As the holder of the Emanuel Ringelblum Professorship in Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, I teach several courses on the Holocaust. The challenge in teaching this subject is to make it possible for students who often have no personal connection with the event to experience it both intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, this is one of very few subjects in the university curriculum that have real emotional impact, something I consider important to discuss with the students. What is the appropriate emotional response to genocide? Where is the dividing line between kitsch and art in reaction to this event?
One way to answer these questions is by using music not only to set a mood but also to raise important issues. I typically start my course on the “Memory of the Holocaust” with a Yiddish poem, set to music by Chava Alberstein. The course on memory is, in fact, the only course in the History Department that investigates the cultural memory of a historical event, so it is challenging for students used to more conventional courses.
The poem with which I start the class is by Binem Heller (1908–1998), a Polish-born Yiddish poet living in Israel. Entitled “Mein shvester Chaya,” it is the poet’s memory of his sister “with green eyes and black braids” who raised him when their mother went off to work. Only in the fifth stanza do we learn that “a German burnt her in Treblinka.” The poet writes his song in Yiddish since that was the language in which he remembers her. Indeed, he is the only one who remembers her and he preserves that memory in the yiddishe medine, where, ironically, Yiddish has become an alien language.
The musical setting by Chava Alberstein is deeply evocative and sets the mood for the class. But hers is not a traditional Yiddish melody, so it stands for the same alienation from the memory of the event that Heller speaks of in his poem. The song creates the longing for connection to the murdered world, but it can never fully bridge that distance, thus serving as a theme for the course as a whole.
I was trained as an intellectual historian of the Jewish Middle Ages, so my scholarly world has been one of texts. More precisely, it has been one of unadorned, often printed texts. Consequently, sound, images, and other forms of nontextual media have rarely played a significant role in my teaching. In my experience, images of medieval texts, illuminations, windows, and buildings have limited application when teaching medieval Jewish history. And attempts to integrate diverse sources and media into classroom presentations have been only marginally successful. When I played music in a class on medieval and early modern Jewish Iberia, for example, the students found the rhythms, melodies, and lyrics to be alienating at best and humorous at worst. And I was at a loss for how to mediate effectively. I’ve had better luck with film, but to say that there are few medieval Jewish historical films available is an understatement.
Yet I’ve long believed that many episodes in medieval Jewish history lend themselves to translation into visual or dramatic form that could thereby provide a fruitful pedagogical tool. With this in mind, I embarked on a collaborative project with a graphic artist, Liz Clarke, to produce a graphic history of the Barcelona disputation. This forced me to carefully consider how visual (though not entirely nontextual) media could provide a foundation for a textured introduction to Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to use this yet in a medieval Jewish history class, experimental presentation of portions of the graphic history to undergraduates in a class on a different subject was encouraging. Students who knew nothing about the topic engaged with the theological debate and constructively interrogated artistic and scholarly choices Liz and I made in organizing and presenting the story. I’m hopeful that the graphic history will provide a useful and interesting bridge between the documentary past and contemporary modes of representation.
My remarks largely pertain to teaching undergraduate survey courses in modern Jewish history or courses on modern Jewish culture, loosely defined. We live and work at an unprecedented moment in the history of pedagogy with respect to the sheer quantity and range of nontextual resources available to us. To take full advantage of this opportunity, we must first reconceptualize the classroom. Instead of merely conceiving of it as a venue where we lecture or lead discussions over written texts, it would help enormously to consider the classroom as a venue that also caters to sensory experience.
