Class update - Juniors, December 2009

The December juniors class, organized around a Hanukkah theme, focused on the ways that historical explanation can differently inform how contemporary Jews celebrate and think about the holiday. Class started off with a game of dreidel; students played for gelt and had a chance to re-familiarize themselves with some Hebrew letters. Then the class worked to solve a riddle that engaged them in thinking about how the Hebrew letters on the dreidel connect to the rest of the Hebrew alphabet; taking the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” the celebrated acronym that takes the dreidel-letters as its basis, they used phonetic principles to spell the words out in Hebrew, and employed a glossary of terms to discover that this phrase translates as “A great miracle happened here.” They discussed the significance of this phrase to the standard retelling of the Hanukkah story and its ‘miracle of lights,’ and then moved on to some theater activities. Two groups of students read two different accounts of the Hanukkah story–one a traditional retelling of the Maccabees’ triumph over Greek oppressors, while the other (supported by most contemporary scholars) an account suggesting that the Maccabees were actually involved in a civil war with more assimilated, Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem (and King Antiochus just intervened). Each group created a mini-play about their version of the Hanukkah story and presented it to the class, and their performances became a springboard for discussion about the reasons one historical explanation might be promoted by Jewish people as opposed to another, more historically true, explanation. The lesson finished with rehearsal and final planning time for the Hanukkah play “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”

Class Summary, Juniors - November 2009

At the November Or Emet Sunday school session, the 5th-8th grade class learned about Hasidic Jewish history, culture, and presence in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Students read a newspaper article together about the conflicts that have emerged between Hasidic Jews and Puerto Ricans, long-time residents of this neighborhood, and the recent influx of artists and hipster-types fleeing Manhattan for the cheaper rents and lively creative scene that have come to define Williamsburg. After discussing the article and talking a little about gentrification, the class created a large-scale drawing of the Williamsburg neighborhood, illustrating the different communities that live there, their homes, businesses, et cetera and their needs, interests, and conflicts. After the break, students continued discussing plans for a service-learning project, identifying doing work around hunger as the most important focus in their eyes. We made a decision together to volunteer at a food pantry/soup kitchen and to do some associated study/learning around issues of hunger; parents, I’ll be proposing some possible dates for a trip in December/January in an upcoming email. The class will also be participating in the November 22 rehearsals at Articulture, working on a presentation of our group’s Hanukkah play.

Class Summary, Juniors - October 2009

The Or Emet juniors’ class spent last session learning about Crypto-Jews (better known to some as Marranos), Jewish people who publicly converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition to avoid death or expulsion from Spain but continued to maintain Jewish faith/observe Jewish customs in secret.

Students read accounts from the modern-day descendants of these crypto-Jews living in Mexico and the American Southwest, discovering the clever ways in which their ancestors disguised and passed down Jewish traditions for hundreds of years in spite of the ever-constant threat of persecution. They discussed the similarities and differences between these accounts, and then spent some time thinking about how, if they were to live through something like the Inquisition, they might go about disguising and secretly maintaining some aspect of Jewish culture/tradition that is important to them. Then the class all came together to write and perform a skit about a modern-day kid who discovers he comes from a family of Crypto-Jews, engaging in lively discussion about how the kid would have found out this secret heritage as well as how he might feel about the discovery. In addition to all of this work, students helped decorate the school’s Sukkah panel and assemble their own class’s paper-cut panel, also learning a bit about how Crypto-Jews celebrated Sukkot. Harold came and gave a brief talk for prospective bar/bat mitzvah students, and the class wrapped up the session by initiating the brainstorming process for a future service-learning project.

Class summary - Juniors, September 2009

We kicked off the first Or Emet class of the year with some time for students to get [re]acquainted, and then I introduced the theme that will guide our classes for the year–the idea of ‘being Jewish today.’ I presented the idea that, particularly as Humanistic Jews, it is important for us to explore and consider all the different ways a person can be Jewish in the world today, that this gives us a way to think about Jewishness that moves beyond a focus on God or history alone. After hearing the focus for the day–‘being a Jewish-American today’–students played a trivia game in teams where they guessed the answers to questions about Jewish-Americans, their beliefs, most popular holidays observed, the intermarriage rate, et cetera. When the game was over, we talked about the answers to the questions (the statistics all came from the National Jewish Population Survey in 2000), and students discussed what was interesting to them, what surprised them, and what seemed to connect to their own experiences. After a break to eat apples and honey and hear Sam blow the shofar, we came back to class and watched two short clips of Jewish comedians from different eras addressing the topic of intermarriage (we looked at the dinner scene from Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, and a Sarah Silverman stand-up bit from the film Jesus is Magic). Students discussed what was funny about the clips in small groups, talking about their similarities and differences and making connections to the statistics we looked at earlier. We wrapped up with an art activity, learning about Jewish paper-cut art, its historical use in decorating sukkahs, etc. in Europe and the US, and made some paper-cuts of our own while discussing a pen pal opportunity and ideas for service/social justice projects.