Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Elisabeth Tetlow

This year, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies is celebrating its fifth anniversary.  But before the formal founding of the CJS, many professors, students, librarians, and others taught, studied, and cultivated the study of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history and culture at Fordham.  This blog series features interviews with some of these people and celebrates their lasting contributions to the university.  

This interview features Elisabeth Tetlow, who studied Philosophy and Theology at Fordham in the late 1960s and reflects on her time on campus. Her daughter, Tania Tetlow, is now Fordham University’s president!

When did you arrive at Fordham and what was Fordham like at the time? 

I was at Fordham from 1965 through 1970. It was the height of anti-Vietnam War protests in which we took an active part. Girls had just been accepted into Thomas More College, but the campus was far from co-ed. The faculty in my departments were primarily Jesuits. My fellow students were all Catholic and predominantly male.

What motivated you to study Theology, and ancient religion in particular? 

As an undergrad at Barnard, I had double majored in eastern and western religion. I was fortunate to have access to all the courses at Columbia, Union, and teachers from JTS and St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Theological Seminary.  In the summers I worked in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon for the World Council of Churches. I studied modern Hebrew and took Israeli folk dancing for P.E. Although the resources at Columbia were great, there were no courses or faculty who were Catholic. Upon graduation in 1964, there were no graduate programs in Catholic theology open to lay people or women in the US, so I went to Germany, where I studied theology for a year. But it was a pontifical program and they required 2 years of philosophy.  So I came to Fordham. The Fordham Philosophy Department was superb. After that I decided to stay at Fordham to study Theology.

Elisabeth Tetlow with her daughter and granddaughter.

Did your studies at Fordham include Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism? 

Yes, I studied Hebrew language and Bible, but not Judaism. However, we gathered for seders every year at Passover. I spent the summer of 1969 in Jerusalem, doing dissertation research at the Ecole Biblique on Qumran influence on the Epistle to the Hebrews and working on the dig on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount under Benjamin Mazar of the Hebrew University. 

Was there a particular course or teacher who made a lasting impression on you? 

Raymond Brown who was actually at Union, but then Union was linked with the Theology Department at Fordham. And Joe Fitzmyer, SJ, for Aramaic and Qumran. Both great teachers, great scholars, and men of faith.

In addition to studying religion, theology, law, and philosophy, you also studied Semitic languages.  What languages did you study at Fordham? 

At Fordham, I studied Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and Arabic at Columbia.

What work did you do at Loyola University? 

I taught in the Religious Studies Department and I am still a scholar-in-residence in that department.

You’ve published several books, including two volumes on women, crime, and punishment in the ancient world.  What led you to this topic of research?  What did you discover in the process of writing this book? 

I think it was trying to put together Law and Ancient Studies.  I gained much knowledge and respect for Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and was impressed with the role of women as priests, high priests, and other offices. My first book was on “Women and Ministry in the New Testament” and the subject of women’s ordination is still a primary focus in my life. Some day it will happen.

In what ways did Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impact the work you did while you were on campus and long after you left? 

On campus I ran the student retreat program and am still in touch with many of those former students.  It was very successful, but died after the New York Province kicked the Jesuit grad students out of Weigel Hall, the locus of all student ministry at the time. While at Fordham I began making annual retreats in the Spiritual Exercises and later did both 30-day and 19th annotation retreats.  This had a major formative influence on my life and work.  In 1980, I spent a year doing a gender-inclusive language translation of the Exercises, published by the College Theology Society and St. Joseph’s University.

On a Fordham University trip to Rome.

What advice do you have for current students at Fordham? 

Appreciate what you have at Fordham – it is a unique and wonderful time and place – and make lots of friends for the rest of your lives.

Thank you for sharing so many memories and such great advice with us!