Nontextual sources can be especially helpful in our increasingly diverse classrooms, where larger numbers of non-Jewish students now take our courses, most of whom have never heard the sound of any Jewish languages or Jewish music. Indeed, this observation applies to an expanding number of Jewish students as well. If any of our students has heard a Jewish language, it is, understandably, Hebrew. But how many American college students have ever even heard non-Israeli forms of Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino? I don’t think it matters that they are unable to understand these languages; letting them just sample the sounds, rhythms, and cadences makes for a good beginning. By showing films (many of which are subtitled so students won’t be completely unaware of what is going on) or using well-chosen sound bites, students cannot but begin to develop a deeper appreciation of Jewish cultures. If, for example, they were to see Unzere kinder, the extraordinary 1951 Yiddish feature film about post-Holocaust memory that was made in Poland, starring the great comedy team of Dzigan and Shumacher; hear Bialik’s “Be-‘ir ha-haregah” recited in Ashkenazic Hebrew; watch interviews with Ladino speakers; listen to Ladino music or to recordings of the greatest operatic ḥazzanut, a tradition very few synagogues around the world have been able to maintain; or make use of websites such as that of the National Sound Archives of the Jewish National and University Library that allow one to compare and contrast widely differing versions of the same song, students will be made aware of the vast range of Jewish musical styles and their classroom experiences will be deeply enriched.
These are just a few examples of what using sound can achieve from a pedagogic standpoint. Of course, none of these resources is intended to replace textual sources, but rather to supplement and enhance them. Jewish culture in its religious and secular forms is one of the greatest of print cultures, but early on, “Hear, O Israel” was the command, testament to the fact that listening, sound, and audible recitation and proclamation are fundamental elements of the culture as well.
Bialik’s “Be-‘ir ha-haregah” recited in Ashkenazic Hebrew:
Seven years ago, facing a recalcitrant “Intro to Religion” class and looking for anything to spur more energy in the room, I stumbled across “The Wedding of Ezra and Olivia” on YouTube, an eight-minute highlight reel of a wedding in Jerusalem between possibly the two loveliest people on the planet. More moving than your typical videography, the film is filled with music, as friends and family spontaneously break out into song, people randomly show up with guitars, and the couple themselves sing under the ḥuppah. Since discovering this video, I have incorporated it into multiple classes; and by the time it concludes, the students feel as though they were at the wedding. Pedagogically, the images and the couple’s happiness concretize the memories of the wedding rituals.
The film begins with shots of the tish(es) (tables), where the bride and groom sing, laugh, and toast their friends and family. Celebrants sing a joyful version of the “Marseillaise” in honor of the groom’s French relatives, and the bride speaks of her love for Ezra. The tishers bring Ezra to meet Olivia; he immediately breaks down in tears. This scene is followed by the bedeken (veiling), the signing of the ketubah, and more singing. As the sun goes down, the groom’s parents escort a now sobbing Ezra down the aisle, and the two engage in the rituals under the ḥuppah.
For most of my Midwestern students, these rituals are brand new; most have only ever been to Protestant or Catholic ceremonies, and seeing a couple their age, clearly in love and committed to their traditions, has a profound effect on them. The wedding is traditional, but the couple have personalized it, making choices that reflect their commitments and their love of Judaism. Because the video covers almost all of the “major moments,” I am able to pause the video and ask students what is going on, discussing what changes the couple has made to the rituals they read about (I usually assign a chapter of Harvey Goldberg’s Jewish Passages as background reading).
I know it’s not very innovative to say “I use a YouTube video” in response to this question, but this find has been truly serendipitous. Year after year even the most apathetic students start smiling and laughing and contributing to discussion. If anyone out there knows Ezra or Olivia, can you tell them that for seven years, college students in Iowa have vicariously participated in celebration of their wedding and think they are the loveliest couple around? Oh, and that they have somewhat become the personification of “Jews” for them?
