HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Jewish Literature Reimagined in the High School English Classroom

by Na'amit Sturm Nagel Issue: Educational Innovation Shalhevet High School, Los Angeles

Like most English teachers, I entered the profession in the hope I could inspire others to love words on paper as much as I do. Once I entered the classroom, however, I discovered that there were other significantly more achievable goals. You could get students to care about learning how to write—they knew this skill was valuable. You could teach students how to analyze texts and parse language. You could even make them appreciate the beauty of certain Shakespearean plays. But you could not make them love books. Books did not sell themselves, and no matter how hard one pitched them, Sparks Notes and Snapchat were there to enable students to avoid actually cracking the spine of a text.

Most students felt about English the way I felt about Judaic studies when I was in high school. Give me a book, and I’d crawl into bed and read all night. Give me a Jewish book, and I’d stare at it like it was some sort of strange creature that was theoretically interesting but not realistically approachable. The lines upon lines of Hebrew alphabet arranged in maze-like blocks of texts seemed impenetrable.

It was only once I went to Israel for a gap year that I began to love Tanakh as much as Tolstoy. The two truly began to click after many Jewish literature courses in college. Upon graduating, I wondered why someone could attend 12 years of yeshiva day school without interacting with the authors, artists and scholars who make up the modern Jewish literary canon. These college courses asked questions about being Jewish that were energizing and enthralling. Only now it seemed so obvious to consider struggles with faith against the backdrop of Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep. As a descendent of Holocaust survivors, I find Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl to be the perfect text to help one consider their identity and relationship to Jewish trauma. Surely, these were lost opportunities.

Part of the impetus for wanting to teach in a Jewish school was having an opportunity to test the theory that integrating Jewish and general studies in an English classroom could create a space in which the analysis of texts provided a springboard for discussions about Jewish identity. It was only after a few years of teaching and encountering how difficult it had become to get students to read a book in a regular English class that I went back to the idea of a yearlong Jewish literature course, with the goal both of inspiring students to read and connecting them to their Judaism. I was hoping that if the texts we read connected to some of the challenges they faced in their everyday Jewish life, they would be more motivated to read them.

As opposed to the college lecture hall, high school classrooms offer students the opportunity to analyze literature in relation to themselves, as a means of reshaping their Jewish identities. Our class was built around Rabbi Aryeh Ben David’s Ayekah model of soulful education, in which students receive questions that force them to interrogate themselves simultaneous with the texts being studied. Each unit comes with a writing exercise that pushes students to reflect on how they will personally answer the questions relating to Judaism that arise in the texts. There are 10 larger essential questions about Judaism that surround the course (see sidebar), and the goal is for each student to be able to use the reading and writing exercises throughout the year to be able to answer each of these questions for themselves by the end of the course.

Having taught Jewish Literature and Identity over the past three years, the curriculum has surpassed my expectations. The goal was to engage in an in-depth study of Jewish literature and art, while considering how it might shape or influence one’s own sense of American Jewish identity and affiliation, but I had no idea how much students would actually identify with the literature. One of my students became obsessed with Yiddish literature; others told me it was their “favorite class in all of high school.” In the survey at the end of the year, one student wrote, “It was such a meaningful way to explore Judaism and understand how culture and religion ties into writing and affects it.” Another said, “I think a big reason why I enjoyed this class so much was because it connected to me and allowed me to reflect on my own Judaism.”

There are many unique and innovative elements of the course that became part of its recipe for success.

Keep texts short. The class has very few large overwhelming pieces. Rather, it weaves together short stories, articles and poetry to help synthesize students’ ideas about a Jewish theme and teach them how to build connections between a variety of disparate texts that could have been written centuries apart.

Shape the course around identity building. Students have opportunities to write about their struggles with their “personal Judaism,” explore times when their Jewish identities conflicted with that of their parents, and understand the ways in which the Jewish institutions they are part of fulfill their aspirations and/or disappoint them. These reflections do not just stay on paper but form the basis for our classroom discussions.

