Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Command to Remember


The Command to Remember

Creating Collective Memory as a Moral Imperative

By: Nance M. Adler

Originally published in HaYidion March 2014

We have all heard the adage – “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I would like to add to it “Those who don’t remember their people’s history are doomed.” Much of how we are to behave as Jews is based in our remembering. Both God and our own modern experience exhort us to “Never forget” – we are to remember what was done to us and work to keep it from happening to others.  If we don’t know what was done, we can’t participate in this work to better the world. In the Torah we are reminded numerous times to “remember that you were strangers (or slaves) in Egypt” and as a consequence of that memory we are to treat others better than we were treated. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our gates. We are to treat others as we want to be treated and we are to remember it was God who helped us escape and be faithful to God as a consequence of this memory.  The study of history – or even the idea of history – comes late to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor differentiates between “collective memory” and history.  Yerushalmi points out that memory is a religious commandment in Judaism. The root zakhor appears 169 times in Torah. What God commands in the Torah is collective memory. It is looking at an experience as if it happened to you rather than in its proper historical setting.  The best example of this is the Pesah Seder. We do not say “The father of my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” We say “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We say God took “me” out of Egypt. The Pesah story is told as personal memory. It is also the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Secular, unaffiliated, otherwise totally assimilated Jews hold and attend seders – this collective memory experience speaks to them and reminds them of who they are and how they are supposed to be in the world.

For Jews, as Yerushalmi points out, up until quite late, all of history was seen as collective memory. It was all seen as a playing out of God’s plan for God’s chosen people and all connected no matter how far apart in time events occurred. In my sixth grade Jewmanities class I combine teaching the stories of Tanach with the teaching of history. We look at the early kings of Israel as the Jewish archetypes they have become – memory – and then we look at them in their historical setting and as real people. We look at the prophets and their warnings of divine punishment and then learn about the Assyrians and the historical events of the conquering of ancient Israel and the destruction of the First Temple. By seeing our story both as history and memory, connections can be made and lessons learned beyond what doing it as one or the other allows. One of the most valuable things, in my opinion, about the heroes of the Tanahk is that they are real people. To learn about Solomon as only wise and to not see that he also made bad decisions, mostly connected to women, makes it hard to connect to him as a role model. Knowing that our problems were also the problems of our ancestors makes their experiences and lessons apply to our experiences. This is the power of collective memory. Knowing how your people have handled problems – how Jews handle problems – allows you to make Jewishly informed choices in all areas of life.

Our history teaches us what it means to be a Jew – the good and the bad of it. Much of Jewish history is depressing and awful. It is regularly debated just how appropriate it is to even teach it to various age groups. Parents ask me why I want to make their kid hate being a Jew by teaching about the Shoah or the Inquisition or other dark episodes of our history. A seventh grader recently asked why we always learned about such depressing stuff. He wanted to know when we were going to learn something “sunny” about Jewish history. Unfortunately, seventh grade JSS is 70 CE – Middle Ages, so, other than the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Babylonian Jewry, there isn’t a lot of sunshine. But, there are still lessons to be learned here that should make students value their Judaism and want to cling to it as strongly as their ancestors, who did so often at cost of life. How much in life today is worth dying for? To Jews in Ancient Israel, Spain, Babylonia, the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Europe, Germany and so many other times and places, the meaning and value of being Jewish was clearly a prize worth protecting and nurturing even when the cost was high. Loss of privilege and loss of life were not enough to dissuade Jews from being Jewish in those places, but today not getting to attend a concert on a Friday night is enough to make a kid wish he wasn’t Jewish. So, how do we inspire a deep and abiding love and value for being Jewish? For me, it is through the teaching of Jewish history and memory; in creating a sense that all of Jewish experience is part of my Jewish experience and figuring out how to understand that so I can be a part of making the world a place where some of those experiences will never again occur. Sharing in the collective memory of one’s people allows one to partake in the ongoing history of that people in a way that will hopefully one day allow “never forget” to become a true “never again.”  By remembering and teaching our students to remember as well, we can perhaps one day place those events in the historical past where they belong.

