Teaching Jewish History and Culture
The Jewish experience is not limited to the Holocaust; here are some ways teachers can expand what they teach students about Judaism.
In Judaism, there’s an old joke we use to explain our holidays: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”
While cute, this quip is short on accuracy. The reality is that they often didn’t fail to kill us, and we fast almost as often as we feast. Both Jewish and non-Jewish students alike in classrooms are presented with either limited or wrong information about Jewish history.
By the most recent accounts, Jews make up about 0.2 percent of the world’s total population, which amounts to about 15 million people out of 8 billion globally. In America, the numbers rise slightly to a marginally less underwhelming 2 percent. There is almost no mention of Jews in most core curriculum across content areas. Therefore, Jewish students (along with many of their peers who do not identify with mainstream white Christian culture) do not have opportunities to see themselves in what they learn unless teachers make a more concerted effort to be inclusive. Here are some ways students can be better educated about the complexity of the Jewish experience in America.
TEACHING JEWISH HISTORY AND CULTURE
Rethinking historical time: For Jewish people worldwide, this is the year 5783. While the secular calendar measures time from the birth of Jesus, Jewish history spans nearly 6,000 years of both written and oral tradition. The Jewish calendar goes back toward the recorded creation of the world in accordance with the Torah, which is the religion’s most sacred text. When teachers use “BC” (before Christ) and “AD” (anno Domini) in lessons to talk about time, they are using Christian terminology and events to discuss history. Instead, teachers can adopt the religiously neutral terms “BCE” (before the Common Era) and “CE” (Common Era).
The Jewish experience is not isolated to the Holocaust: Many teachers demonstrate the importance of learning about the Holocaust by assigning books like Number the Stars and Night or by discussing what occurred in the context of a history class unit on World War II. While these efforts are well-intentioned, the Holocaust is often the only narrative about Judaism that students are exposed to. Just as defining Black history only in relation to enslavement is a highly limited perspective, so too is the assumption that Judaism is defined only in terms of one highly tragic narrative.
In fact, reducing an enduring, complex religion and culture to just one event can be damaging, leading to ignorance that further engenders acts of anti-Semitism. With such an extensive history, one can hardly expect the entire story of the Jewish people to center on an event (however significant) that happened as late as the mid-20th century.
Celebrating Judaism: Beyond that, the story of Judaism is not always a tragic one, nor should it be framed only in light of persecution. While Jewish children are informed about the possible dangers they face, they are also taught to be proud of who they are, where they come from, and the long tradition they are part of carrying on through the generations.
Teachers can tap into the joy of Judaism by inviting students to share beloved customs at timely moments, like the practice of eating apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah to celebrate a sweet new year. Another option is to bring texts into the classroom that increase awareness of Jewish presence from a variety of perspectives, like the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor.
Teaching anti-Semitism: Teachers also have the obligation to call out and resist anti-Semitism. When overtly anti-Semitic portrayals appear in curriculum content (think Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby), teachers often gloss over the text as representing a different and less tolerant time period. With large spikes in anti-Semitism, that dismissal is no longer acceptable, and any inappropriate stereotypes or tropes should be addressed rather than ignored.
History of resistance to erasure: For a people who have experienced endless extermination attempts throughout the millennia (the Purim story is a classic example, when a man named Haman nearly persuaded the king of ancient Persia to kill the entire Jewish population), our very survival is dependent on remaining closely connected to the cultural or religious aspects of Judaism. The nuances of Jewish identity exist on a vast spectrum. For example, observant Jewish students might show visible signs of religious practice through their clothing, while their secular peers show a more cultural affiliation to Judaism through school clubs or social action committees.
But what about places where Jews do not appear at all? There are so many marginalized groups (Jews included) that are erased from stories, including those with intersectional identities who therefore experience an even deeper layer of otherness. Teachers can share the fact that Jewish soldiers set up communities in conflict-torn regions during the Vietnam War, or students can learn about composers like George Gershwin, who continues to be an influential figure in American music. Making an effort to represent these experiences in the curriculum also allows students of different backgrounds to see themselves in the material they are learning.
CENTERING STUDENT EXPERIENCE
Recently, I had a conversation with several teachers about how we can all become more inclusive and knowledgeable. We discussed taking the time to prioritize narratives that have heretofore been erased in classrooms. As one person shared, “I’ve heard of Ramadan or Yom Kippur, but I haven’t done the recon to really learn about what that means and how it affects my students. Learning more about where my kids come from will help me be a better teacher.”
His words resonated with everyone in the room. We all become better teachers when get to know our students and dig deeper into course content to ensure that students see themselves in the material we teach.
Everyone in the classroom benefits from having additional understanding of how underrepresented groups factor into American social and historical contexts. Only then can everyone truly feel included as vital members of a classroom community. Even when marginalized students (Jewish or otherwise) are not represented in a given classroom, everyone stands to benefit when the curriculum reflects a more inclusive lens. That way, even beyond school walls, students will go forth into the world with an enriched sense of shared responsibility for shaping society by celebrating the collective advantages that multiple perspectives provide.