HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


From the Editor

by Barbara Davis Issue: Teaching Jewish History

About thirty years ago, I developed a photographic exhibit/catalog of the Jewish community of Syracuse. Being neither a historian nor a Syracuse native, I found this a challenging undertaking and quickly realized that history is often a result not of selectivity, intention or bias, but rather of availability of materials. People who kept scrapbooks, records, diaries and artifacts guarded them jealously and often would not part with them even for the hour or so it would take me to photocopy or photograph them.

Even the local historical association, not known for believing that Jewish history was of any import, was open only a few hours a week with materials catalogued (a word I apply loosely here) according to the somewhat clouding memory of the elderly gentleman who controlled it with an iron fist. Nonetheless, my exhibit opened and was immediately assailed by those whose families, histories, materials, photos etcetera were not included.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. A publisher offers to convert my earlier work into a genuine tome, available at real bookstores for real money. Things are different now. Many who refused to lend me their memories are now deceased, their scrapbooks and ledgers, sadly, discarded by those for whom they held no value. But technology has advanced. Materials no longer need be borrowed, even for an hour. One can take digital photos of the utmost clarity on site. No one need be separated from that which they cherish. The historical society has a new director, although there is still not a single folder in the files with the word “Jewish” in its title. So my book is published and is immediately assailed by those whose families, histories, materials, photos etcetera were not included. As Gertrude Stein remarked, “It is the soothing thing about history that it does repeat itself.”

Which brings us to today. The greatest generation has come to the realization that the life they led will soon be lost to posterity unless they take action to preserve it. A Syracuse Jewish Historical Association is created. A young woman living in another state takes it upon herself to create a Facebook page on which people can post photos and memories and artifacts and documents of their lives as Jewish citizens of Syracuse—which they do, by the hundreds. A videographer from another city who summered in Syracuse returns to create a film of his memories of the Jewish world of his grandparents. Someone else writes another book. “History never looks like history when you are living through it,” says John Gardner. But when you finally reach the age when you want your life to have significance, when you realize your life is now history—to whom does it matter besides yourself?

This is the dilemma that the teacher of Jewish history faces today. How do we make that which is meaningful to us equally significant to those who will succeed us? Memory and keeping memory alive are critical Jewish values. The past has a special place in our being Jewish. We are enjoined to remember past events as if they had happened to us. Richard Abrams has written, “Our memories of bondage should remind us to wipe out slavery and to treat all people with dignity. Our memories of leaving the corners of our fields untouched should remind us to take care of ‘the stranger, the fatherless and the widow’ both within and outside our community. Our memories of Amalek should remind us of our role to blot out evil in the world. Ours is an active existence: we do not live in a state of forgetfulness or ‘forgottenness’ but in a state of memory and consciousness that induces us to seek to make the world a better place.”

Our history is integral to who we are, yet ours is not a happy story. Thus, as many of the authors in this issue point out, it is unappealing to those whose focal point of Jewish identity, as revealed by the Pew Report, is a sense of humor. Within the pages of this issue of HaYidion are many suggestions for addressing this problem. Technology, creativity and an acknowledgement and awareness of the changing nature of the study of history provide the means by which we can make the teaching of Jewish history vibrant and meaningful.

At our recent conference in Los Angeles, a keynote speaker asked us to consider a text by Abraham Joshua Heschel that is totally relevant to the theme of this issue. In “The Spirit of Jewish Education,” Heschel described the teacher as “the intermediary between the past and the present….the creator of the future of our people.” The teacher of history, Heschel wrote, must teach students “to evaluate the past in order to clarify their future.” We hope that this issue of HaYidion will make you better able to address this challenge¿

Dr. Barbara Davis is the secretary of RAVSAK’s Board of Directors, executive editor of HaYidion and head of school at the
Syracuse Hebrew Day School in Dewitt, NY. bdavis74@twcyn.rr.com

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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