Full Immersion Learning – JCAT


(Originally printed in RAVSAK journal HaYidion in Spring 2013 – No longer online on their site)

Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish Social Studies (JSS) class begin the year by participating in The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture of the graduate programs at the University of Michigan School of Education and the University of Cincinnati and is supported by RAVSAK. JCAT is a virtual trial that is moderated by graduate students and whose participants are middle school students at Jewish schools around North America. Participants select a historical persona whom they will portray for the duration of the trial, which takes place at a virtual Masada. Students, in “character”, consider, and gather, evidence, post responses to questions and proposals and get familiar with each other’s points of view. Justices are then nominated and must gather votes of confidence from fellow participants before they can rule on the case. At the end, participants are asked to reflect on their experience and on the decision of the court. Participating schools are asked to work on JCAT two periods a week. I usually do one period of learning related to the topic and one or more of the students online completing assigned tasks related to the trial process.

This may all sound rather dull, but, done well, it is anything but. The experience of watching my 7th grade students fully engaged and excited about their learning as the events of this past fall’s JCAT trial unfolded was amazing, and anything but dull.  Each year, the JCAT coordinators select a timely and Jewishly relevant dilemma to be considered by the students. This year’s trial was based in events in France related to a law forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious items” in public schools. The co-plaintiffs were a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy who had both been expelled for wearing religiously required items to school. I began the unit by doing several lessons about the situation in Europe related to Muslim immigrants and the wearing of the hijab by young Muslim girls. We discussed the pressure from observant or fundamentalist Muslims for all girls to wear it and related this to pressure in other religions as well for everyone to meet a certain standard of observance. We also learned about the history of secularity in France and their commitment to both freedom of and freedom from religion in the public realm.  Armed with this knowledge, and a better understanding of the subtleties of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in a country dedicated to secularity, the students were ready to participate in a meaningful way in the JCAT trial.

Character selection is a tricky thing. Students all want to be someone famous and deciding for which of the five kids who want to be Anne Frank or Lady Gaga you are going to list that as one of their choices is not an easy job. Students often make the mistake of thinking representing someone popular will be easy and it is my job to help them make good choices. In a trial related to freedom of expression, Lady Gaga might be an excellent choice; in a trial about reparations to survivors of the St. Louis, last year’s topic, she might not.  Once they have their final assignment, it is their job to get to know their person well enough to be able to speak to the issues at hand as their person would have responded. They write a “resume” or letter of introduction, as I call it, and post this online so that others can learn about their opinions and experiences, and they begin to build alliances. The personal opinion of the student becomes unimportant, as their job is to present the opinion of their assigned identity. Some students choose to play against their views and do well with this, others find choosing someone closer to their own view more comfortable. Being the “odd person out” can be fun if you have the self-esteem and independence for it, or disheartening if you don’t. I have seen both in my class.

This year’s trial was especially exciting as a movement to unseat the “host”, Benazir Bhutto, developed over Thanksgiving break. The rationale was that a Muslim woman should not be hosting the trial of a Muslim girl. Students returned to find a putsch underway and not much time to respond. Within days, Bhutto was out and a cohort of strong minded leaders – Napoleon, Charlemagne and Rasputin to name a few – had taken power under the leadership of Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who is rabidly Islamophobic. This group froze the trial, raised the number of votes of confidence needed and added their own members to the list of justices.  I carefully presented this new reality to my class and then set them loose to respond. It was amazing to see them fly into action. Quickly groups formed and alliances were made. Leaders were chosen, goals set and strategies outlined for getting Bhutto back or at least getting rid of Geert. Revolt Against Geert (RAG) was formed by a group of girls in my class and RAG became the group to rally around for all the JCAT participants who wanted to restore order.  A day of protest was allowed for a Wednesday, which happens to be a day I don’t have this class. I invited students to come in during their lunch and recess and the RAG group showed up in force for 50 minutes of high powered action and strategizing. It was truly a teacher’s proudest moment to see these students scrambling to be successful in their plan to unseat Geert and his cronies. I trust them to save the world when the time comes after seeing how hard they worked and how well they planned for something related to a virtual trial in their JSS class.

JCAT offers students an opportunity to think outside the box – even outside their own brain as they participate as someone else. My students reflect on this aspect of JCAT and find it one of the most challenging and rewarding parts. They learn new things, see new perspectives and experience someone else’s thoughts. Interacting with the other people out of history also allows an opportunity to learn about people who they might never otherwise encounter. I find JCAT to be an amazing experience for my students, and this year in particular it offered learning experiences for which I could have never written a lesson plan. I watched quiet and timid students find their voice and see its power and I know that they will never be the same. To feel that your actions might change the outcome of something important, and to be motivated, at 13, to get up early to check online and see what has happened since the previous night in a school project – it’s not what is expected in middle school, but JCAT makes it happen.

