Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Teaching Jewish history - have we failed?

I used to have a little pastime. Go up to your nearest Yeshiva boy and ask him a really simple question:

"Which came first in history, Chanukah or Purim, and how do you know?"

Not only was it surprising how long it took some of them to answer, but also how many of them GOT IT WRONG! I myself suffered at the hand of a badly-run, backwards, hypocritical Jewish education system. My rabbis were throughly unqualified to teach, being in Yeshiva for 10 years does NOT make you a good teacher, and being the son of the Rosh Yeshiva definitely helped you get the job, but didn't make you any good at it. The secular teachers all had teaching qualifications and by and large were fairly good.

I could draw up a long list of the problems of Jewish education, in my view, but I'm here to focus on Jewish history. The basic stuff. Some perspective. Getting a feel for the Jewish time line. Knowing what happened when. Maybe also bring in a bit of the outside world as well and how it impacted the Jewish world. What was going on at the time? Nebuchadnezzar, the Seleucids, Rome, Zoroastrianism, the Crusades, the Renaissance, Emancipation, etc.

Try out the question. Let me know how long it takes, how many of them can tell you why, and what percentage get it hopelessly wrong. Disgraceful.



At 4/12/2005 1:14 AM, Anonymous hayim said...

Reading your last two posts, I would dare to say that history repeats itself ! 8)

I agree with you that the situation is ridiculous. Look, there are a number of reasons for that ; most of the UO machaneh insists on a weltanschauung in which Judaism is ahistorical (Judaism of today = Judaism of Eastern Europe = Judaism of the Middle Ages, etc.) Thus you see pictures of chassidim dancing, with peyos and bakashos and the whole levush, around Har Sinai.

It's a way to preserve the status quo.

Since you so generously share your shidduchim stories with us, let me tell you one that happened to me, years ago.

Back then, I was new to this whole business (I'm a BT, and believe me blind dating looks like the weirdest way to find one's soulmate when you don't grow up used to the idea).

The girl I was introduced to had just done the Gateshead (UK) seminary. I, being curious of a world that was largely unknown to me at that point (frum girls), asked her a simple question :

"So, what did you learn in sem ? What was the daily schedule like ?"

"Oh, Halacha, Mussar, Tanach, Chumash", all of which I expected", "and Jewish History".

"History ? That sounds interesting. What did you learn ?"

"Oh well, we learned that there is no such thing as Jewish History !"

"What ?" (feeling vaguely stupid)

"Of course there is no Jewish History ; if you say that there is a Jewish History, you imply by that that there is a Goyishe History too ! That can't be. All History is Jewish !"

"Errr..." (feeling afflicted with Down Syndrom all of a sudden)

"I'll give you an example ; ever heard of Gutemberg ? The guy who invented the printing press in the middle of the 15th century ?"

"Yeah ..."

"Well, my rabbis told me that, back then, the Yidden were having trouble finding seforim. Golus was so deep, it was difficult to find Gemoros, etc. What did the Abishte do ? He inspired Gutemberg to invent the printing press ! so you see, really it's all about us !!!"

Sigh. Actually the girl was bright, I hope that by now she has become more sophisticated.

But why do we let people teach that stuff ? These are dangerous ideas !!!

I'll stop here ; sorry for the length of that post !

At 4/12/2005 1:36 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


I realize I posted twice by mistake. Blogger has been playing up.

Thanks for your comment. Your post is not too long. It's possible the girl was hinting at an idea brought in Chazal, the whole world only exists for the purpose of the Tsaddik. At least she knew about the printing press! In all seriousness, it is incredible. Try my question out. See what happens.


At 4/12/2005 3:57 AM, Anonymous JoeCool said...

Ok, try this. Ask a typical american college graduate a simple american history question such as where was was spanish-american war fought. See how many get this right. You'll be just as shocked.

At 4/12/2005 4:37 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


you may have a point, but Jews place so much value on education, our turbulent history has shaped us so extensively, and we are talking about a system that provides 4 hours a day upwards of Jewish education. I don't have the same expectations of a typical american college graduate.


At 4/12/2005 5:52 AM, Anonymous JoeCool said...

You're right. Jews should value history more. They don't. Neither do americans, europeans, arabs, and all other nations. You did make a point that secular teachers all had teaching qualifications which probably means that they wasted four year of college getting drunk and protesting some injustice of the week and passed a state test (probably on a third try). History, being essentially a secular subject, I think your complaint is somewhat misplaced. At any rate, as G.B. Shaw wrote He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.

At 4/12/2005 6:30 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


As a religious Jew, jewish history is more than a secular subject for me. It is relevant to my beliefs, my heritage and my people and I think it is important that other practicing Jews know where they come from and what their commandments are based on.


At 4/12/2005 7:23 AM, Blogger kishmech said...

Jewish history is where we come from..... if you don't know where you come from, why would you work so hard to find out where you're going.....ie follow halacha. It is important.
In fact core subjects in school should be - Jewish history, in the form of torah, nach and what came after....then halacha and a dose of sensible hashkafa would be good.

At 4/12/2005 7:44 AM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


many would argue that there simply isn't time and that they must focus on gemara it being the most difficult and major part of Torah learning (for guys at least). I'm not saying I agree, but we have to counteract those arguments.


At 4/12/2005 12:19 PM, Anonymous JoeCool said...

Pretend that you've been placed in charge of a small UO mesivta to specifically develop and deploy a jewish history program. What would you do? What texts and other material would you use? Who would be teaching it? How would you deal with bits of gemorah that (when taken literally) contradict objective history based on multiple external sources? How much time would you devote to it? What period would you want covered? How would you deal with various sects that have split off through the ages?

Personally, I think that if you don't treat it as a serious secular subject and deal with it objectively, it will eventually devolve into watered down neviim and ksuvim shiur that no one will take seriously and then it will be a waste of time.

At 4/12/2005 3:48 PM, Blogger Chai18 said...

another sad aspect to this is that in many Jewish communities there is nor formal education on the Holocaust, it is as if the whole thing is ignored. How can you ignore the Holocaust?? i think that as Jews we are required to understand where we came form and what has happened to us, i mean why shouldn't a Jewish child in a Jewish school not know who Ferdinand and Isabella were, why shouldn't a Jewish child know the history behind events in Jews history beyond just the fact that they happened. i mean sure people know who Chelminski was, but can most people tell you the historical, socio-economic, and political underpinnings of his murderous campaign against the Jews? why do we while shutting ourselves off form the secular world, also shut ourselves off form our history with the secular world? why cant the schools teach Jewish history as an objective subject? It is wrong that if you pick a random kid who has gone through yeshiva education and he cant tell you what the Damascus blood libel of 1840 was. why should such an event be ignored? as well as the fact that if you go to a predominately ashkenazi school the breadth of knowledge you will have concerning anything to do with Sephardic Jewry is embarrassing.

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