The G-Word: Talking about God in Jewish Education
Jenny Burns (BHums. MA Folklore) is a writer, freelance Jewish Educator and Youth and Family Programmer in Ottawa, Canada. Formerly a writer for the monthly column Modern Mishpocha (Ottawa Jewish Bulletin), she speaks and writes on Jewish Education and Public Sector Folklore. Jenny is currently the resident Jewish Educator of Or Haneshamah – Ottawa’s Reconstructionist Synagogue and probably needs a coffee.
I was in grade 2, and our librarian was reading a picture book to our class. One of the images presented us with a white-haired, bearded man holding a paper scroll. I immediately thought of God, holding the Sefer haHayim (the Book of Life). This realization came along with internal struggle and chastisement. Jews do not picture God as any thing. Jews do not worship idols.
Yet my experience is not unique. Media inundates us with images of a male, bearded, often white-skinned image of the Divine—someone akin to Zeus, but in a white caftan. Alternatively, we see Renaissance-onward images of Jesus (who is also, apparently, white according to these depictions). It’s apparent that neither of these images is God—the ineffable, unknowable “I am that I am”—but how does an educator demonstrate this? Let’s up the challenge—how does an educator offer an accurate set of tools and language to discuss God while working once to twice a week in a supplementary Jewish school?
Before diving into some methods, allow me to expand on my role in the Jewish community. I am a freelance Jewish educator, working in holiday programming for a Reconstructionist Synagogue, running Ottawa’s Junior Youth Group programming, tutoring for B/ar/at/nai Mitzvah rites of passage, and teaching a weekly Family Ed. program. In most of my work, my students are Jewish youth attending public school. Judaism is an extra-curricular activity in their already long list of extracurriculars. I often introduce concepts like daily prayer to these students, who are only familiar with prayer and Torah on Shabbat or, more likely, the High Holidays. For many of these families, Judaism is a culture they express through food, holidays, and shared history. On multiple occasions, I’ve had students ask if they’re allowed to talk about God here (here, being our Jewish supplementary classes), and when they say “God” their voice lowers. They blush. They are embarrassed. They’re embarrassed because, in this world of cell phones, Fortnight, cool haircuts, and hockey practice, God is indeed that white-bearded man, better left in the stories of ancient parchments of the Torah. God, as they imagine, has no place in daily life.
How does an educator combat this apathy and disinterest? More importantly, why should they? Is it wrong to confine Judaism to culture and shared histories? God is a universal concept, present in most religions and even in TikToks about crystals, moon water, and Tarot. On the other hand, Judaism is a patchwork quilt of scholars, debates, Torah, Talmud, expulsions, and journeys all over the globe. On a certain level, doesn’t it make more sense to offer my students factual information about the debates over kitniyot (legumes, which Ashkenazi Jews do not consume on Pesah) or cheeseburgers than to ask them to seek a connection with an ineffable universal power? Can’t I let my students find identity in the Instagram page of Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, or Gal Gadot?
In short, no. I would do my families and students a disservice by removing God from the conversation. In fact, I would argue that the vital struggle facing my non-Jewish-day-school students is that the modern world does not give them the tools to discuss God. They are given the tools to solve a math problem or write a book report, but rarely are they asked to self-analyze and purely experience their worlds. They are encouraged to solve problems, but not ask deep, likely unanswerable questions. Moreover, that unknowable something that has sparked religions into existence and scholars into the pursuit of truth has a place in the lives of our modern youth as the vibrant, present, and accessible entity it is!
And now, the probing question that permeates the life of Jewish educators—how? Pulling from the thoughts of Mordecai Kaplan, it is helpful to ask a new question. Rather than forcing students to ram headfirst into the question of what is God, we can have a more fruitful conversation with the question of when is God. When does someone experience a nearly otherworldly experience? When I ask the question of God to my students like this, they have answers. They tell stories of feeling small and awe-filled on the top of a ski hill or recall times when they realized all humans are humans, like when volunteering at a homeless shelter. They also tell me about music that has moved them to tears or camp friends whose friendship feels more deep and genuine than anything they can put into words.
Now that my students have made God tangible, we can dive into the next steps—claim that feeling, personalize it, and express it. Personally, I attack these steps with one of my favorite units, and it involves the artistic stylings of Marc Chagall. If you’re unfamiliar, Marc Chagall was a 19th-20th-century painter and contemporary of Picasso. He grew up in a Russian shtetl surrounded by klezmer music and Jewish life. What’s more, his art reflects this. Using his personal language of colors, shapes, and gravity, Chagall created dreamlike images that play with perspective and perception.
In my unit, students explore Chagall’s life and art, focusing on his reinterpretation of his life and experiences through a language of his choosing—color, scale, placement, and structure. Chagall’s art demonstrates to my students that even war trauma can be claimed and re-expressed.
This brings me to the next step in the unit and in my process of offering my students ownership of their relationship with their Jewish identity and the Divine, which is personalization. While art, even Jewish biographic art, is meaningful to observe and study, my unit focuses on my students creating an artistic language for themselves. I ask students to construct their lexicon of colors and symbols to reflect their identities and lives. Blue might represent happiness; a hockey stick and puck could represent the whole world of hockey, from a favorite team to playing hockey to the family time spent watching hockey. The colors and shapes become broad, fluid, and personal.
Finally, with their personal lexicon established, I ask my students to create a painting showing where Judaism fits in their lives and identities. This is the last step in my process, expressing that personal connection. The language of art gives these students the tools to demonstrate that a unique religious thread is stitching their life together amidst everything else in their lives, and students use this language fully. With tools of scale, color, and the dreamlike landscape of the bizarre, they demonstrate their internal dialogue. What’s more, the world students share is often surprising. For example, a student, who may have missed half the year of Hebrew school classes might create a painting where the focal point is the warm, family-centric Hannukah celebration of cooking latkes and lighting candles, while sports and extracurriculars are painted as small and sidelined. While my experience with this student and their family is a kid who does not care or have time for their Judaism, their art tells me an entirely different narrative.
Moreover, my students come alive every year when presenting their art at the conclusion of the unit, our classroom gallery. Paraphrasing somewhat, here is a sample of what I hear: this holiday is when I feel most Jewish; or when I’m on stage, it’s like the whole world is gone, but I’m not alone, or I made this symbol larger than the rest because it’s a constant presence in my life. They aren’t explicitly referring to God, but their language is the language we use to discuss the Divine, weaving into the language they use to discuss their Jewish identity.
To reiterate, in my Chagall unit, students explore the intent and themes in Chagall’s art and then mimic his art style while representing their own lived Jewish experience and identity with colors, shapes, and scale. From conception to completion, I’ve consistently noted that students go on a journey of general curiosity and engagement with the artist to clear and confident presentations explaining how an elusive painting is a map of their Jewish identity. This personal relationship with something unknowable is a building block to openness in seeking a spiritual experience, even with something as complicated as God.
Jenny Burns (BHums. MA Folklore) is a writer, freelance Jewish Educator and Youth and Family Programmer in Ottawa, Canada. Formerly a writer for the monthly column “Modern Mishpocha” (Ottawa Jewish Bulletin), she speaks and writes on Jewish Education and Public Sector Folklore. Jenny is currently the resident Jewish Educator of Or Haneshamah – Ottawa’s Reconstructionist Synagogue and probably needs a coffee.
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