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade


(This article appears to not be available online at the site of the journal it was published in, so I am posting it here)

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade


Nance M. Adler

The controversial nature of teaching the Shoah (Holocaust) to Fifth Graders was not well known to me when I was asked in 2006 to teach in this grade. I knew it had been taught previously but not by the most recent teacher. The Head of Judaics wanted me to teach it and so I began to do some research and I found that there were strong opinions on this topic. “Pedagogically unsound” and “developmentally inappropriate” were words that I repeatedly heard as part of these discussions. Considering all the gore and violence our students are exposed to on a daily basis on TV, in video games, movies and books, I found it hard to believe that there was not a way to teach the Shoah to Fifth Graders that would be both pedagogically sound and developmentally appropriate. Armed with the concerns of my colleagues but equally with my conviction, I began to put together a curriculum for my classroom that would teach my students about this important time in Jewish History and help to create in them the sense of urgency necessary to insure that such crimes would never be repeated.

For me, teaching about the Shoah isn’t just about teaching the horrific history of what happened in Germany and Europe during the Third Reich. It is about creating young people who understand that it can be a few short steps from name calling to genocide, that prejudice isn’t harmless and that propaganda and a good orator can lead people to do horrible things. With this in mind, I knew that I needed to teach about the history of Germany from 1933 -1939 as this is the time period during which history could have changed but didn’t. This decision was affirmed when I took the “Holocaust and Human Behavior” course through Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) the summer of 2008. To hear that I had focused on the right historical period confirmed what I already knew from the work of my students – understanding what happened to create a world where the Shoah could occur was vital if we are to keep it from occurring again. I also learned from FHAO the idea of creating “Upstanders”. An Upstander takes action when a wrong is being done rather than being a bystander and allowing it to happen unchallenged. This is now a byword in my class and a goal of my Shoah curriculum – to create Upstanders who, based on their knowledge of this history, will work to assure that it is not repeated.

We begin the year reading Vive La Paris by Esme Raji Codell as a read aloud. This is the story of Paris, a young African American girl in Chicago, and her Jewish piano teacher, Mrs. Rosen. This wonderful book not only introduces the Shoah through the eyes of Paris but also shows the prejudices she faces. We discuss the similar experiences of Blacks and Jews, the evils of prejudice and how life experiences impact faith. We then read stories of child survivors from a book called Survivors: Stories of Children Who Survived the Holocaust. The students then chose a book for an individual book project. This brings me to my main guideline for Shoah stories read in my class – the main character has to survive. This is based on the concern that forming an attachment to a character and then having them be killed is too hard emotionally for Fifth Graders. This means that Anne Frank’s diary would not be allowed to be read for a book report in my class even though many of my students have already read it.

My students keep a Shoah Journal where they write their thoughts and/or questions or to respond to my pre-reading prompts for these stories. These journals are our private conversation and are not shared without the student’s permission. It is here where real growth and understanding develops on these hard topics and it is here that I see beautiful evidence of the deep thinking of my students. They write questions, poetry, gut reactions or draw illustrations for the story that they have just heard. Some students write pages and others are so dumbstruck by the story that they can’t write much of anything. I have had conversations about faith, human nature and what it took for these people to survive. Responding to each journal is a time consuming but extremely worthwhile and important part in achieving my overall goal of creating Upstanders.

The next step is a lesson on the power of hate which I do so that the students are able to process the events they are about to study in an informed manner. I use the Pyramid of Hate to teach about the various levels of hate and show just how few steps there are between prejudice and genocide. Armed with this frame of reference, the students are then able to study the events of 1933 – 39 and see the unfolding climb up the Pyramid of Hate towards genocide. At the FHAO seminar I learned that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water but if placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly heated it will allow itself to be boiled to death. This is an apt illustration of what happened to both Jews and Germans during these years. Having this framework allows the students to see the slow boil and perhaps understand why the Jews didn’t leave earlier. It doesn’t excuse but helps to explain why Germans went along with a leader who, step by step, dehumanized the Jews and created a society where the Shoah occurred largely unquestioned. Having this framework helps make the study of these events relevant and interesting. Another way that I make this history accessible and interesting to my students is by using the writings of young people who lived through this period. We read diary entries and story excerpts as we study each time period thus allowing the students to form their own impression of both the events and what it was like to experience them. All of this leads to our culminating activity – the Shoah Character Narrative.

