Culture, Politics

3000 Years = One Semester

I am teaching Jewish history in its entirety in the course of one semester. I’ve created a syllabus, arranged an anthology of major texts and met my students. As we speak, we dwell in the Rabbinic period, discussing Hekhalot mysticism, Roman imperialism and halacha. Now I engage in a small cyberspace experiment.
If you had to condense Jewish History, Culture and Ideas into a one-semester undergraduate seminar, which events, ruptures and continuities would you stress? Your students have little background, and for many this is their first introduction to Jewish culture. Some bring Islamic and Christian education with them, others are interested in understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do I construct a narrative that leads students from the Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible to a present in which diasporic Jewish identity is oriented towards modern Israel, and how do I emphasize divergent expressions of Jewish identity in a time of astonishing conformity?

13 thoughts on “3000 Years = One Semester

  1. I had to do the same thing last semester (and even more ridiculous: JewStudies is not even my field). While it is both a daunting and impossible task to cram over 3,000 years into 16 weeks, I felt the students walked away with a general understanding of some of the major historical and cultural issues at hand. If you want, I can send you the syllabus. It’s one thing to have a 2 or 3 semester overview of Jewish history, or Jewish philosophy. Even that would be limiting. My department has me do the very same thing with film, and even the ~100 years’ worth of material is too much for a one-semester intro class. They’re probably just trying to save money, but ‘cramming’ is to the students’ detriment.

  2. my professor stuck to the theme of exile and redemption… from adam and eve getting expelled from the garden of eden up to the creation of the state of israel. a lot of jewish history can be viewed through these goggles.

  3. Excellent question. Some options:
    Unity vs. Disunity
    Relationship with state power over time (our own, and that of others)
    Nationality vs. Religious community

  4. I would absolutely focus on Medieval Spain, the Sephardi/Ashkenazi split, following into the Crusades and the Inquisition. Much of modern Jewish religious practice owes to this period.
    What I would avoid is the “Shelilat haGalut” trope. Most of Jewish history happened outside the Land, and it would be foolhardy to dismiss it as simply a transitional phase between two periods in the Land.

  5. I would focus on using a story-telling system for each period and follow a few themes throughout the history (some good ones have already been suggested – I would add ‘relationship to other nations’ since understanding the complex feelings of jewish distinctiveness are key to understanding ideas like “chosen people”, zionism, assimilation, and jewish societal involvement).
    I think adding the story telling aspect (almost like a people’s history) would add the necessary context for each period.

  6. you’d have to start with theories of origin (biblical vs. newer archeologically based ones), and discuss that for a few days, but really i’d say Jewish history (as opposed to Israelite-Caananite) has to really begin with the Babylonian Exile.

  7. I’m working on almost exactly the same project. I’ll post my own thoughts when I have time to write them up, but for now I’m excited to see what other creative suggestions exist in jewschool land.

  8. I am currently teaching an intro to Judaism course, which I felt was even more daunting than strictly Jewish history. I’ve only finished the first unit, so I’m not sure yet how successful it is, but it’s going well so far. I divided the semester into four historical units: ancient, late antiquity, medieval and modern. in each unit i address the themes and topics of historical background, texts, theology, holy days and ritual. The goal is to see how things and concepts evolve over time. for example, talking about holy days in ancient period we looked at the biblical texts about the pilgrimage festivals, where you can see some evolution within the Torah as well as 1 Macc 4. It was clear especially in the case of Hanukkah that the well-known oil story is a development of the rabbinic period, but the ancient holiday has its origin in Maccabees. in the modern period things get a little messier since the world and jewish experience gets so much bigger, but I address things like movements under the theoloy, etc.

  9. 1) Is beesh serious or the best comedian I have heard in a long time?
    2) What context is this course being taught? Undergrad?
    3) I was talking the other day with a friend who was saying that she was disappointed with her Jewish Civilization class when she was in University because the prof gave a historical account of where the Jews were and how they lived their lives and she had wanted to learn for example why the seder ended up the seder. The other thing she said was that the Jews in the class were annoying because they thought they knew stuff when in fact only really knew their own experience as modern Jews.
    4) While I know universities frown on strict constructivist education at lower levels but might it be worth while posing this question the first day of the course to your students. What does it mean to condense this topic into one semester? What do you think you should learn? What do you want to learn?

  10. I’m with Jladi. I think there’s too much emphasis on history and historical connections (exile, yada yada) and less on ideological movements. It’s not hard to overview the history of the world in 90 minutes – make those the first 90 minutes of the semester, and then you get to talk about the seder for the rest.

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