Judaism in the home, synagogue and classroom

I’m going to practise what I preach: I’m always complaining (only to myself, usually) about learned articles with unnecessarily long words and esoteric references written for serving teachers; because after a long teaching day, a meeting or two, a large helping of marking, a few hundred turns at the Banda, a lesson preparation, audio-visual aiding and the odd extra-curricular activity, I find even the Beano a bit too intellectually demanding. So I’m going to be simple and direct.

Judaism is There

Shap-ers probably need relatively little persuasion to teach a World Faiths syllabus and it does seem that teachers in maintained institutions at least are increasingly venturing into the dark unknown; but I never cease to be amazed by the number of teachers who exclude Judaism from such a programme. This is sometimes because they feel they’ve covered it under Old Testament and, anxious to be objective, fair and balanced, they don’t want to allocate more time-table space to Jewish matters than they might deserve. Or possibly they see World Faiths as a concession to immigrants in the school or the wider society: by this yardstick, Jews wouldn’t qualify for admission to the curriculum.

The OT-only approach tends to relegate Jewish beliefs and behaviour to the dim and distant past (I once saw a secondary pupil’s drawing of Rebecca (I think) entitled A Jewish Lady: to reconcile this with such Jewish ladies as Golda Meir or Barbra Streisand would require excruciating cognitive conflict!). Given that most R.E. teachers are Christian (or, at any rate, post-Christian), it is understandably very tempting to present Judaism as supplanted by the more universal religion of Christianity. But Judaism is universal in its ability to adapt to varied cultures and to accept, but not solicit, converts . . . and then there is the sheer fact of continuing Jewish survival. You see, it’s impossible to do an objective, fair and balanced job on Judaism if you personally hold to a ‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed’ view.

Few of the Jews you or your kids are likely to bump into in your local supermarket or kosher butcher are themselves immigrants. The half a million British Jews as such go unnoticed, as it were, because they’re usually established in housing and employment and don’t seem to be in any crippling social need; but they’re there just the same.

On the positive side, it seems to me that no person can be considered educated unless they are aware of Jewish thought and culture as a dynamic, living presence in today’s world: not just so that they will understand better the Jewishness of Jesus, or the Judaeo bit of Judaeo-Christian civilisation or the religious thrust of Zionism; but so that they might steal for themselves some Jewish strength. Like Everest, Zion asks to be climbed — because it’s there . . .

Stumbling blocks

You may want to devote a block of time to a course on Judaism or involve Jewish things in a thematic scheme, or both. Whatever happens, if you’re also teaching New Testament, which I dearly hope you still are (I know one secondary R.E. teacher who manages a five-year syllabus without mentioning Jesus once!), you’re almost certain to run into the problem of anti-semitism. It is not a theological problem for Jews although its social and political consequences have been painful, but it does pose difficulties for Christians. I personally prefer to use the block approach mainly and initially elicit kids’ preconceived ideas about Jews: references to big noses, miserliness and Nazis are pretty predictable but they are inevitably accompanied by such responses as ‘Jews killed Jesus’; even once, ‘Jews hated God’! And this is where it’s all at! Judaism on its own is relatively straightforward; NT on its own is relatively straightforward. Together — fireworks! Perhaps I’m presuming too much, but I am presuming that you want to present Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . in a positive and, if critical, constructively, appreciatively critical, way. At the very least, not say about them things are not true. I think we have to two-step this: we have to sort out our own attitude to, say, the Pharisees or the trials of Jesus or the parable of the vineyard, and then decide how much of that we can feed to our pupils — and in what way — depending on their stage of intellectual and spiritual development. Most primary teachers would probably not feel they could open up these sorts of issues to any good effect (but that still leaves masses of NT that’s free of vexing historical and exegetical questions), but I can see no reason why even lower secondary pupils should not be introduced to some simple Biblical criticism as part of their NT study. I can think of other grounds for it anyway. To lay my cards on the table, the Christian teacher has a choice: you can continue to teach Gospel truth because your faith requires of you a fundamentalist approach. I would defend your right to be yourself but you must know what price you are paying and what it is costing others. Or you can take risks with NT historicity and develop in yourself and your pupils some intelligent awareness of the origins of Jewish- Christian relations and perhaps, perhaps make some contribution to increased understanding, harmony and acceptance.

The Medium is the Message

One of the saddest things to me abut phenomenological, broad-based approaches is the incredible dullness of style. Teachers who would never dream of using chalk-and-talk all the time in Biblical lessons seem to see nothing wrong with reading from a text-book or dictating notes in the area of World Faiths. This may well be because of the time involved in preparing oneself mentally and materially for new stuff and it does take a while to feel confident with a new curriculum. But we are now bar/bat mitzvah and I would like us to carry over more of the exciting, imaginative and emotionally involving methods from new Biblical studies.

Just because we’re not doing a comparative course, it doesn’t mean we have to teach all religions in the same way. Why must we be slaves to the standard pattern (life of the founder — historical development — geographical spread — main beliefs — worship and ritual — customs, etc) when this may not be true to every religious system we want to explore and may not allow its essential features, which transcend this scheme, to shine through? Why not decide which elements we want to include and arrange them with a fluency they have in reality even if this defies our artificial logic? Why not choose a central concept (like self for Buddhists . . . home for Jews . . .) and organise around it?

