Kapustin explains reasons why Jewish history is often less valued than other pillars of the Judaics curriculum. When taught well, he argues, Jewish history is the subject most capable of shaping mature, sophisticated thinking.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
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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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.
Since 2011, 9th graders at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy begin their study of the Holocaust by focusing on what was lost, not only how it was lost. We culminate these studies with the production of a sophisticated student-produced museum highlighting a different vibrant Jewish community each year. It is crucial to remember how Jews lived, not only how they died, and why their traditions were so important. Studying the diversity within these Jewish populations throughout Europe breaks down stereotypes and long held misconceptions. Students research religious life (with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions), youth movements, art, institutions, and prominent as well as ordinary individuals from the region being studied.
We are a middle school social studies teacher and a Jewish studies teacher who regularly engage in a debate over whether the teaching and learning of Jewish history is more suited to a Jewish studies class or a social studies class. In social studies the focus is on historical awareness, research skills and critical thinking. In Jewish studies the focus is on Jewish values, connecting to the experiences of the Jewish people and development of a strong Jewish identity. In other words, social studies seeks to uncover “historical truth” while Jewish studies seeks to discover “spiritual truth.” Over years of working together, we have realized that each class offers unique opportunities and lenses to unpack the meaning and importance of Jewish history—and that, in fact, the answer is: both.
Several years ago, I transitioned from being a general studies teacher in grades 4 and 5 to being a Jewish social studies teacher for grades 3-6. As I looked over the curricula of the Jewish social studies program, it struck me that there were few thematic connections between Judaic and general studies. In the upper grades, Jewish history was basically taught in chronological order, starting with ancient Israel in 4th grade and moving to modern Israel by grade 6. In general studies, however, students study the ancient world in 6th grade and more local and recent history in grade 4.
In the Montessori model, students begin the formal study of history at age six; they cover the span of time from the beginning of the universe through the Renaissance in first through third grades. For those accustomed to early civilizations being taught in sixth grade, it seems an impractical choice, but any Jewish educator should be able to recognize the possibilities. What day school does not successfully teach first graders about Ancient Egypt before Pesach? Why, then, do most schools claim to begin Jewish history in fourth grade and why are educators so convinced that young children are unable to acquire these concepts?
I recently finished reading Ari Shavit’s personal history of Israel, My Promised Land. It’s a compelling narrative, and a disturbing one for anyone who cares passionately about Israel’s future (as I do). What makes Shavit’s observations about the present and his hard-headed but not unhopeful concerns for the future so persuasive is the vividness of his depiction of Israel’s past—how the Jews came to Palestine, how the Zionists resolved to fight for independence, and the terrible price the Palestinian Arabs paid in the course of a war that he nonetheless believes was necessary and just. His chapter on the fate of the Arabs of Lydda (Lod) during the War of Independence is both chilling and terribly sad. And, if anyone ever doubted it, he makes brutally clear that for many, if not most, Israeli Arabs (not to mention the Arabs still living under occupation in the West Bank or hemmed into Gaza), the victories of 1948 and 1967 that we celebrate are truly, and perhaps irrevocably, a Nakba—a catastrophe.
Inspired by postmodern historians’ questioning of “facts” and “objectivity” in historical research, Feuer offers a schema for transmuting historical texts and data into a national story.
Lockshin, another prominent medievalist, advocates presenting students with points of contention and debate in the historical literature and not favoring a position.
Eminent scholar of medieval Judaism Chazan suggests a reason why many students find history uninteresting. His solution is to give them the tools to understand the complexity of choices people confronted.
Adler argues forcefully for the centrality of history in Jewish identity, as the storehouse of collective memory that binds us to our people, our values and our heritage.