HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Opportunities of Teaching Jewish History

by Sivan Zakai Issue: Teaching Jewish History

As someone who trains teachers of Jewish history, Zakai here tailors ideas about best practice in the teaching of general history for Jewish day schools.

Jewish history sits at an important nexus in day school education, straddling the worlds of Judaic and general studies. It focuses on the ways that Jews have lived and found meaning in Judaism, and yet to do so, it draws upon the tools and texts of a secular discipline: history. Because of its unique status as a secular-Jewish subject, teaching Jewish history can integrate the lessons of both Jewish and general studies in a way no other subject is poised to do.

Yet it is no easy task to teach students to think carefully and critically about history while also helping them look inward to find meaning in their own Jewish lives. The following are three strategies that I suggest for Jewish history teachers who hope to draw upon the powers of both limmudei kodesh and limmudei chol to inspire the souls and ignite the minds of their students.

Ditch the names and dates

When history, Jewish or secular, is whittled down to a timeline of dates and names for students to memorize, it becomes boring and irrelevant. The history classroom is a place of meaning and purpose only when it becomes a laboratory for exploring the past and why it matters.

So how can the Jewish history classroom become such a laboratory? By introducing students to the cornerstone of historical analysis: engagement with primary source materials. Rather than teaching students about Jewish life in 17th century Europe, ask them to read age-appropriate excerpts from the memoir of Gluckel of Hameln and to extrapolate from her story how Jews structured their families and businesses. Instead of lecturing students about Jews in early American history, let them examine George Washington’s own words in the famous letter he wrote in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport.

Students of any age can learn to engage with primary sources, and to use them as a “time-machine” through which they can catch glimpses of how people lived in the past. It is never too early to start introducing students to artifacts from Jewish history. Even pre-readers can begin to engage with real historical sources by examining photographs and paintings from the past. This is an important lesson that Jewish educators can learn from secular history education, which is increasingly moving away from the rote memorization of names and dates and towards an examination of primary source material as a way to help students think critically about the past and why it matters.

The problem is, most Jewish history textbooks contain only a few, if any, primary source documents. Luckily, organizations like The Center for Jewish History, The Jewish Women’s Archive, and even the Library of Congress have been constructing digital archives with hundreds of primary source documents. Teachers and students can access these documents from any computer, transforming the Jewish history classroom from a dry recitation of facts to an exciting quest to uncover the Jewish past.

By helping students encounter and engage with sources from digital archives—rather than hear a recitation of names and dates from the teacher—we can provide our students with a twofold advantage. First, we reinforce best practices in the (secular) history classroom, where reading primary sources is increasingly a curricular staple. Second, and even more important, we help students learn to interpret and analyze (rather than list) different ways of being Jewish. This process is essential for helping children learn to make choices about how they will lead Jewish lives today.

Welcome the “wicked child”

Every Jewish day school has students who harbor deep skepticism about the relevance of Jewish life. Despite the best efforts of Jewish educators, these students, like the “wicked child” at the Passover seder, struggle to see how Judaism could have meaning in their own lives. Often, these are the very students to whom teaching Jewish history matters most.

A student need not believe in God, need not love Hebrew, and need not find meaning in prayer or Halakhah, to fall in love with Jewish history. For Jewish history is a secular Jewish subject, requiring neither belief nor observance. The very students who push back against other Jewish studies classes can often find Jewish role models in previous generations of Jews hoping to reinvent Judaism in their own times, ranging from the rabbis who dared to envision a new Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple, to the chalutzim who hoped to build a new Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael.

The study of Jewish history allows students to encounter Jews who believed radically different things than today’s normative Jews believe. Students are often surprised to learn that in its early days, Zionism was met with deep hostility from Orthodox and Reform rabbis alike. Those who struggle with their own relationships to Israel and Zionism may take comfort in the fact that their questions are not new. Some students are intrigued by the fact that early Hasidism was seen as so revolutionary that its leaders were actually excommunicated by the Jewish establishment. Others feel drawn into Judaism when they discover that many activists of the early US labor movement were Jewish men and women expressing their Jewish beliefs through political organizing.

Not only can these encounters surprise and ignite young Jewish minds, but they also serve to “open the tent,” showing students multiples avenues that have existed for Jews to find meaning and purpose in their lives. For community day schools in particular, this is a central message of the Jewish studies curriculum, and one that Jewish history is uniquely equipped to address. For what better place to find examples of myriad paths to Jewish life than in the long expanse of the Jewish past?

Yet we can teach this lesson only when we begin to see our most skeptical, critical students as assets, not detractors, in the history classroom. For they are the ones who are best poised to find comfort in the surprising stories, and meaning in the counter-intuitive moments of the Jewish past.

Stop focusing on the dead, white (Ashkenazi) men

Although secular history classes have long ago moved away from an exclusively “dead white male” narrative of history, in many Jewish schools, Jewish history is still taught as a story about Ashkenazi Jewish men in Europe. Jewish women, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, and Jews whose stories occurred outside of the West or the Land of Israel are largely ignored in the Jewish history curricula.

When we teach only the history of Ashkenazi Jewish men, we are inadvertently telling some students in our class that their stories—the stories of their grandmothers, their communities, their Jewish cultures—are not important in the collective Jewish experience. If one of the goals of community Jewish day schools is to recognize and embrace pluralism in the Jewish world, then the history classroom is an important place to incorporate lessons of diversity.

When we teach a more inclusive approach, not only does the Jewish history classroom more accurately reflect the diversity of Jewish experiences in the past, but it also calls into question some of the commonly taught narratives of Jewish history. For example, historian Paula Hyman has shown that the widespread belief that modern Jewish history marks an inexorable decline towards increasing assimilation is in fact much more complicated when we consider the experiences of Jewish women alongside those of Jewish men. For Jewish women in Western Europe often assimilated at a slower rate than their own husbands and sons, acting as guardians of Jewish tradition, and Jewish women in Eastern Europe often assimilated much more than their male counterparts, pursuing opportunities for secular education as their brothers kept alive traditional Jewish learning.

Sivan Zakai PhD is director of research and teacher education at American Jewish University’s Graduate Center for Education. szakai@aju.edu

Primary Source Resources

The Center for Jewish History Digital Collections: access.cjh.org

The Jewish Women’s Archive: jwa.org

Library of Congress Digital Collections: www.loc.gov/library/libarch-digital.html

Suggested Reading List

Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History by Paula Hyman

Cultures of the Jews edited by David Biale


Jewish Women in Historical Perspective edited by Judith Baskin

Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community by Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue

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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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