Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Purim - Did It Happen?

The question is raised about the story of Purim, and also about every story we tell our students:  "Is it true?  Did it really happen?"
Recently I read an interesting book:  A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz.  Horwitz (who happens to be married to Geraldine Brooks, the author of People of the Book, a wonderful historical novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah) took it upon himself to investigate European settlements in the Americas before the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
What he discovered contradicted much of what he remembered learning as a child.  In fact, at the end of his travels he came to believe that much of what we learn about early American history is not accurate.  And still most of us celebrate Thanksgiving the way we always did, ignoring the inconsistencies.

I believe that his conclusions are pertinent as well to how we understand our own history as Jews, and our Jewish texts.
Here is what he says at the end of his book:

Myth is more important than history.  History is arbitrary, a collection of facts.  Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate.
The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  It's like religion - beyond facts.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.
Perhaps that is why the Texas Board of Education is working so hard to influence the social studies textbooks that are published in that state and used all over the country, as described in this article in the NY Times Magazine on February 14:  How Christian were the Founders?
As Frances FitzGerald showed in her groundbreaking 1979 book “America Revised,” if there is one thing to be said about American-history textbooks through the ages it is that the narrative of the past is consistently reshaped by present-day forces. Maybe the most striking thing about current history textbooks is that they have lost a controlling narrative. America is no longer portrayed as one thing, one people, but rather a hodgepodge of issues and minorities, forces and struggles. If it were possible to cast the concerns of the Christian conservatives into secular terms, it might be said that they find this lack of a through line and purpose to be disturbing and dangerous.
 I think these two issues are related, in the following ways:

  • How we tell a story determines its meaning
  • Deciding how to tell a story tells more about the teller than about the actual story
  • As educators we need to think carefully about how we construct stories - considering how they affect the listeners
  • What we learn from a story may or may not reflect historical accuracy, but it certainly will reflect and create attitudes in powerful ways.

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