Inspire students to become Jewish authors. We don’t only study the literature, but the students use many of the texts as mentor texts. We try and imitate some of the classic Jewish authors to help put ourselves in their shoes and teach the students to become Jewish writers themselves. For example, after reading samples from the early 20th century Yiddish advice column A Bintl Brief, the students write their own contemporary versions of these questions, considering the socio-religious dimensions of our Los Angeles Jewish community. They then develop answers to these questions and discuss the larger issues facing our community. These types of exercises push students to think practically about how they can change their day-to-day behavior to enrich Jewish life and become the Jews and citizens of the world they would like to be.

When we also read excerpts from different Jewish memoirs, students wrote three pages of their own memoir, focusing on an important religious moment in their lives. The project is called a “Religious Retrospective,” after which the students also complete a different assignment called “Your Jewish Future.” These exercises help them reflect on the foundations of their Jewish identity, but also encourage them to think about how they want to build their Jewish future.

Get out of the classroom. Look around your city to find a Jewish performance, author or even restaurant to which you could take students. One year we went to hear Michael Chabon speak; another we saw a performance of The Chosen. These experiences show kids that what we study is vibrant, current and being created and recreated all the time.

Bring the community into the classroom. Most cities and Jewish communities have locals who are in fact experts on a subject or theme within Jewish literature. Bringing in a Klezmer group, a Jewish film buff or any expert from your community also illustrates that a larger world of adults that care deeply about what we are studying exists. Having the students subscribe to Tablet Magazine also enhanced our class conversation and achieved this goal, giving students insight into a larger world of Jewish culture that they can be part of.

Keep it current. Constantly reshape the class around the current news cycle or conversations you hear students having in the hallways. For example, when gender became a hot topic this year, I created a project around tracing gender in Jewish literature. We looked at different gender models in the texts we studied and asked what Jewish literature has to say about the topic. We then tried answering the next question of how Judaism perceives gender roles today and thought as a class about whether these roles are helpful or harmful.

Help students find their own Jewish questions and answers. Have a large independent research project that runs throughout the year in which students pick a larger research question they have about Judaism and then find the answers that Jewish texts have given to their larger question. They then have to write a thesis-based research paper describing the answer they have found.

Create a cohesive learning experience. One of the most difficult parts of teaching so many different short Jewish texts is that certain pieces can get lost in the shuffle. Build a broad list of essential questions around which all the texts circulate; keep coming back to those questions and recall previous answers given as you read different texts throughout the year. Some important questions that have been useful are:

How can we be both loyal to our Jewish identity and American identity? What happens when the needs of these two identities conflict with one another and we have to decide where our allegiances lie?

Usually when we talk about “assimilation” the word has negative connotations. Is assimilation a bad thing?

As 21st century Jews, how can we deal with the realities of our history of Jewish trauma and oppression (Holocaust, pogroms, exile, anti-Semitism, etc.) without letting the past or present trauma define our Jewish future?

Is there something universal about the Jewish experience, the experience of the “other”? Is the Jewish experience different than other minority experiences?

Through close reading and writing, offer your students the opportunity to bridge our two worlds, the Jewish and the American, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the life we live as Jews in America today. Maybe you’ll even be lucky, and they will fall in love with reading in the process.

Ten Essential Questions

What does the category of Jewish literature mean? What makes something “Jewish”?

How do individuals build identity? Do we have control over who we become, or does our environment decide who we become for us?

How can we be both loyal to our Jewish identity and American identity? What happens when the needs of these two identities conflict with one another and we have to decide where our allegiances lie?

Usually when we talk about “assimilation,” the word has negative connotations. Is assimilation a bad thing?

As 21st century Jews, how can we deal with the realities of our history of Jewish trauma and oppression (Holocaust, pogroms, exile, anti-Semitism, etc.) without letting the past or present trauma define our Jewish future?

Is there such thing as a Jewish language? What makes a language Jewish? Does Judaism actually need its own language and if we invented one, what would it look like? Would it be/is it a language that could be translated or read by those who do not affiliate as Jewish?

How do secular American Jewish men and women define and relate to their Jewishness? How is it different from the way a religious Jew relates to their Jewishness?

Is it a contradiction to be religious and struggle with your belief in God? To be truly religious do you have to struggle with your belief in God?

Is there something universal about the Jewish experience, the experience of the “other”? Is the Jewish experience different than other minority experiences?

How has the viewpoint of Judaism or Jewish literature changed when comparing Yiddish, American/English and Israeli literature?

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