Juniors Class Summary--September 22, 2013

It was great to see students back in the Juniors class, and we kicked off our year of studying modern Jewish history with a fun and interactive lesson focused on modern Yiddish literature. After greetings and a game of Jewish Cultural School name bingo, students gave feedback on the kinds of topics and activities they are interested in having incorporated into lessons this year. Then they listened to a short presentation on the history of Yiddish literature, reviewing the origins of Yiddish and learning about the Yiddish renaissance writers who wrote stories, in the people’s language, that empathetically told of the sorrows, joys, and struggles of ordinary Ashkenazi Jewish people. After a short break, students returned to the classroom to learn some Hebrew vocabulary for the Sukkot holiday and sing a classic Yiddish holiday song called “A Sikele, a Kleyne” with Sarah. Next, the class split into small groups, and each group read a short story in translation by Shalom Aleichem or I.L. Peretz, two classic Yiddish writers. After talking over some discussion questions related to their stories, each group worked to create a puppet show retelling their assigned story using a set of provided paper puppets cut out from images of Marc Chagall paintings, early 20th century shtetl photos, et cetera. Groups performed their puppet shows for each other and offered their perspectives on the big ideas that the stories raised. To round out the day’s lesson, we headed downstairs and created some leaf cut-outs for a decorative banner for Or Emet’s sukkah. It was a fun, action-packed morning!

Juniors Class Summary--May 19, 2013

During the May JCS session, Juniors class students joined in a school-wide Israeli dance program and then took part in classroom activities to celebrate and reflect on the year’s learning. The dance program, led by visiting specialist Shira Schwartz, gave students and adults the opportunity to “travel through Israel” through an interactive combination of singing, dancing, and theater. After a short break, Juniors gathered with the students from other classes in the Middles classroom to review the aleph-bet and “Zum Gali Gali” along with Sarah. Then the Juniors moved to their regular classroom to sign “JCS yearbooks,” autographing and writing messages on the covers of each other’s packets of music/Hebrew sheets from the past year’s lessons. After “yearbook signing,”  “Jewish History Wax Museum” presentations began. Based on their independent research, students took turns presenting in the characters of Jewish historical figures from the “middle period” in Jewish history that formed the focus of their study this year. Finally, the class returned to the gym to watch Kulanu, Shira Schwartz’s intergenerational dance group, perform for the congregation. Thanks, Juniors students, for making this a year filled with learning and fun!

Juniors Class Summary--April 21, 2013

In April, students in the Juniors class focused on learning about different Jewish spiritual/intellectual movements that emerged between the Inquisition and the late 18th century. After discussing Baruch Spinoza’s life and ideas a bit further, the class reviewed some basic Hebrew with Sarah and learned to sing “Waters of Babylon” in a round. Afterward, students worked with partners to complete a worksheet that reinforced and developed their knowledge of Jewish history between 1492 and 1789 CE. Then the class took a short break and, after returning, students split into small groups to read stories connected to four of the main Jewish intellectual/spiritual movements to emerge between 1492 and 1789—Kabbalah/mysticism, messianism, Hasidism, and the Haskalah. They considered what each story taught them about the movement it represented, and discussed the pluses and minuses of each movement/belief system. Finally, after looking at some early modern Jewish political cartoons and propaganda art, students imagined that they, too, were alive during this era and created posters to either promote or discredit their respective movement in the eyes of other Jewish people of the time period.

Juniors Class Summary--March 24, 2013

In March, the Juniors class concentrated on preparing for Passover as well as learning about the life and philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, one of Humanistic Judaism’s most significant intellectual forebears. After sharing their favorite Passover foods/traditions and participating in an ice-breaker game, students listened to a brief talk focused on Baruch Spinoza, his Marrano ancestry and position within Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jewish community of the 1500s, and this community’s response to Spinoza’s heretical ideas. Sarah Berman-Young arrived next to present the day’s music and Hebrew lesson, and students worked along with her to review the Hebrew vocabulary of the Seder plate and practice singing “Ma Nishtana” (aka the Four Questions). After singing, the class returned to Spinoza, divvying up roles and acting out two scenes from John A. Gunn’s 1932 play, Spinoza, The Maker of Lenses, to better acquaint themselves with the philosopher’s life and ideas as well as the controversies that surrounded him. Performance concluded, students reflected briefly on the play and then turned their attention to reading short selections from Baruch Spinoza’s The Ethics and A Theologico-Political Treatise. Selections touched on Spinoza’s ideas about determinism and relativism, God as a dispassionate force synonymous with nature, the foundations of a free and democratic state, and the Torah as a document compiled by ancient Jewish historians instead of the actual word of God as received by Moses. Students explained the meaning of their assigned selections to each other in their own words. Finally, the morning wrapped up with a fun opportunity for everyone to write their first letter to their assigned SHJ pen pal!

