Teaching Jewish Histories: Broadening the Scope of the Jewish World
When students whose families come from the Jewish communities of North Africa, Central and East Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East enter our schools, are they able to find and situate themselves within the Jewish history that we teach? Do students from Ashkenazi backgrounds find ways to place their families within these broader, more diverse narratives of Jewish history?
The focus of Jewish history in North America has long used the two poles of Israel/Zionism and the Holocaust as the sources of communal identity and as justification for the need for a cohesive collective identity and memory. This focus was seen as a bulwark against the loosening of Jewish selfhood within the western cultural context. This approach, however, has served to alienate many members of the broader Jewish community who do not see themselves or their families represented within the narratives that have prioritized and privileged the Ashkenazi experience. Even in Israel, where today a majority of the Jewish population has some roots in the Mizrahi world, the Ashkenazi narrative is still dominant as a means of explaining how the modern state came into existence.
Over the past few years, the Jewish History curriculum at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (Rockville, MD) has aimed to find an approach that allows all our students to find themselves within the diverse and overlapping narratives of Jewish history. Rather than simply broadening the focus on specific populations—whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, or otherwise—it has become clear that there is a need for a history that weaves together the diversity of the Jewish experience and explores how Jewish cultures and histories have come into contact and conflict.
One course we are developing uses the question of Jewish food to show the interactions between cultures and how different Jewish populations influence one another through their gastronomic practices across Jewish history. Food is an ideal focus for understanding these types of cross-cultural processes. Moreover, food throws open a window on the gender dynamics of the Jewish family; the Shabbat table lays bare how the roles of men and women have historically shaped the Jewish home.
Students can see how their family’s customs fit into the history of Jewish foods while also learning how the contemporary Jewish food scene has become a literal melting pot—the members of my household, for instance, have become devotees of the za’atar bagel. But this food scene, especially in Israel, has also had the ability to highlight Jewish cultures that have often been marginalized from traditional North American and Israeli Jewish narratives. One need only think of the entrance of jahnun and shakshouka into the mainstream to see how pieces of Mizrahi and Maghrebi cultures have found a place at the table. This process ultimately allows students to gain a better understanding of how diverse identities and experiences negotiate influence over what it means to be Jewish and to have a shared history.
This approach to Jewish history pedagogy has also necessitated a rethink of our existing curricula. Our year-long course on modern Jewish History aims to help students situate themselves and their families within the history that we cover. As they see themselves and their own families in the narratives, students get excited to learn about how major events and historical trends shaped them. The final unit of the year, American Jewish History, is capped off by a final project on changes in religious practice among succeeding generations of the student’s own family, and how those changes relate to the generational relationship with the United States.
To contrast the educational shift, in the past, the project relied heavily on Will Herberg’s classic 1955 study Protestant-Catholic-Jew to provide a theoretical framework for helping students understand the process of integration and cultural retention among progressive generations of immigrants to the United States. While his study was compelling for many students whose Ashkenazi backgrounds fit the paradigm of families that arrived between 1881 and 1924, other students would find themselves lost. This disconnect was all the more profound when the student was themself a first-generation immigrant.
It remains difficult for our students who do not fall into this Ashkenazi framework to find materials that can help situate their own family’s journey into the American Jewish story. The most readily available resources still highlight the Ashkenazi experience; any research query on Jewish immigration to the United States will produce results that almost exclusively focus on the period before the 1950s. Newer organizations like JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) have started the work necessary to help provide background on the history of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities in the United States, but this work is ongoing and a challenge for students to access.
This rethink is all the more necessary given the publication of Jewish Americans in 2020, a demographic study of the American Jewish population by the Pew Research Center. The study found that the Jewish population in the United States is growing increasingly diverse, both in terms of family origins and how they self-identify. Pew’s report found that while 97% of American Jews aged fifty and older defined themself as “White (non-Hispanic),” that number dropped to 85% for respondents under age thirty, and nearly one-third of American-Jewish adults surveyed are first or second-generation immigrants to the United States, with a growing number coming from the Middle East and North Africa.
Expanding the range of Jewish histories studied benefits not only the more recent immigrant students but broadens the perspective of the Ashkenazi ones as well. While the history of Jewish migration from Europe to the United States is certainly a key part of the broader narratives of American Jewish history, it is an ongoing story. The emigration of Jews from the territories of the former Soviet Union over the last fifty years provides a means to understand how to expand the history of Ashkenazi immigration beyond the crucial decades at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Given the challenges of source material, it has been most valuable to turn to oral histories to fill in these gaps in the narratives of Jews living in the United States. When students get to highlight their family origins and assess the nature of the decisions about migration—whether made in previous generations or even by the students themselves—they can identify points of continuity and rupture within the processes of immigration and integration. The oral histories themselves can also add to the growing body of literature on how American Jewish narratives form, overlap, and diverge.
Students need to find themselves within the Jewish histories that we teach in order to form authentic identities that reflect and respond to Jewish communities both in the United States and around the globe. There has never been one Jewish culture or identity, so our students need the vocabulary and the frameworks to understand their own sense of self and belonging. While the pedagogical materials for this process are still being developed, it is crucial that added weight be given to student voices to tell their own stories and expand on what it means to be a Jew today.
Daniel Rosenthal joined the Jewish History faculty at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in 2015 after receiving his Ph.D. in History and Jewish Studies in 2014 from the University of Toronto. Previously, Dr. Rosenthal taught at the University of Haifa, the University of Toronto, and the University of Western Ontario.
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