In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore once notes, “Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here!” As someone who teaches undergraduates who are (mostly) unfamiliar with Judaism, I rely heavily on a number of teaching tricks, including the many ways music produces “magic beyond.” In particular, I find that incorporating music into the classroom helps transport students out of the classroom and so, too, out of the middle of Michigan. Often, this transportation also involves changes to their own expectations and preconceived notions about the history and traditions of Judaism. Music informs nearly every section of the intro-level Judaism course I teach: from the place of ’Avinu Malkeinu in the liturgy, the Sephardic origins of Lekha Dodi with its image of Sabbath as bride/queen, to the writing of “Ha-tikvah” and the way the song eventually became the national anthem of the modern State of Israel. But I also draw on slightly less traditional music as well, including several of the music videos created by Yeshiva University’s a capella group the Maccabeats. A favorite among students is their “Les Misérables Medley,” which retells the Passover story by sampling from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. As the video plays, I ask students to note what they recognize and what is unfamiliar to them. The list of recognizable elements regularly includes the basics: the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt, Moses’s birth story, the plagues. When we move to what was new to them, at least one brave person usually raises a hand and asks, “What was with the guy holding the two plates in the video?” Of course, “the guy with the two plates” provides an opportunity to introduce the idea of midrash. We next read a section from Exodus Rabbah and I explain how midrash functions as a way to address “gaps” in the biblical text. I ask students to figure out what biblical “gap” sits behind Exodus Rabbah 1:26, where young Moses, playing on Pharaoh’s lap, reaches for the jeweled crown atop the king’s head; Pharaoh and his counselors, suspicious that Moses might grow up to steal the crown, put the child to a test. As in the music video, two bowls are set before Moses: one with gold and the other with burning coals. Not shown in the Maccabeats rendition is how, although Moses reaches out for the plate of gold, an angel intervenes and pushes his hand toward the coals, leaving Moses with a burned tongue. As students soon realize, the midrash explains the biblical assertion that Moses was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exod. 4:10). With the “Les Misérables Medley,” the magic of music leads the class to the magic beyond: namely, to the textual world of the Oral Torah.
As an enthusiast of computer-assisted language instruction, I became an early adopter of the internet in the mid-1990s. I have since created and posted a large volume of open educational resources for Hebrew language instruction, relying heavily on nontextual media in the development process and in the pedagogy underlying our Hebrew curriculum, where I follow the inverted-classroom model. In this model, preparation work outside the classroom creates a firm basis for skill-activation work in the classroom itself, minimizing my involvement in activities that allow for student independent learning and maximizing the efficacy of class-time activities where student-student and student-instructor interactions take place.
In the contemporary language classroom, books have gradually moved to the background, and internet-based materials are used more and more frequently. Such materials allow instructors to respond to students’ expectations for a dynamic environment in which images, sounds, animation, and interactivity are integrated into the learning process. With unlimited server capacity and robust support from our information technology services, I work with sound files in designing listening comprehension activities, flashcards with sound, and drag-and-drop and matching exercises. I ask students to articulate stories and problems based on images, and direct them to internet searches for authentic materials, including, among others, jewelry, Judaica artifacts, short movies and music clips, commercials, and photos from historical archives. All these lead into class activities in the form of conversations, debates, presentations, opinion surveys, arts-and-crafts work, role-play, and calligraphy exercises.
While I do not yet work with specific competency standards for visual literacy, my extensive use of images in both preparatory and class activities, and the established expectation that students learn how to interpret and produce visual materials, make me well positioned to adopt such standards and incorporate them into our program’s learning objectives for the upcoming years.
Since I can draw while I lead a discussion, I like to draw big pictures on the blackboard as we talk, things like the Jerusalem temple or the impaled victims on Assyrian banquet hall reliefs. Seeing the physical form of a written idea helps both me and the students think about how it could play out, and keeps all of us awake. Ancient artifacts make you think about the dialectic between physical realities and the human imagination in history. I’ve taken them to Assurnasirpal’s throne room at the Met and read them Ezekiel’s description of the hybrid monster angels with their eyes closed. When they opened them the first thing they saw were real, two-ton hybrid monster angels—the winged man-bull statues that flanked the throne of the most powerful being on earth: the Assyrian king. Seeing how an ancient object would take up space in the real world can give us surprising new insights and questions.