Juniors Class Summary--February 24, 2013

During the February session, the Juniors class turned its focus to the Spanish Inquisition and its connections to the holiday of Purim. Students listened to a brief talk about the history of the Inquisition, learning how, just as Haman tried to get rid of the Jews in Persia in the ancient Purim story, during the late 1400s and early 1500s CE powerful people sought to eliminate the Jewish presence in Spain. The class also learned that just as Esther conceals her Jewishness in the Purim story, during the Inquisition many Jews hid their Jewishness and pretended to be Catholic in order to save their lives, while many Jewish people also acted as bravely and courageously as Esther and her uncle Mordechai to save the lives of other Jews. After playing a quick warm-up game of “The Big Wind Blows,” students selected partners and split into pairs to read The Cardinal’s Snuffbox, a choose-your-own-adventure story set during the Spanish Inquisition. Partners worked together to read and make choices about what the story’s main character, a Sephardic Jewish young person, ought to do when faced with all kinds of dangers and difficult decisions. After partners had the chance to read through a couple of different storylines, the class regrouped and discussed the different things, good and bad, that had befallen their character based on the choices that they made. Students reflected on what it would have been like to live during this difficult time in history, and shared the kinds of choices that they, as Jewish people, would have made. The discussion closed with a chance for the class to reflect on the positive as well as the negative qualities that the Inquisition brought out in people, and students brainstormed ways that horrible events like it could be prevented in the future. Finally, students listened to a recording of a Purim song called “El testamento de Aman” (“Haman’s Will”) from a Sephardic Jewish community in Morocco, following the lyrics in Ladino and translation and briefly discussing the song’s connection to the Purim story and the Sephardic Jewish experience. The lesson concluded, the Juniors headed downstairs to have lots of fun at the Purim carnival!

Juniors Class Summary--January 27, 2013

The January session of the Juniors class focused on exploring the three main philosophies/ways of thinking about life and religion that Jewish people in the Sephardi and Mizrahi world developed during the Middle Ages. After opening with a brief opportunity for students to reflect on Tu B’Shevat and their own concerns about the environment, the class listened to a short talk that outlined these three primary philosophies–traditionalist, rationalist, and Kabbalist–and reinforced their connection to the holiday of Tu B’Shevat (which, with its focus on Israeli fruits and a “New Year for the Trees” that happens at a time when places like Minnesota are covered in snow, is very much connected to the Middle Eastern Jewish experience). Then Sarah came in to lead the regular Hebrew and music lesson, and students learned some Tu B’Shevat-appropriate Hebrew vocabulary for fruits, grains, etc (like “rimon,” meaning pomegranate) and sang the Israeli pioneer-farmer song “Zum Gali Gali” in rounds. Students returned then to their earlier discussion, and to learn more about traditional Jewish philosophy, they took part in a Talmudic-style debate about a real question from the Talmud–is it right for someone to remove rocks from their field and pile them on public land? Students debated the question in teams, and then reflected on how traditional Jewish philosophy agreed with their own judgement that public land must be protected and respected for the good of all. Next, after considering some ways that they didn’t agree with traditional Jewish philosophy, the class moved to consider the rationalist philosophy–exemplified by Maimonides–that grew out of medieval Jewish interest in science. However, instead of using rationalism to support religious ideas, students took turns coming up with rational explanations for ‘miraculous’ events described in the Torah. Finally, to learn more about Kabbalah, or Jewish mystical philosophy, students collaborated on a creative fill-in-the-blanks activity that required them to draw or act out missing words in a short reading about the kabbalist origins of the Tu B’Shevat seder and kabbalist ideas about spheres of energy, divinity, and tikkun olam. Students closed the day by joining in the Or Emet Tu B’Shevat seder.

Juniors Class Summary--December 2, 2012

The Juniors class spent the December session focused mostly on Hanukkah. Students opened the class by sharing sentences that included Yiddish terms like “gelt” and “shvitsn” that they learned at the previous session. Then, after briefly reviewing the history of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora, they listened to a short talk on the subject of Ashkenazi Jewish folklore and folk heroes that introduced them to the character of Hershel of Ostropol–a famous prankster figure celebrated in Ashkenazi stories for his skill in outwitting the rich and powerful, and whose exploits are based on those of a real person who lived in 18th century Ukraine. Students took turns reading aloud the story Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, breaking in the middle for a lesson with Sarah where they learned to sing the classic Yiddish song “Oy, Chanukah.” After returning to the book and finishing their reading, students took a snack break and then turned their attention to a short play script based on the Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins story, choosing roles and, after a brief round of auditions, voting to select the play’s lead. Once all roles were assigned, the class rehearsed the short play twice and brainstormed simple costuming ideas. The lesson closed with a class discussion that touched on the ways that Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins can be read as an allegory for the Ashkenazi Jewish struggle against antisemitism, and students shared their knowledge about antisemitism, their experiences with it, and thoughts about how best to respond to it. After a morning by turns joyously lively and more thoughtful, the Juniors left the classroom prepared to sing “Oy, Chanukah” and perform their play at the upcoming Or Emet Hanukkah party.

