Teaching Jewish History

This is something of a rant. But it’s not truly a rant because I do try to arrive at some resolution by the end. Still, I need your help.

Jewish History.

mosaic Yishay
Tzipori Mosaic, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.

Hertzl Cut Out

Israel Museum, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.
Israel Museum, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.

Part I: The Challenge

Teaching it is MUCH more complicated than I ever imagined. And yet those of us who care deeply about Jewish education need to figure out how to teach it. Do we teach it through TANAKH? Do we teach it in our general studies curriculum? Is it a strand in our Jewish Studies curriculum or a stand alone class? Do we put character cartoon timelines above our whiteboards and hope that they do or don’t ask us when Noah actually lived and whether he has any connection to other Ancient Near Eastern flood based heroes? Do we teach it through the Jewish holidays (which by the way, often have multiple historical resonances)? How do we teach Jewish history???

And in particular, how do we teach Jewish history to elementary and middle school aged children? As one of my Davis Academy colleagues pointed out, her kindergarten students think she’s 50 years old. She’s definitely not 50. Is it realistic to expect a young child or even an early adolescent to be able to fully appreciate a subject as vast and complicated as the history of the Jewish people? Do they have the synapses to put it all together? Is there a cognitive developmental theorist in the house who can advise?

And here are some more complicating factors. My milieu (and probably your milieu) is distinctively American. There’s NOTHING old in America. Nothing ANCIENT. Everything is NEW here. At least in Israel you can take kids to Canaanite and Roman ruins and show them something that is clearly much older than the house they live in. America’s lack of ANCIENT has implications for the teaching of Jewish history I think.

And now for the subject itself. Jewish history. When does it actually start? Is the TANAKH a purely historical document? I’m guessing most of us would say not, and yet it tells us important things about what came before us. Here’s a micro-example: This week our 5th graders chanted Shlach L’cha. There’s a reference to Hebron in one of the passukim. It says that Hebrew was built 7 years before the Egyptian city of Zoar. What on earth do we expect a 5th grader to do with a piece of information like that? How does it impact the narrative of the Scouts? What is it doing there and do any of the Jewish Studies teachers out there relish teaching Shlach L’cha so they can point out this passuk to the students?  Is that how we teach what Hebron was and is? It seems to me that you could teach an entire college level course on the history of Hebron and end up with more questions than answers. And Hebrew is only 1 of the 4 holy cities of Eretz Yisrael!

So remind me, when did Abraham live exactly? How long were the Israelites in Egypt? How many Israelites crossed the Red Sea? Obviously things come into greater focus based on archaeology and as Jewish history progresses, but there are still scholars of Jewish history that question whether there’s even such a thing. Yerushalmi comes to mind. Are we teaching Jewish history or Jewish memory?

Let’s be modest and say that there are at least 3,000 years of solid Jewish backstory for us to think about when it comes to teaching our kids where they came from. Then let’s layer in the fact that much of this backstory happens synchronously all over the globe. And then let’s at least acknowledge that there are both Jewish and non-Jewish sources that weigh in on the subject (sometimes with competing narratives). And then let’s celebrate the fact that we are blessed to have a tremendous amount of primary source material due to the efforts of those that came before us. And then let’s state unequivocally that much of this backstory is hard for elementary and middle school aged kids to relate to and/or incredibly painful and difficult to teach. Again, there are entire college majors and more than a few libraries worth of material on the Shoah, or is it the Holocaust? What do we even call that chapter of our history (and how, if at all, does it integrate with the history of Israel and American Jewish history)? And can you find me two museums that teach the Shoah in the exact same way? And don’t even get me started on the complexities of teaching the history of Israel with the insane amount of revisionism and the unavoidable politicization. Does the state of Israel even have a history is it all just one complex and unending present?

So yes, I think teaching Jewish history is harder than it seems.

Part II: One Idea.

The phrase, L’dor V’dor, is a powerful one in the minds of the children at The Davis Academy. L’dor V’dor directs the mind of the child first and foremost to the immediate past– the generations that they know and that helped create the world they live in. But L’dor V’dor can and probably should extend much further into the past (and the future– a different subject). Rather than lament the fact that many of our students think that Abraham, Moses, Esther, and Hertzl were contemporaries, maybe we can elevate and honor one of the reasons that they might seem so confused on the topic. Maybe, from a Jewish perspective, those 4 luminaries were, always have been, and always will be contemporaries insofar as they remain living, generative, paradigmatic, archetypal, and didactic figures L’dor V’dor, from generation to generation. Did Moses ever sail from Mt. Nebo across the Atlantic to the USA (thank you Book of Mormon for prodding me to ask such a question!)? Obviously not, but plenty of people understood Abraham Lincoln as the American Moses.  So maybe he did.

Here’s how I’m thinking about L’dor V’dor now– Abraham lived (or didn’t) at some specified point in time. From generation to generation Jews have viewed our life experience and historical circumstances in the light of Avraham (AVINU– really???). For that reason Abraham and all the rest have not only survived, but have had additional layers of meaning heaped upon them to the point where they’re almost metaphysical. At the very least they’re more than flesh and blood, more than a set of dates on a historical record.

L’dor V’dor typically means “from generation to generation.” Maybe it is a way to break through some of the potentially paralyzing complexity of teaching kids just how unlikely, miraculous, and truly astounding the fact of our existence here and now actually is.

What do you think?

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