Saturday, November 28, 2009

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Thanksgiving, an "American Holiday," is a feast in which my family and I participate with pleasure every year.  Because it is a holiday we share with all Americans - at least potentially - it is a day in which we might give some thought to what it means to be Jewish and American.

Big Ideas:

  • Jewish identity is complex, and means different things to different people
  • Maintaining separate identity within a culture that encourages shared identity is challenging
  • Developing and transmitting identity can take various forms
Essential Questions:
  • What is Jewish identity?
  • What is the difference between "acculturation" and "assimilation?"
  • In what ways does identity develope?
  • What are the challenges involved in maintaining religious identity within a culture?
Learning Activities:
Four articles appeared this week that seemed to illustrate both the challenges and the outcomes of maintaining identity.
Three Clergymen Three Faiths, One Friendship, by Laurie Goodstein, is the story of a minister, a rabbi and a sheik who have developed a relationship across their religious differences, and who speak as a group to audiences of all faiths.  They suggest that their relationship is strong because they believe:
"..not [in] avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them."
 According to the rabbi in the group, the following statement is how they see each others' religious beliefs:
"This is the truth for you, and this is the truth for me."
Does this sound Jewish to you?  Can something be 'true' for me and something different 'true' for someone else?  What does this mean to you?

How to Say Thanksgiving in Mandarin by Scott Simon describes his family and many others in the world today.  He writes about the diverse religious and ethnic identities in his own family and in those around him.

  • As Jews, how do we define our identity?
  • What is the "Jewish people?"
  • What is "Am Yisrael?"
  • What is "Jewish food?"
  • What is the meaning of Israel in your life?
  • How do you celebrate the Jewish holidays?  

The answers may be different for different Jews, because being Jewish has many aspects.  Reading this article may encourage you to articulate what your identity means to you.

The Other Education by David Brooks talks about his realization that Bruce Springsteen had a powerful impact on the way in which he sees the world.  While Springsteen may or may not be the influence we as Jewish educators are waiting for, several statements by Brooks certainly say something important to us:
"...It's generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious..."
"The uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning."
"I do think a message is conveyed by the way he  [Springsteen] continually  situates himself within a tradition."
What do these statements tell us about the experiences we need to be providing for our learners?
How can we maximize the emotional learning that Brooks talks about in his column?

A Tradition that Cherishes Poker, not Pumpkin Pie is a whole other story - it describes a community, or at least a portion of a community - that has decided, for a number of reasons, that the celebration of Thanksgiving involves a trip to Mohegan Sun rather than "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house.."

  • What happens when a group develops its own customs that are not aligned with those of the majority culture within which it lives?
  • Why might it be difficult to maintain this separation in succeeding generations?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of having unique ethnic and/or religious customs?


  • Create a collage that expresses your Jewish identity
  • Write a short description of your Jewish identity
  • Share an anecdote about your family's Jewish celebration of a particular holiday with a partner.  Compare and contrast the ways in which your family celebrates with those of your partner's family.

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