HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Recipe for Engagement, Enrichment, and Inquiry: Primary Sources

by Jack Lipinsky Issue: Teaching Jewish History

Lipinsky argues that engagement with primary documents is vital for students’ ability to find relevance in Jewish history. He demonstrates a sophisticated approach to two different kinds of documents.

All too often Jewish history turns into a timeline-based exercise in which students spend a great deal of time learning what historians like to refer to as “Whig history”: a narrative of history through the lives of the powerful, the famous, and, very often, an overwhelmingly male list of main characters. Even more often, Jewish history is taught through the lens of the approved textbook, which also limits discussion to the areas the authors have decided are vital. While these texts are improving quickly, many of them still have far too much text and too little visual material. These characteristics do not encourage student engagement or higher order analysis about the larger questions of Jewish history and our remarkable survival.

Introducing primary sources into the classroom offers a highly cost-effective and efficient way for teachers to upgrade class interest and appeal to a more diverse group of students. Properly selected primary sources can enliven discussion and, most important, add a layer of personal narrative to textbooks’ often far too general account. What is needed is careful pre-planning with a clearly mapped out lesson plan aligning the source with its larger context. Let me offer two lessons from my classes as examples, the first examining a written source, the second focused on a visual source. Educators are invited and encouraged to take this process further in a 21st century learning milieu.

Medieval Jewish History: the First Crusade in the Rhineland

The Crusades offer an excellent opportunity to sketch out the nature of medieval society and the place of the Jews in it. After students have discovered that feudal society was based on hereditary class lines, land ownership and religion, they can then begin to understand the animosity between Christians and Muslims that catalyzed Pope Urban II’s call to a crusade. Students familiar with the key facts of Christian anti-Judaism, based on the Jews’ refusal to accept Jesus as their savior, readily grasp why Crusaders stereotyped Jews as evil and, armed with papal dispensations, had no fear of massacring the “enemies of Christ” who lived relatively close to home before they even came close to the “infidel hordes” awaiting them in the East.

But what went on at “ground level” during these barbarous times? What challenges did the Crusades pose for Jewish spiritual survival? These questions take on a new level of reality in an age where any student can download the opening scene from “Saving Private Ryan” to find out what D-Day looked like, or many YouTube videos try to ask about God’s presence in the Shoah. Educators must assist students in recognizing that Jews have long engaged these questions, and primary documents point the way.

In the case of the First Crusade, I make sure students understand the geography by giving them the map from Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of Jewish History; then I supply them with the document “The Crusaders in Mainz” (www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1096jews-mainz.asp).

For many students, this will be their first experience of a medieval text. The narrative of the massacre of the Jews of Mainz comes from the chronicler Solomon bar Samson and was written about forty years after the event. The teacher should note that this forces us to ask about its reliability. We do not know how Solomon heard this story. Were there survivors? Was the story told directly to him by a survivor? If not, what is the story’s providence?

It is vital to inform students that we ultimately still do not know the answers to these questions, and thus this document’s status as a primary source is debatable. As well, and this will be very challenging even for senior students, the language of Jewish medieval documents is difficult to decode because it is studded with many biblical, talmudic and aggadic twists of language and formulae.

To the medieval eye, these linguistic complexities were marks of learning and intellect; the modern eye sees them as obscurantist. It is vital that students be helped in paraphrasing certain parts of the account. However, it is equally important that the teacher clearly convey that the language also indicates that the author does not perceive history as we do, as a series of events whose cause and effects can be analyzed, but as part of the biblical motif of God’s will. These linguistic challenges are an opportunity for the teacher to point out that studying Jewish history involves cross-subject and cross-curricular skills. A knowledge of Bible, of Jewish law, of European history, all are part of decoding this document. I like to showcase this as a model for modern Jewish living: a broad knowledge-scape that extends beyond the educationally convenient subject borders used for academic evaluation. I want my students to believe that being a Jew requires complex knowledge from within and without our tradition.

The issue of documentary provenance is vital in history. Students need to be asked: What if Solomon bar Samson’s account was second-hand—would that impact its believability? What might his explicit and implicit motivations have been? For planning purposes, be aware that written documents will require much more decoding time than visuals, but they contain explicit emotions and facts while visuals generally must be “mined” to obtain these through visual inference.

For an 11th or 12th grade class I would focus on the latter part of the document, narrating the Jews’ futile resistance. First, I note that the attestation of Jews fighting with weapons is incredible given that they lived in a society in which they had no access to them. Their bravery and desperation are clearly evident and the chronicler wishes to indicate this.

Even more striking and vital is the description of their martyrdom:

When the children of the covenant saw that the heavenly decree of death had been issued and that the enemy had conquered them and had entered the courtyard, then all of them—old men and young, virgins and children, servants and maids—cried out together to their Father in heaven and, weeping for themselves and for their lives, accepted as just the sentence of God. One to another they said: “Let us be strong and let us bear the yoke of the holy religion, for only in this world can the enemy kill us-and the easiest of the four deaths is by the sword. But we, our souls in paradise, shall continue to live eternally, in the great shining reflection [of the divine glory].” (In Jewish law the four death penalties were stoning, burning, beheading and strangulation.)

I find it vital to explain that the language here is biblical and talmudic but familiar to readers of that time. (Asking why will lead to a discussion of Jewish literacy in the Middle Ages.) Note the use of appropriation of the traditional text as the language of narration; what does this say about what makes a text holy and how its readers regard it? The denouement of the tragic story parallels Masada and the death of Rabbi Akiva. Some students will find the linguistic references: the Torah frequently links the defeat of the Israelites with improper behavior, as does the central prayer of the holiday Musaf Amidah—Umipnei chata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu. So too here—for some reason “the decree of death” has been issued and it cannot be evaded.