It’s perhaps a truism to say that we all learn from the how as well as from the what. So teach Islam in a Muslim way. Teach Judaism in a Jewish way. There’s no actual Hebrew word for religion. Use songs, blessings, discussion, ritual actions, stories, food and lots of humour because these are how Jews communicate. Be Jewish about your Judaism course.

Jewish Survival Kit

Turning the classroom into a Jewish community for at least some lessons (of course formal teaching has its value) can take several forms: home on Shabat or Yom Tov; a yeshiva debating vociferously in pairs or small groups some burning issue of the day; an immigrant absorption centre in Israel; if you’re brave, a bet din considering a candidate for conversion, adoption, divorce; a synagogue/kibbutz activities committee; if no one feels they’re being got at, a short service such as shachrit; or more open-endedly, an imaginary huddle of Jews in, say, Somerset who want to meet for prayer, study and society and are considering their priorities. The point is that these things are not only informative, challenging and useful fun but they are also things that Jews do.

We like to have a Friday evening meal together (even if our lesson has to be on a Monday morning). We light candles, we make kiddush, we eat hallah and other goodies, we sing zemirot, we sometimes even talk about what the weekly Torah portion means to us. For 40 minutes we are as Jewish as is humanly possible. And we remember it for always (‘I’d never thought of candles like that before’; ‘Ribena will never be the same again, Ms.!’). Because there are no Jewish sacraments, this has the added advantage of not treading on anyone’s doctrinal or ritual toes. It does need thoughtful preparation and several items of Jewish junk: if you can’t beg, borrow or improvise these, work on specialists among your colleagues. Persuade the Home Economist to show the young how to bake hallot (or other specialities) and to sew a cover for them; or the Metalwork teacher to fashion a kiddush cup (or seder plate or whatever); or the Music department to teach them melodies. The degree of cooperation possible with another depart- ment will depend on the extent to which these services rendered can employ specific skills that they would want to train anyway. My school’s Art department at the moment is busy demonstrating how to make mock stained glass windows (out of coloured tissue paper or with felt tips on overhead transparencies) which will employ menorahs, vines and the like, suitable for a synagogue.

You can buy ready-made Jewish kits but the ones I’ve seen have been expensive to buy and cheap to look at. Home-made ones seem more authentic and dignified. One of our most loved articles is a well-prayed-in tallit that had been left in a London synagogue before living memory and which they were happy to turn over to us for demonstration purposes. It’s a privilege to handle because it’s obviously been through such a lot.

By all means make a model of a synagogue but try to go to a service in one, geography permitting. I find it’s better if the monsters can go without me, if they’re not too shy: they certainly benefit more without me around. The first time I took some third years to a Reform shul, I learned my lesson well. So indoctrinated was I with my own fear of indoctrination, it obviously didn’t occur to me that they might actually want to get anything out of it. After the service, they attacked me with righteous indignation: ‘It was brill, Ms., but you never told us we wouldn’t be able to sing . . .‘ The songs were in Hebrew and they could only la la. So now they take along transliterations and join in off-key.

If you can, celebrate one of the annual festivals, whichever happens at your course’s season. If there’s enough time and energy, an individual group project on an aspect that particularly interests them is well worth the anguish it’ll cause you.

Suffering Servant of R.E.

There are experiences of another kind: I don’t want you to think for one moment that this is all rewards and no punishments. As if it didn’t hurt enough to do R.E. at all, doing Judaism Jewishly is a sure recipe for suffering. Not everything can be enacted joyously and there are tricky, sophisticated questions that deserve straight answers: What’s wrong with pork? Do Jews believe in heaven? Why all the fuss abut a scroll? What’s that prayer all about? What are those funny head-boxes for? Why did Hitler hate them? Do all Jews want to live in Israel? By trial and error, my monsters and I have found a few ways of sorting some of these out. Books don’t always help so we’ve sometimes looked within ourselves for human responses:

There’s nothing wrong with pork until we examine our own food taboos and see that kashrut is a formula which can be applied in any gastronomic situation (I often start by describing the fried cat and honeyed ants I’d had for breakfast with a cup of daisy tea, and waiting for the sounds of ‘Ugh!’) If you read the Kaddish and say it’s a special prayer — What’s the occasion? — I bet they don’t guess death because there are no references to it and it seems so full of praise: quite a helpful starting-point for a discussion on the Jewish attitude to death and the afterlife. Writing love stories and poems about the eternal triangle of God-Torah-Israel gives considerable insight into the role of the scroll. The Ten Sayings (slightly different from the Christian version of the Ten Commandments) or the Shema or indeed any Jewish prayer are interesting to break into bits: if everyone draws their understanding of one bit and if these are mounted together, you get a sharing of minds that is truly a collective discovery. I myself have never managed to channel prejudice role play successfully, but there is a great deal of literature about the persecution of Jews — as well as Zionism — much of which is suitable for children and teenagers. Prevail upon your school librarian and English department.

When in despair, don’t! Rabbis can be wonderful but they do tend to hang out in synagogues and if there isn’t one within shouting distance (nor a University Jewish Society) and no Jew in your school to wheel in at appropriate moments, and you don’t want to write or phone for help (to the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Education Bureau, the Jewish National Fund . . .); well, then, go ahead — despair! But really, it isn’t very Jewish!

You are not able to complete the task. Neither are you free to refrain from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Back to top