Annual Solomon-Tenenbaum Lecture sparks dialogue
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
Ask Palmetto Health Foundation President Samuel Tenenbaum about the issue of the day—whatever that issue might be— and he’ll tell you about the last five books he’s read, raise a handful of provocative questions and throw in a mini-history lesson to boot. The retired steel executive and longtime University of South Carolina donor isn’t on an ego trip, though. He just loves to wrestle with big ideas—and he loves it even more when somebody else brings a competing big idea to the table.
That interest in sparking dialogue was part of Tenenbaum’s motivation when he and his wife, head of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission and former South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, launched the university’s Jewish studies lectureship in 1990.
The series, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, has been known as the Solomon-Tenenbaum Visiting Lectureship in Jewish Studies since 1996, when the Tenenbaums combined forces with Charleston businessman Melvin Solomon and his wife Judith, both deceased. It has brought multiple high-profile figures to campus over the years, including Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate author Elie Weisel, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Holocaust historians Deborah Lipstadt and Saul Friedlander. Lecture topics, meanwhile, have ranged from anti-Semitism to secular Judaism to the concept of “chosen peoples,” which will be the focus of Columbia University journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin’s lecture at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, in the Campus Room at Capstone House.
“The hope here is that you bring in thoughtful people to challenge us to think, and for us to find our own answers,” says Tenenbaum, who applauds USC for supporting the series from day one. “It’s not for the speakers to give us all of the answers but to open the debate and the discussion so we say, ‘Hey, I need to go read more. I need to understand more about this.’ ”
The other motivation for the lectureship, which was begun in memory of Tenenbaum’s parents, is more personal but dovetails with Tenenbaum’s intellectual pursuit, not to mention his particular interest in Judaic studies.
“I was brought up around books,” says Tenenbaum, who attended both public school and Hebrew school while growing up in Savannah, Ga. “As a young boy I was encouraged to ask questions. Around the dinner table we’d have debates about everything. I remember listening to Walter Wenchel with my daddy on the Sunday night radio and then, you know, we’d discuss what we’d heard.”
It was Tenenbaums’s father, in fact, who instilled in Samuel the sense of civic duty that drives the philanthropist today. Meyer Warren Tenenbaum was a Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1921 at age 13, unable to speak English, and graduated from Emory University’s law school at age 24. Meyer then built the steel business that the younger Tenenbaum eventually took over.
“My father’s survival in rural Poland between the wars was tenuous,” says Tenenbaum. “His family, they were farmers. Then they came to America, and it was the land of opportunity. We were told that you’ve got to believe in that, and told that you’ve got to reinvest.
“So you grow up, you have a few extra resources, and you say, ‘What can I do? What’s important?’”
Enter former USC Department of Religious Studies chair Carl Evans, who over 20 years ago encouraged Tenenbaum to direct his energies to supporting the University of South Carolina, and in particular Judaic studies.
“Carl is a fabulous guy, quote me on that,” says Tenenbaum. “I wouldn’t be involved in this particularly area if it weren’t for Professor Carl Evans. Because of his activities in the greater community, talking about ecumenical positions, he got me involved with the University of South Carolina’s Department of Religious Studies. I was ultimately inspired by him.”
The Solomon-Tenenbaum Lectureship now ranks among the premier lecture series on campus, attracting professors and students from the university as well as people from the larger outside community — people who, like Tenenbaum, have questions and want to hear other opinions expressed in a civil but thought-provoking manner.
"It's through the vision and generosity of donors like Samuel Tenenbaum that we're is able to bring outstanding scholars and public intellectuals to our community to stimulate discussion and debate," says College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, one of the series' biggest boosters.
For all that vision and generosity, however, Tenenbaum doesn't handpick the series' speakers or inject himself into the debate. As someone who values academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, he would rather just sit back and see what unfolds—even if the ideas coming from the podium don't jibe with his own.
“I have no idea what a certain speaker will say,” Tenenbaum says with a shrug. “I could say, ‘God, they’re wrong!’ But that’s what a university is about, to be challenged about your own ideas. Even if you helped fund the lecture, that doesn’t mean the lecturer is going to say what you want them to say. That’s not the purpose.
“The hope is that we can all remember our commonality as a basis for working together, as opposed to the differences that have come about over the centuries."
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