Jewish Literacy Versus Jewish Identity: Teachers' Reflections
Over the last several decades, many authors have attempted to define and assess Jewish literacy and identity. Jewish day school teachers find themselves at the forefront of these conversations every day, as they craft their curricula and interact with students.
As part of a recent study, I met individually with Jewish studies teachers at pluralistic day schools, asking them questions about their goals as teachers and what they hoped to impart to their students. Our discussions included the topics of both Jewish identity and Jewish literacy, but while all teachers interviewed emphasized the importance of cultivating in students a strong Jewish identity, only about half of them described Jewish literacy as a pathway to the development of Jewish identity.
One teacher envisioned Jewish literacy as a primary goal of her work as a Jewish educator. “I think our goal is to create Jews who are literate and are comfortable with their literacy. Certainly I want to have students who comfortably identify as Jews, however they grow their Jewish identity. Whether it’s through being a great philanthropist, through synagogue or community affiliation, or anything else, that they are not just bagels-and-cream-cheese Jews. So that they are knowledgeable about why they are identifying as Jews. That doesn’t necessarily mean preventing intermarriage, or having someone who is going to put on tefillin every day, but it’s much more about understanding for themselves why they are Jewish and why they want the Jewish community to continue.”
When asked to elaborate and define “literacy,” the teacher added, “There are all kinds of literacy. Some of the more practical forms of literacy are students’ familiarity with forms of prayer and the lifecycle, so that, if they, God forbid, lost a family member, even if they haven’t experienced it before, they would understand how they could apply Jewish learning to this life event.
Being literate also means that students will understand Jewish terms, have a certain sense of Jewish history, and identify with Israel. Literacy is understanding the foundations of Rabbinic Judaism so that when somebody says to them, ‘Come to my seder,’ they understand that this is a historical moment that they are a part of, and it’s a historical moment that has developed through time. So, being literate is being able to practice or not practice Judaism, but whatever choices students make, they’re making them from a certain knowledge base.”
Through her statements, this teacher clearly prioritizes Jewish literacy, but also connects her vision of Jewish literacy to that of Jewish identity, showing how literacy is a path to create a deeper, more connected and more knowledgeable form of identity in her students.
Another teacher interviewed similarly emphasized Jewish literacy, saying that one of his goals as an instructor is “definitely Jewish knowledge, and when I say Jewish knowledge, it’s a combination of Jewish texts. It’s Tanakh and it’s Torah she-be’al peh concepts. Something needs to show after being in day school for 12 years or sometimes even longer. … Students cannot just walk out and say, ‘Oh, I just know English and math and nothing in Judaism or Jewish studies.’ If that’s the case, they could have received their education from a secular preparatory school, so there’s something to be said that they have to have Jewish knowledge.
“I think that every student should be exposed to Hebrew and should be able to understand simple texts in Hebrew, and maybe say a few sentences in Hebrew. The other key area of Jewish knowledge I think is Israel. The students should know about Jewish history dating back to medieval and biblical times. It all fits into the identity of who the Jewish people are—students who leave Jewish day schools should be a part of the Jewish people.”
This teacher distinguishes Jewish day school from secular private school both through the subject matter studied and the way that content is used—for students to understand their place in Jewish history and the connection to other Jews throughout time and space. For him and the first teacher, Jewish literacy is a clear goal, but mainly for its impact on identity.
Although all of the teachers valued Jewish tradition and Jewish text, some, such as those already mentioned, prioritized Jewish literacy’s value in and of itself, and also saw it as a critical tool to foster and enforce Jewish identity. Others, however, valued Jewish literacy primarily as a vehicle to instill Jewish identity, without aiming to achieve a level of Jewish literacy in their students.
One teacher did not mention Jewish literacy as a goal at all, describing his methodology rather as “using Jewish studies as a way to explore [student] identity and relate to the rest of the world.” During his interview, he did mention some of the same elements of literacy, such as familiarity with terms and lifecycle events, as measures he uses to gauge his success as a teacher, although he considers such measures to be measures of Jewish identity rather than Jewish literacy.
Another teacher stated that teaching in a Jewish day school “is building [students’] souls. Let them take these thoughts where they choose because that’s what the Talmud is, and that’s what the responsa is, and that is what the Tosefta is. This is true Judaism—letting them think creatively.” Although she was less interested in listing specific measures of success for Jewish identity, her wording in her answers references Jewish texts, and, during her interview, when discussing her methodology, she discussed how she loves to use biblical stories as a backdrop for students to explore their own identities.
Although neither of these teachers claim to prioritize Jewish literacy, their discussion of their goals and methodologies make clear that they consider Jewish literacy as a conduit to Jewish identity, using Jewish texts and Jewish history as a way for students to explore their own identities and examine how they connect with others in the Jewish community.
The following conclusions can be drawn regarding the connections teachers make between Jewish literacy and Jewish identity.
Jewish identity and Jewish literacy are inherently connected. Although many day school teachers do not include Jewish literacy among their stated priorities or goals, they do see Jewish literacy as the main way to instill Jewish identity in their students. Literacy seems to be an often unspoken yet highly prioritized goal for teachers. As such, Jewish literacy should be infused throughout the school rather than relegated to the Jewish studies department. If one of the goals of the Jewish day school is to foster Jewish identity, and Jewish literacy is a favored path through which to accomplish this goal, the goal of Jewish literacy (as it connects to Jewish identity) should be prioritized by the school as a whole.
Jewish identity is the primary goal, with Jewish literacy used as the vehicle to accomplish that goal. While only about half of the teacher participants discussed Jewish literacy as a goal, all of the teacher participants mentioned Jewish identity as a goal. Even those who listed literacy as a goal, when probed regarding their reasons, connected literacy to identity. Jewish literacy, then, is seen by teachers as a tool with which to foster and strengthen Jewish identity. With this in mind, the curriculum of the school should reflect the interests and needs of the students, allowing them the space and Jewish resources to grapple with the issues they are facing.
Just as Jewish identity is difficult to define and assess, so too is the concept of Jewish literacy. Among the teachers who listed Jewish literacy as a goal for their students, definitions of “Jewish literacy” differed from teacher to teacher. Teachers seemed to define Jewish literacy based on factors from their own education or history and what they had found to be most interesting to students or most successful in engaging students. Therefore, rather than working with a preset corpus of texts, teachers should be encouraged to determine for themselves which elements of the Jewish canon they would like to incorporate into their classes, choosing sources or elements with which they deeply connect and can most successfully use to engage students.
Based on this research, Jewish day school teachers aim for their students, through studying the Mishnah and Rashi, to be able to place themselves in the chain of textual interpretation. They aim for their students, through the study of Hebrew and review of Jewish history, to understand the greater struggle that has faced Israel over the last many decades, making their first trips to the land that much more meaningful. Most importantly, they aim for their students, by studying Tanakh, Talmud and Halakhah, to understand what being Jewish means, beyond eating latkes on Chanukah and dressing up on Purim. All of this requires the intersection, not the separation, of Jewish literacy and Jewish identity.