At this point my students are stunned. They may not be sophisticated enough to phrase the issue philosophically so they ask: “But why? What have these people done?” As a historian I can answer that they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But theologically this is insufficient, and the author of this manuscript knows it. So I direct my students to read the next sentence: “With a whole heart and with a willing soul they [the Jews] then spoke: ‘After all it is not right to criticize the acts of God, blessed be He and blessed be His name, who has given to us His Torah and a command to put ourselves to death, to kill ourselves for the unity of His holy name.’” What an incredible speech our writer puts into the mouth of the Jews! Obviously he finds this tragedy difficult to abide. And, if we doubt this interpretation, the document ends:

Behold their valiant ones cry without; [the angels of peace weep bitterly]” and [Jeremiah 4.28] “the heavens grow dark.” Yet see what these martyrs did! Why did the heavens not grow dark and the stars not withdraw their brightness? Why did not the moon and the sun grow dark in their heavens when on one day, on the third of Sivan, on a Tuesday eleven hundred souls were killed and slaughtered, among them many infants and sucklings who had not transgressed nor sinned, many poor, innocent souls?

Now students can see that the philosophical and theological question “why do bad things happen to good people” is one Jews have discussed for over two millennia for reasons far from arcane. It is useful to point out that the medieval chronicler stands on the shoulders of giants. In his commentary on the events of the Flood, Rashi (based on the Midrash) calls this outcome androlomusia and explains that Evil produces disruptive chaos and the Divine effort to right it causes “the death of the innocent and righteous alike.” This would make a fascinating icebreaker for a Jewish philosophy class talking about the nature of evil or trying to understand why the righteous suffer. Teachers can also use this document to set the stage for student appreciation that various groups of Jews answered this question in very different ways depending on their understanding of Judaism. The answer remains a highly relevant litmus test of an individual’s approach to Judaism. Students should be encouraged to find their own answer and hopefully realize that it may well change as they mature.

Visual Primary Documents: “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa”

Teachers know that some images serve as primary sources, offering an important way of instructing today’s media-aware visual learners. One of the major challenges of teaching about the Shoah is analyzing the categorization of victims, perpetrators and bystanders. The membership of the first group is clear cut; those who fall into the latter two are the subject of much debate. An interesting way of catalyzing this discovery is a lesson on a picture discovered in the pocket of an Einsatzgruppe member that he titled “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” The necessary background for this lesson is relatively straightforward: an account of the Einsatzgruppen deployment with a map to assist (kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/kholmich/photos/Maps/MapEinsatszgruppen1.JPG). By this point students will have studied the “pre-conditioning” of these soldiers to murdering Jews and the role of Nazi propaganda on dehumanizing the Jews to simplify their annihilation. After warning about the graphic nature of the picture, the picture should be projected.

Students need to learn how to scan a picture first to gain overall impressions and then focus on specifics. This picture is an excellent introduction to the skill of image analysis because of its apparent simplicity. (An excellent introduction to teaching this skill is found at www.facinghistory.org/resources/strategies/media-literacy-analyzing-visu.)The key categories of victim, bystander and perpetrator are best taught by discovery lesson from this picture. Here are some questions I use; they can be written in advance for students to work on, or a group discussion can ensue as the class learns together. The victim is tragically obvious—note his expression. How many others have already died? Why was he saved to be the last—and why did the Einsatzgruppe take such pleasure in not murdering him en masse in accord with their methodology?

The progression in interrogative taxonomy is a key to this methodology and integrates powerfully with inquiry-based learning. Note as well that questions begin with the most obvious category: the victim. Now it is time to progress to the man holding the pistol. Where does he fit? He apparently is a perpetrator. Based on this picture, define a “perpetrator”? Is he the only perpetrator in the picture? What of the others—are they bystanders or perpetrators? How can the visual evidence justify each conclusion?

This set of questions produces fascinating debates. Students have asked: what if the other men only watched and never murdered anyone in the pit—are they guilty and what are they guilty of? Is it possible that all these men are equally guilty? We don’t know what they did before the picture was taken, but it seems that their presence is connected to the mass grave. The astute students will note that the picture is posed (note the gazes of all the men on the camera): what does this tell you about the Einsatzgruppe? Are these “ordinary men” or especially wicked ones? Enrichment could consist of reading the relevant chapters from Browning’s famous book Ordinary Men, or visiting the Holocaust Museum’s propaganda online exhibit (www.ushmm.org/propaganda) and preparing a Wiki based on their learning. The questions asked in the image analysis can inform their understanding of the Nuremberg trials, when the then novel idea of “crimes against humanity” came into existence and the court struggled over how far down the Nazi chain of command the definitions of “perpetrator” and “bystander” should extend.


These methodologies can be applied to many other—hopefully happier—primary source documents. In order to produce personalized and powerfully authentic learning, some key best practices must be followed. The primary source’s deployment must be carefully planned out so that it yields another layer of narrative beyond what was studied. The teacher needs to thoroughly research the provenance and background of the document and how authoritative it is.

In all cases, teachers should clearly map out the goals of the instruction in advance, and plan differentiated follow up activities. But the key is making sure to leave room for class conversation which often produces poignant personal links to the material that helps students forge links to their learning and students can be encouraged to draw overarching conclusions. In sum, utilizing primary documents is a vital tool for catalyzing “class moments” that my students and I remember best—and certainly memory, as anyone who recites Kiddush or reads Yerushalmi’s Zakhor knows, is the basis of Jewish history and an entry point into serious inquiry into the templates of Jewish survival.¿

Jack Lipinsky PhD is a veteran Toronto educator, curriculum writer, and consultant for Facing History and Ourselves. jack_lipinsky@edu.yorku.ca

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