This is true of sound as well. Having students sing part of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice or the hymn from Revelation makes them realize this stuff was performed by people with their whole bodies, and consider how texts would have been experienced. Ultimately most of our most profound ways of knowing, learning, and doing things come from senses beyond reading. But reading, writing, and thinking are in dialogue with them. They’re not things that sitting down taking notes might naturally facilitate. But if you ask the right questions of it, just a moment of seeing or singing can provoke you to think in whole new ways.
One of the major challenges that I have always faced in my classes is the gap between the academic approach to religion and student expectations. We examine texts and scholarly interpretations in class but at the end of the day many students also want to know how “most” Jews might approach the topic. Frequently, what they really want to do is to talk to a rabbi, ask questions for which they already have scholarly responses, and compare the answers. One solution to this gap is of course simply to bring a rabbi into class, but logistically and pedagogically that often poses challenges, especially when a clergy member coming from one denomination or perspective attempts to offer global answers.
In order to address this issue, a few years ago I set out to collect video clips of rabbis from different denominations (as well as other, non-Jewish clergy) answering a variety of questions. I precirculated the list of questions—all designed around my anticipated teaching needs over the next few years in a variety of courses—and then with the help of a video team supplied by the university went to their offices and conducted an interview that usually lasted about an hour. I ended up interviewing five clergy members, creating about seven hours of raw video footage in digital form. The university’s technicians cleaned the footage and marked transition points.
For a public sample of how I used these clips to create a short video on why people enter the clergy, see the video “Serving God” on YouTube:
When I am teaching a topic, I am now able to quickly find the relevant video clips for each of the clergy, and using image software on my desktop computer, splice together answers. When we are talking, for example, about the meaning of prayer, or abortion, I can then integrate this ten-minute clip into the class, usually either at the beginning or toward the end. This allows me to give “faith” a voice but to do so in a controlled manner.
Most of my teaching deals with medieval Hebrew texts. I am fortunate to teach at an institution that has a major research library with an enormous collection of manuscripts, including a huge collection of Genizah fragments. The availability of these materials makes it easy for me to supplement my textual teaching by showing students the raw materials from which these texts are derived and from which they make their way to printed editions. Putting students into such close contact with these materials makes concrete for them the ways in which medieval Hebrew literature was used, preserved, and transmitted, besides providing them the thrill of contact with earlier times.
Thus, in my courses on Hebrew liturgical poetry, a visit to the library demonstrates, more forcefully than anything I could say, the prominence of poetry in the liturgical practice of earlier times. The illuminations in some manuscripts afford another way of looking at the texts besides the more philological work that we do in class. For a course on medieval Hebrew rhymed prose stories, I developed a session on the history of the illustrations of Ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni, the first-known Hebrew work that was designed by the author to be illustrated. Our holdings are sufficiently extensive to enable me to show the class nearly every premodern edition and the ways in which different illustrators interpreted the text. When teaching a course on Judah Halevi’s poetry, I was able to show the class two autograph Genizah manuscripts of Halevi’s documenting his famous pilgrimage. They were thrilled to find that they could make out the Arabic title (written in Hebrew letters) of the Kuzari in Halevi’s own handwriting!
I almost always devote a session of my liturgical poetry courses to the associated music, inviting a cantor/musicologist who lectures, plays recordings, and demonstrates at the piano. Last year I also invited a performer who specializes in Jewish music of the Near East and Israel to demonstrate Middle Eastern piyyut chants and to address the current piyyut fad in Israel.
I have occasionally organized field trips. For an undergraduate course on Islam and Judaism, I arranged for a trip to the 96th St. Mosque, where the imam kindly met with the class; and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a docent guided us through the collection of Islamic art. I once organized a tour to the Cloisters for students interested in Medieval Studies, again with the guidance of a docent. For an undergraduate class on common motifs in Greek and biblical narratives, I held an after-hours showing of the 1977 film Iphigenia in Aulis (with pizza) to provide an opening for our discussion of the play.