Attaching our Pages: The Teaching of Jewish Histories
The study of history poses a fundamental question: Should we use a particularist lens to fully flesh out one group’s experiences and identities or a universal one which weaves disparate voices, lives, and events to generate a collective narrative? The study of Jewish history offers its own twist on this classic question. Should we focus on Jewish history as a separate and unique academic discipline or should we situate our analysis within the broader context of general history? We propose an approach which navigates the balance between those two poles. Optimizing the balance of considering the unique stories and contextualizing these studies within the broader fabric of the historical narrative can help our students—and their teachers along with them—to better understand an authentic whole of our shared and diverse past, contemplate the development of our unique and evolving scholarship, embrace our multiple and common identities, and perceive the multiple pathways in our future.
Multiplicity and Context
There is no one narrative for Jewish history, yet there is a timeline of highlights and major events which we can use as guideposts to tether our sprawling storytelling. Understanding that central spine of our book helps different Jews begin to attach the pages of their unique narratives. We envision a central narrative which begins in the Biblical era, continues through our dispersal through the Diaspora and the various efforts to build a variety of Jewish communities, includes the emergence of antisemitism in different areas of the world through the cataclysm of the Holocaust and its impact on European and world Jewry and brings us to contemporary Jewry with its various tribes and denominations.
A basic timeline of that sort invites a multiplicity of branches and elaborations. Those appendages to the timeline give context to the broader historical developments during each time frame, allowing us to explore them—pathways taken by Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, by those who established communities in Israel before it was a state, in Arab lands, in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas—comprising the complexity that allows our history to gain authenticity in the fullness of its study of our histories. Whether this history is explored in a dedicated Jewish History course or as part of a more general history course or in the context of Judaic studies text classes, teachers can embrace the diversity and richness of the stories to create a tapestry more complex than any of its individual strands. And while some of those strands are those of victimhood, others are of triumph, integration into a broader society, contributions to host cultures, struggles, challenges, and advances. Our children need to have stories and a past that can serve them as a proud and authentic anchor as they draw from their roots to flourish into the future.
Jewish students often learn Jewish texts from their early years, focusing first on the simple meaning of the text and later exploring it with commentaries and interpretations. This type of scholarship provides a foundation for understanding how our heritage values questioning, debate, and collaboration. Students become part of this continuing chain of engagement and grapple with the texts that have become a connective thread for our community through the centuries. These texts defined ideology and practice through the ages, at times being influenced by their times and at times transcending them. Understanding the broader context in which those commentaries were composed adds breadth and depth and helps students to better understand their past and the contemporary relevance of the rabbinic writings.
Seeking the universal thread which connects the various histories helps us to define ourselves through commonality, connection, and the shared. Noting the particular—the specific stories and unique experiences—can give definition through distinction and difference and the diversity within ourselves as a people. Exploring both the common and the distinct within Jewish history helps students build a complex and broad identity, both in what distinguishes them from others but also in what binds them to a collective identity. The multiple pathways that appear as spider web strands in the Jewish history atlas underscore the varied experiences, cultures, traditions, homelands, visions, and beliefs that developed. We have a chance to empower our students through reinforcing what they share with others in the development of their identity, while also articulating our current differences in terms of our views on our traditions, our place in general society, our outlooks on where we live, our perspectives on gender, and our relationship with leadership.
Much of our study of the past is influenced by the educational choices of defining which people, events, and circumstances to explore. Appreciating the influence of the individual in shaping prior events and in defining our present-day understanding of past times can help us empower our students to grasp the perspective, wisdom, and commitment to define their future. Learning history is often attributed to helping forge the future with arguments about how the past recurs in themes and tropes that may not be the same as what has come before, but follows similar patterns. We often champion studying the past as a way of finding inspiration in our early role models and forerunners. By taking into account the commonality and distinctiveness in our histories, we can help students begin to consider that their future is not pre-determined, but that they can help shape it by learning from their past. The past has more proof of the impossible becoming the lived reality and the improbable becoming the accepted than any of our best science fiction and fairy tales could offer. For a people with such a rich tradition, studying Jewish history offers immense promise for helping our students chart their futures.
Lisa Schopf is the Founding Middle School Director at the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. She has served MILTON for 15 years, teaching fifth and sixth grades before helping to envision and found the only Jewish middle school currently in Washington, DC.
Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn has served as MILTON’s Head of School since 2020. Previously, Dr. Skolnick-Einhorn worked at Boston’s Hebrew College, including as Associate Dean of the Shoolman School of Jewish Education, where she prepared graduate students for careers in education.