Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.

Personalizing the Past Through Oral Histories

by | Nov 29, 2022 | Gen Ed Torah | 0 comments

Those of us who used to watch late night talk show hosts may remember Jay Leno walking onto the streets of New York City and asking some unsuspecting passersby a basic question about American history. More often than not, Jay’s targets didn’t get the answer right, and the audience was reminded that Americans “don’t know much about history.” 

Teaching history in a way that sticks is not easy. However, as a school leader, I have had the privilege of working with history teachers who have succeeded in equipping students with key concepts, questions, and understandings that endure. These were the teachers who focused on big ideas and critical turning points and didn’t try to cover everything. They used primary sources as a way to access and understand the challenges that real people faced. They made history personal and made it relevant to current events. 

Recently, I learned about two initiatives that are worthy of consideration by teachers who seek to make history more personal, give students the opportunity to delve deeply in a particular area of history, and use artifacts that help tell a story. Both initiatives focus on learning history through story-telling, through oral histories. One is sponsored by NPR’s StoryCorps called The Great Thanksgiving Listen, and the other was initiated by the National Library of Israel called Family History Project. Both projects were initially designed to foster intergenerational dialogues, but they can easily be used to enhance history lessons. 

In the five years since I made aliyah, I have gained a renewed appreciation of the power of oral histories. On many occasions, I have met ordinary Israelis who have shared their personal stories and who have made a stronger impression on me than most history books have. At the Jerusalem YMCA, I took fitness classes with a 93-year-old man who volunteered for the Etzel before the founding of the State, was arrested and sent to prison in Latrun, and distinguished himself by training his fellow prisoners to stay in shape while in confinement. At the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv, I met one of the men who hoisted the iconic Iwo Jima-like “degel ha-dio,” the improvised ink Israeli flag, that signaled the end of the War of Independence in 1949. 

Sitting on Rechov Ben Yehuda, I spent an hour with a woman whose mother was born in Egypt and was named by Russian-speaking Zion Mule Corps commander Yosef Trumpeldor during World War I. She was later renamed, given a Hebrew name, by Eliezer ben Yehuda after the war when the family was permitted to return to Jerusalem. Her daughter, the woman I met on the streets of Jerusalem, was, herself, named Chemda after ben Yehuda’s second wife, the individual responsible for publishing the seven-volume Ben Yehuda dictionary three decades after her husband’s death.

In these chance encounters the history that I had only read about in books came alive. The stories I heard gave voice to ordinary individuals who experienced the history that is now part of my life. They helped me feel as if Israeli history is mine. They bridged the past and the present—and oral histories can do the same for our students. They can make history exciting. They can make it relevant and alive. They can make history personal. Used to enhance lessons around Kaf Tet B’November, International Holocaust Day, or any of the “Yom’s” (Hashoah, Hazikaron, Ha’atsmaut, Yerushalayim), oral histories may help ensure, at least about Israel and the modern Jewish experience, that our students “do know much about history.”




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Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He heads up the unit in the Israel office of the Holocaust Claims Conference that funds education, research, documentation, and films related to the Shoah.  As well, Lee is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at

The Lookstein Center