What are ways that you find most useful to incorporate sound, images, or other nontextual media into your Jewish Studies classrooms?

Kelly Murphy

Central Michigan University

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.