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!
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!
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.
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!
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!