Having primarily taught premodern Jewish history classes in Austria and only recently in the United States, I expected the difficulties of Austrian and American students to be very different due to the presence of Jewish life in the United States versus the lack thereof in Austria. However, the feeling of "foreignness" and "unconnectedness" to both the early modern period and traditional Jewish culture were among the difficulties my students most often expressed in both places.
I encourage all of my students to take their learning outside of the classroom and make the semester a holistic experience by reading firsthand accounts and novels; watching documentaries and movies; listening to Jewish music; visiting Jewish memorial sites, former Jewish neighborhoods, and places of worship; and speaking with friends and family about anything related to Judaism and Jewish history. My Austrian students appreciated this because it gave them an active starting point beyond their academic reading, and they realized their progress as they continually promoted their knowledge outside the classroom. However, for them, this often meant experiencing their direct spatial surroundings or place of origin for the first time as a (formerly) Jewish space and a space of persecution even before the Holocaust, which also caused them to feel uncomfortable. In first writing about and then discussing their experiences in class, their surprise at their own ignorance about these topics helped them articulate their discomfort, coalesce into a group, and advocate for the study of Jewish history.
Obviously, with my American students, I do not have the option of sending them outside the classroom to have immediate experiences of premodern Jewish spaces. "All these places in Europe are so hard for me to imagine. I have never been there," one of my students said this semester. Maps, pictures, and videos can obviously help here, as can early modern travel reports and firsthand accounts such as those of Glikl, Maimon, or Wengeroff. Again and again, students find these accounts stunning and exciting. The most effective method, however, seems to be taking them to see premodern Judaica collections at libraries or museums. Seeing and sometimes even touching Jewish artifacts or writings, from a Torah scroll to Dubnov's Jewish history in Yiddish, from European menorahs to contemporary huppot—this encounter with material culture often does the magic. They gain a more pluralistic and historical view of Judaism and Jewishness and build a connection to the European past they thought at first to be so different and difficult to grasp.
Verena Kasper-Marienberg is assistant professor for Jewish and Early Modern History at North Carolina State University. Before coming to NC State, she taught at the Karl- Franzens-Universität Graz. Her book, 'vor Euer Kayserlichen Mayestät Justiz-Thron.' Die Frankfurter jüdische Gemeinde am Reichshofrat in josephinischer Zeit (1765–1790) (StudienVerlag, 2012), focused on Jewish legal cases at the Supreme Court of the Holy Roman Empire in the eighteenth century and won the Rosl and Paul Arnsberg-Preis, the highest prize given for Jewish Studies in Germany.