A Champion For Jewish Voices

Professor Fran Malino

Photo by Richard Howard

At 15, Fran Malino, the Sophia Moses Robison Professor of Jewish Studies and History and director of the Jewish Studies program, hopped on a plane with plans to skip school for a year. Her father was on a year sabbatical from his post as rabbi at the only synagogue in Danbury, Conn., at the time. He wanted his family to experience Europe and Israel.

In Spain, Malino wandered the windy, cobblestone streets of Seville’s Judería. In Israel, she spent time on a kibbutz. She was captivated by the people she met, their lives and their stories. The trip was a formative one for Malino, now an authority on Jewish and European history.

“I had a fascination with people,” says Malino, who in college at Skidmore planned to study psychology. She realized, however, that she was intrigued by people living in both the present and the past. “The study of history,” she says, “helps us understand both where we’ve been and where we might be headed.”

In her years at Wellesley, and before that at UMass Boston, Brandeis, Yale, Mount Holyoke, and the Sorbonne, Malino has published dozens of articles and multiple books—in English and French—about Jews living in medieval Spain, the lands of Islam, France, and Europe. Her pieces explore the experience of Jews within a larger historical context, and focus on France and French-speaking Jews. One of her books tells the tale of Zalkind Hourwitz, a Polish Jew living in France during the French Revolution.

This spring, the program Malino built from the ground up as Wellesley’s inaugural chair in Jewish Studies celebrates its 30th anniversary. When she retires this summer, Malino will leave behind a legacy that includes some of Wellesley’s best-known courses and former students who have followed in her footsteps by promoting a greater understanding of the world through their roles as rabbis and academics.

“Fran has been an extraordinary inaugural holder of the chair,” says Provost Andrew Shennan. “She’s built bridges between the Jewish Studies program and other academic programs, and the courses she’s taught have enriched our curriculum.”

It was a history professor at Skidmore who piqued Malino’s interest in Jewish studies as a career, frequently calling on Malino to offer a Jewish perspective on events. She went on to earn her doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and studied Jews in France on a Fulbright.

“Learning about the historical experience of Jews—their literature, their language—enriches in so many important and disparate ways our understanding of the past,” Malino says.

At Wellesley, it was crucial to establish Jewish Studies as an interdisciplinary interdepartmental program, Malino says, rather than a separate department. Over the years, that model has allowed for close, rich collaborations.

In 1999, Malino organized a symposium that brought Jewish women writers from across Europe to Wellesley. She’s also been the driving force behind Wellesley’s partnership with Diarna, a multinational, interfaith collaboration of scholars and artists focused on Jewish history who travel the world collecting archival materials and interviewing elderly citizens.

For Malino’s most recent project, she’s immersed herself in thousands of letters written by Jewish women born in North Africa and the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her book will tell the story of how these women journeyed to France to train as teachers and then returned home to Africa and the Middle East to establish schools for Jewish girls.

After Wellesley, Malino plans to dive into completing her book. She’ll also continue to share her knowledge with students, teaching a class at her synagogue. “I’ve loved teaching at Wellesley,” Malino says. “Teaching is not something I’m going to abandon.”

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