Juniors Class Summary--November 4, 2012

During the November lesson, the Juniors class shifted its focus to the beginnings of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. After playing a warm-up game of Jewish food-themed Pictionary, students listened to a short lecture that touched on the founding of Jewish communities in Europe by traders about 1500 years ago, the development of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Jewish religious and cultural life, and the ways that Jewish life and migrations in Europe were shaped by antisemitism and economic pressure. To familiarize themselves more with Yiddish and become aware of the Yiddish words already a part of their daily vocabulary, the class split into teams and played a matching game that required students to transliterate Yiddish terms like “shtetl” and “oy vey” with the aid of Yiddish alphabet guides and then match them with their definitions. Sarah came after the game ended to teach everyone to sing the classic Yiddish folk song “Tumbalalaika.” Then, to prepare students for the last portion of the lesson, she taught the class some Hebrew vocabulary focused on cooking and kitchens. Students spent their last hour working together to cook two classic Ashkenazi dishes—potato knishes and carrot tsimmes—and then sampled the tasty results!

Juniors Class Summary--October 7, 2012

The October session of the Juniors class focused on the history of the so-called Jewish “Golden Age” in Spain and North Africa. After introducing themselves to the day’s visitor and sharing their Jewish New Year’s resolutions, students reviewed the history of the diaspora covered in the previous session and split into two groups. Each group read a short excerpt from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People: From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present that focused on an aspect of this “Golden Age”; one group’s reading described how Jewish people welcomed the advent of Muslim rule in the region in 711 CE because of the increased tolerance and freedom this rule afforded Jews, while the other group’s reading focused on the spiritual/philosophical and literary achievements made by Jewish people during this age of increased freedom and prosperity. Each group worked to summarize what they learned and then shared their summaries with the larger group. Next, students looked briefly at a poem by “Golden Age” poet Samuel bin Nagrela (aka Shmuel HaNagid) and, using it as inspiration, wrote original poems from the perspective of imaginary Jewish people alive during this historical era. Many of the poems touched on the idea of ‘convivencia,’ or coexistence, which is the term that people who study the “Golden Age” use to characterize relationships between Jews, Muslims, and Christians during this time-period. After some students shared their poems with the larger group, the class took a break to eat snack and help decorate the year’s sukkah panel.

When students returned to the classroom after their break, they learned about the important “Golden Age” Jewish thinker Maimonides and his ideas about tzedakah. They studied his “Ladder of Tzedakah” and discussed whether they had ever achieved its highest rung–helping a person to become self-sufficient. Students then selected prepared tzedakah boxes and began to paint them (using acrylic paint as well as matte medium to affix Maimonides’s Ladder of Tzedakah to each box), drawing inspiration from photos of the patterns found in “Golden Age” synagogue decorations. As they painted, students reflected on how they might fill their tzedakah boxes and where they would devote the money that they collected. Hebrew and music teacher Sarah Berman-Young popped in to play some Sephardic-style music while students worked. After class, many students and their families attended the Or Emet Sukkot party!

Juniors Class Summary--September 9, 2012

The Juniors class got off to a great start this session! Students introduced themselves to old friends and newer faces and played a game where they had the opportunity to guess fun Jewish facts (favorite traditions, Hebrew names, etc) about their classmates. Then, veteran JCS-ers explained to newcomers the things that make Or Emet and Humanistic Judaism unique.

Students next spent a short time reviewing the biblical/ancient Jewish historical topics that they studied last year, and then prepared to begin this year’s study of the Jewish diaspora unfolding from the fall of the Second Temple through the early 1800s. (Note–the history of Jewish diaspora from the late 1800s until the modern day will be the focus of inquiry next year.) To visualize this Jewish diaspora, students began by sharing snippets of family history and marking the places that their Jewish ancestors came from with stickers on a world map. They discussed the geographic patterns that emerged on the map, and then read an excerpt from a Jewish history book for YA readers that summarizes the history of the Jewish people and their movements/migrations through the late 18th century.

After break and a Hebrew and music lesson with Sarah (where students learned a song about eating apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah as well as the traditional melody “B’rosh Hashanah”), students returned to the reading that they completed before break. Focusing on different sections in small groups, they cut out arrows to describe different stages of movement in the Jewish diaspora and affixed them to the world map. After, students studied this map and discussed how their new understanding of Diaspora history helped them to make sense of the patterns that they saw in their classmates’ Jewish family origins. Class ended with a combination cake walk-trivia game which gave students the chance to explore High Holidays traditions from around the Jewish diaspora. Highlights included sampling teiglach, pastry nuggets cooked in honey that are a Lithuanian-Jewish Rosh Hashanah specialty, and listening to Kol Nidre sung in Moroccan-Jewish style.