Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Crash Course in Jewish Identity

By: Ms. Adina Shoulson, History Department Chair

You could call them crash courses in world history. In ninth grade we start with paleolithic life and end in medieval times. In tenth grade we cover the period from the Renaissance to the Cold War. In all survey courses, time is precious.  As I begin and end the Russian Revolution in a flash, a student always asks, “why do we spend only a day on this important event, but so much more time on Jewish History?”  In our integrated approach to teaching global and Jewish history, students and parents often ask -- why bother inserting the Jewish perspective into the global narrative?  Why take time away from Napoleon to study Jewish emancipation in France?  Why flit from Franz Ferdinand to Balfour?  The flip side of this question is, if Jewish History is so important, why doesn’t it deserve a course of its own? 

It's no secret that as a Modern Orthodox high school, SAR has an agenda in teaching Jewish History, and it’s more than just teaching kids to think critically and read primary texts.  History is identity.  When teaching history we aim to arm students with critical thinking tools, but we also know that we can better understand our own story and identify more strongly as Jews through learning Jewish history. It's no different from our approach to teaching Tanakh and Talmud.  In those subjects we are, of course, invested in teaching the kids the skills and the content.  But an equally important goal is to teach the kids to love these sacred texts, and through them, to love Judaism. 

Jewish history is our story.  By learning our story we can feel closer to it.  My students say as much: “it may sound cliche, but it’s good to know where you come from.”  Students often relate better to the Jewish history units because they have more context for the discussion.  Not only do they feel closer to our past, but the study of Jewish history becomes an access point through which students can enter the Jewish narrative and view themselves as a part of the Jewish people’s future. 

This doesn’t mean it has to be an uncritical, simplistic view of our history either.  Students can study the role of Jesus and the origins of Christianity as a window into the tensions and aspirations within the Jewish community under Roman rule.  They can debate whether Moses Mendelssohn led the way to Reform Judaism, or whether that is a misreading of his ideas.  They can consider how Hasidut, which is viewed as such a traditional expression of Judaism today, could be viewed as innovative and even radical in the 18th century. 

The very act of debating our past and questioning the decisions of historical figures, even Jewish leaders, forces students to place themselves in the chain of Jewish history.  They come to realize that they share many of the values and the struggles that Jews of previous generations faced, and perhaps they disagree with their decisions.  After the French Revolution, as Jews were emancipated and able to live outside the reach of rabbinic authority for the first time, they confronted the challenge of balancing their Jewish traditions with the new and appealing secular values.  Nineteenth century Jews had many creative responses to this quandary ranging from Reform Judaism to the Ultra-Orthodoxy of the Hatam Sofer.  We don’t only ask the students to learn the philosophies of each approach, we ask them to think about where they fit in this spectrum and why.   

Now to answer those who believe in the importance of Jewish history as a component of building Jewish identity and question why it does not merit a class of its own.  What are the benefits of an integrated curriculum?  Jews never lived in a vacuum, isolated from the world around them.  We cannot understand anything about our contemporary Jewish world, from the phenomenon of the secular Jews, to the proliferation of Jewish denominations, without understanding the impact of the French Revolution and the reach of Napoleon who spread the ideal of equality throughout Europe.  Only by understanding the historical context can students appreciate the origins of Modern Orthodoxy and the historical moment in which Torah im derekh eretz (Torah and Western values) was an innovative, even revolutionary way to preserve tradition but also integrate into secular society.  As a final example, while Jews have been longing to return to Zion since they were exiled, modern Zionism cannot be fully understood without appreciating its context in 19th century nationalism. 

So, is it a crash course in World Jewish History?  Of course.  How could we cover thousands of years of history in two years any other way.  However, by including Jews, we give the Jewish People the place they deserve in that history, and we allow our students to find themselves by studying it. 

Although the author of this article is doubtful about the integrated approach, he too believes that teaching Jewish history can be used to shape mature and thoughtful Jews.  He offers additional examples of topics and questions that can help develop our students’ critical thinking as well as their connection to their Jewish identity.