The Shoah Character Narrative is based on an assignment that was created by the Head of Judaics at my school. The character each child creates only experiences the events of 1933-39 and not the camps and mass killings of the 1940’s. In keeping with my requirement for stories which we read in class, the character must survive and many of the narratives are written as memoirs. Characters are created using a “reverse identity circle.” We start with a blank circle and create the pieces of each character’s identity. Students give their character a name, parents, birthplace and date, siblings, a school, level of Jewish observance, hobbies and economic class. They have fairly free reign in this process other than that their character must be Jewish, live in Germany and be at least eight in 1933. They then write a “back story” to introduce their character and show what their life was like prior to the election of Hitler in January 1933. Their character then lives through 1933-39 and experiences formative events such as the election of Hitler, early laws affecting Jews, The Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht and wearing the Yellow Star. While the minimum requirement is 14 paragraphs, most students write much more. They create a whole world and life for their character which is then impacted by the realities of being a Jew in Germany during this time period. The resulting stories show a command of the history, an understanding of what it was like to live through these events and a sense of not wanting this for anyone else. This assignment creates a memory for the student writer – a memory of living in Germany in the 1930’s. It is this memory that I have now come to believe will most help these young people grow into Upstanders working to make our world a more peaceful and equitable place.

So, how did I come to this belief? I was asked to be the guest speaker at my synagogue this past spring on the Shabbat after Yom HaShoah. The parsha was Tazria and I had no desire to speak on skin diseases and decided to speak about Yom HaShoah instead. I was working on writing my d’var as my students were watching “Paperclips” on Yom HaShoah when an idea came to me. The previous week I had taught my students about the difference between the two sets of Ten Commandments in the Torah. (In the Torah we are given the Ten Commandments twice; the first time by God at Sinai and the second by Moses in his farewell speech. There are major and minor differences between them.) As I thought about the experiences of the non-Jewish children in “Paperclips” and heard them speak about the stories that were shared with them and the “memories” they were safeguarding, my thoughts turned to my own thoughts on the difference between the two sets. In the first set of Commandments we are told to “zachor et yom hashabbat” (remember the Sabbath). Remembering can be very passive, requiring little action or real effort. The next forty years prove that the Children of Israel are not so good at remembering and so we can understand why God and/or Moses feel that making this commandment a bit more active might be a good thing. In D’varim we are told, by Moses, “sh’mor et yom hashabbat” (guard/preserve the Sabbath). This is an active and participatory commandment and makes our observance of Shabbat much more intensive than it might have been had we just had the first version. It is my belief that, much like Shabbat, which, as it is said “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews”, the Shoah requires not just remembering but guarding. Guarding as an active remembering, guarding as forming our own memories of events we did not live through so that when those who did live through them are gone we do not forget what they suffered. On Passover each year Jews say “My father was a wandering Aramean” and “I went out of Egypt.” Jews today no more did those things than my Fifth Graders lived through the Shoah but by guarding the memory in an active and personal way we have made Passover the most universally observed Jewish Holiday. Using this same technique, of creating personal memories of historical events, we can make the lessons of the Shoah part of the mindset of every young Jew. Guarding these memories by planting them in our own psyches will keep the lessons of these horrific times alive and relevant for future generations.

Teaching the lessons about what went wrong in a given situation and discussing how things might have been different is an activity without age boundaries. It is done with Kindergarteners when speaking about problems during recess and it can be done in relation to the Shoah in Fifth Grade in a way that is both age appropriate and pedagogically sound. My students love learning about the Shoah; for many it is their favorite subject. Even those who find some of the stories hard to hear know that what they are learning is important and meaningful and therefore are eager to learn more. Guarding our younger students from the horrors of the Shoah – the pictures of dead bodies and stories of the camps – does not preclude us from teaching them the lessons of this difficult period of history. Done with care and planning, teaching the Shoah to Fifth Graders can sow the seeds of concern for our People and our world and create a generation of Upstanders. It is with this ultimate goal in mind that I will continue to teach this history to my students and hope that others will follow suit.

(This article was originally printed in Jewish Educational Excellence – Volume 8:1 – Fall 2009 and is reprinted here by permission.)