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.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Teachers Selling Lessons

You may have read the article in the NY Times about teachers buying and selling their lessons on the internet.

The article is interesting, and even more interesting are the responses from readers.  As an educator I believe strongly in collaborative effort, and in my opinion teachers can often learn as much or more from their colleagues as they can from "experts" who drop in for a session or two and then leave.

On the other hand, one of the worst lessons I ever taught was one that I had participated in as a learner and then attempted to present to a different group as the teacher.

What is the significance of these two seemingly opposing threads?

  • I believe that good teaching ideas should be shared.
  • Some people are fortunate enough to be paid by publishers to create lessons that will be sold to other teachers as books.
  • Some people are fortunate enough to teach in institutions in which the culture provides time and support for sharing ideas with colleagues.
  • All good teaching requires time for preparing lessons - whether or not one starts with a template provided by a teachers' guide, book or on-line site.
  • Anyone who attempts to teach someone else's lesson without taking the time to make it his or her own will probably not be successful. is the website referred to in the Times article.  I looked to see if there were Jewish educational lessons available, and found some on the Shoah, one on the lunar calendar, and little if anything else.

There are, however, on-line sites that can be very helpful to Jewish educators. 

I suggest you type the words Jewish Lesson Plans into your search engine and see what comes up.  You may be surprised at the resources you can access.

Just remember - no one should try to teach some else's lesson without making it his or her own.


And so the drama continues - and our ancestors continue to act in ways that challenge us to see them as models upon which we will structure our behavior.

There are a number of interesting commentaries you can access at My Jewish Learning.  I particularly enjoyed this one - I Have a Dream, by Rabbi Ed Rosenthal.  And yes, the use of Martin Luther King's words is an intentional part of the essay.

Rabbi Melissa Crespy writes about the complicated family dynamics evident in this parasha and suggests they can help us better understand our lives today.

There are, however, a few questions that occurred to me and to which I wasn't able to find answers in the commentaries I examined.  Perhaps you can help figure out some answers:

  1. In 28:11 Jacob is described as taking stones to rest his head on.  Sorry - but couldn't he find something more comfortable to put under his head?
  2. Is there a relationship or comparison between the tower in Bavel and the ladder in this parasha?
  3. Why does the text identify Avraham as Yaakov's father rather than Yitzhak?
  4. In 28:14 the Hebrew reads:  Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh.  What is the reason for the word "yesh?"  The translations seem to be uniform as saying "God was in this place",  but you don't ned the word "yesh" if that is the translation.  It seems to me that a better translation would be "There is God (or perhaps 'godliness') in this place.  Does that change the meaning for you?
  5. Verse 28:22 has Yaakov making a deal with God - if...then...  What can it mean that Yaakov promises to accept God if God provides certain material necessities?  Is there a rationale that states we only accept God if God provides for and protects us?
  6. Verse 31:53 - The English translation reads,  "... the God of Avraham and the god of Nahor..."  But Hebrew doesn't use capital letters, and the phrase in Hebrew uses the identical term for both "gods".  What's that about?  Does the god of Nahor exist alongside the God of Avraham as an equal in this text?
Perhaps you have answers to these questions - they certainly suggest rich discussions you can have.  Perhaps you can share your answers with the rest of us.