort of open doors.”

Fine outlined the importance of hard work and determination: “I don't think I was special at all. I can tell you that I really wanted it.” Studying at the University of Southern California, Fine was working on his master's in museology, (museum studies) in Jewish art. He described that during this time, “I would teach at this temple and I would teach at another conservative synagogue and I would go to classes and get to go to yeshiva. This seemed like the most natural life in the world.” Being exposed to these different places, “I found myself in this wonderful position that I was literally getting two educations at once.” 

Fine uses these experiences to guide his teaching at YU. He is easily able to go into a classroom and explain a lecture while doing a fun, interactive experiment. For example, I took his course on classical Jewish history last semester. During the first class, he immediately began with an experiment where he took a vessel and lit a wick in the vessel. We observed the flame burn and the vessel remained intact once the wick went out. Later on in the semester, every student would pick a vessel from the times of the Temple and study it. “What's the point of learning it if you can't explain it to other people?” he said. He wants his students to learn and get the most out of his lectures. He practices teaching “looking easy” so that his students are better able to understand the material. 

Fine feels a great sense of pride in being a part of the YU family. He told a story of when he met one of his former students while walking toward Stern. An older man walked by looking “beleaguered.” The student was able to guide the man toward where he needed to go. After this moment, Fine said, “And I thought to myself, this is why I teach these people. This was a YU moment. Teaching you guys is an amazing experience. And why is this? Because there's a level of earnestness and excitement in our students of Ahavat HaTorah which leads to Ahavat HaMadah (love of knowledge).”

Fine explained that he became part of the YU community through his work with his book, “Sacred Realm.” Being in a variety of places for his education, and not growing up in a large Jewish environment, Fine is able to make a change and influence others through his work with YU. He loves his work and what he does. Because of his diverse background, he is able to have more of a positive influence at YU, “And so what I bring to YU is the outsider perspective who is an insider from California and Israel and the education. And I love YU. This is all very important.” 

Fine embodies the values that define what YU is. He is an inspiration to his students and helps to create a sense of community at YU. 

Being part of the YU community, Fine has the ability to influence and guide the younger generation. “Everything I give will affect who we are as a community,” he concluded. “I am very aware of that. And so for me, that is a driving force.” 

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Photo Caption: Prof. Steven Fine

Photo Credit: YUNews