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October 10, 2013 - Image 31

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-10-10

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Night from page 30


In high school, my students analyzed Night with
all the making, frustration and compromise removed.
Looking back, they recalled their own frustration:
Jenny: "I remember falling asleep more than once
when I read Night the first time. I was extremely bored
by it. I didn't feel any connection. I felt bad for them,
sure, but by the end of the book, I didn't think, 'Man,
that was sad!' I thought, 'THANK GOD IT'S OVER
Not the Holocaust. The book"
Stuart: "I hated reading Night. Here are some of the
questions we had to answer: (1) Who said 'such-and-
such' on page 23?" (2) What is the symbolism of the
broken violin? It was all surface. Most students relied
on Sparknotes rather than reading
Don: "Bits and pieces, pieces and bits. Not a survivor
trying to tell us something in whatever ways he could.
The book was attached to an author, but the author
was beside the point. I mean, his real purposes and
efforts were beside the point"
Literary technique is obviously important. But
divorcing technique from intent — from "real pur-
poses and efforts" — does its own violence. Without
some sense of the making, there are only fragments of
a thing made: different bits and pieces, and different
kinds of soup.
Perhaps we academics are to blame. We warn so
often against emotionally self-indulgent and intel-
lectually vacuous Holocaust courses that we forget to
add that pure intellectualism is equally vacuous. There
are important exceptions. Historian Saul Friedlander
insists that retelling mass murder should not be aca-
demic business as usual. Victims' own efforts to retell
can "tear through seamless interpretation and pierce
the (mostly involuntary) smugness of scholarly detach-
ment and 'objectivity"'
The point is that learning about the Holocaust is
largely about unlearning. It is about challenging what
we think we know and what we habitually do. Leon,
the survivor who spoke of "making a story" for what
is "not a story" also insisted that a "who when where"
recitation "violates the essence of my experience of the
Holocaust; it robs it of what is most important:'
Rather, a meaningful account "touches on all our
philosophic questions, all questions of purpose, of
right and wrong, of justice, of God. Is a world that
permits Auschwitz a proper place to raise a family?
Should there even be a future? And how does one
begin to approach it? How do you describe it, in any
meaningful way?"
Every survivor I have interviewed, now over four
decades, asks some version of these questions. Equally
important, they expect us to join them in that ask-
ing. Some might assume that issues like these are too
encompassing for young people. On the contrary, it is
exactly such questions that young people ask all the
time. That is the reason they sign up for courses like
mine, and that is what they expect will be discussed
when they read memoirs like Night.
It is September, and I have started with a new class.
We will not spend time on how often Wiesel uses the
metaphor of night or who said what on p. 23. Rather,
we will work to engage, as deeply as possible, the
questions that Wiesel himself is asking. And which I
already know the students are asking as well.

Henry Greenspan is the author of On Listening to

Holocaust Survivors: Beyond Testimony and has been

teaching about the Holocaust for more than 30 years at

the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

How Jewish
Education Can
Make Us The
'Choosing People'

A bar mitzvah at the Western Wall.



We must inspire them to question, to think critically
'II never forget the words of my Hebrew school
and, most of all, to know how to engage in a conversa-
teacher: "While we may have once been the
tion that started 3,000 years ago and will continue
Chosen People, now we are the Choosing People."
– with their voices as part of that conversation – for
This has been a guiding principle throughout all my
thousands more. Good education should be about
teaching children how to have an active voice in their
years as an educator, one that has accompanied me
from my tenure in the Soviet Jewry movement in the
own communities and the community at large.
"Forming, norming, storming and performing" is
1980s and early '90s right up until my present-day
position as the director of America's oldest Zionist
a phrase we use in staff training coined to demon-
youth movement, Young Judaea.
strate the trajectory of the educational process. All
This time of the year is all about evaluating ourselves too often, our formative years are hijacked by the
as the "Choosing People." What choices have
educational system's attempts to "normal-
I made this past year, and did those choices
ize" us – usually resulting in a predictable
impact the world I live in positively or nega-
outcome. But in experiential education –
tively? As Jews, we must also ask ourselves
that is, all education that is non-formal – a
what choices we've made as a community
stage called "storming" happens and is
– in particular, what educational choices we
• often even encouraged somewhere along
have offered to our community members.
the line. Storming refers to the extraordi-
The sad fact is, when it comes to deciding
nary events in a youth's life that ultimately
the best way to impart Jewish values onto
make the most impact and that lead to
the next generation, the writing on the wall
optimal "performing."
indicates that the choices we have made as a
Sadly, many of today's educators are
community have often been the wrong ones.
afraid of the uncertainty of "storming" –
Mass exoduses from Jewish institutions
seeing it as a rebellion or rejection of our
after the age of bar or bat mitzvah point
community's norms – and prefer instead to
to a disturbing issue – that far too many decide that
stick to a rigid curriculum. Rather, storming should
their Jewish learning is done, at least from the per-
be seen as a great educational opportunity – as a
spective of formal education. The question is why.
challenge that we can engage with and bring our
Part of the answer has to do with the pedagogy
students into the process as full actors and not as
behind many of our educational institutions. Too
passive recipients. After all, our very name as a
much of it is either spoonfed or else with too much
people "Yisra-El" is "to struggle." What an amaz-
focus on handed-down Jewish practice like rituals.
ingly empowering message with lifelong resonance to
Too much emphasis is on the "what Jews do" instead teach our youth.
of the "why Jews do." As leadership trainer Simon
As educators, we need to find ways to take what
Sinek points out: "Those who know their Why are the
happens in an educational environment that is more
ones who lead. They are the ones who inspire."
personal (such as the relationship between counselor
Too often throughout my career I have interviewed
and chanich, camper, at a summer camp) and bring
candidates for critically important educator posi-
it into our classrooms. And in the world of informal
tions, only to be met with blank faces when I ask
education, we need to better adapt cognitive skill
them, "Why does being Jewish matter to the average
development (utilized by master teachers in the
American Jew anymore?"
classroom) to better equip students with the knowl-
Ultimately, graduates of the American Jewish
edge and tools to engage fully in the ancient and
educational system come no closer to answering the
contemporary community dialogue.
question, why be Jewish? This is because Judaism
We need to allow for probing and inquiry, and not
is taught in a vacuum, where one's Jewish identity
sweep the gray areas under the carpet. We need to
is entirely separate from the rest of one's identity.
make our children secure in their Judaism so that
Instead, children should be inculcated with the ideas
one day they'll take pride in it. We do this by first
and knowledge that allow their Jewish identity to not
injecting the inspiration and only then teaching the
only function in a wider environment, but also serve
particulars – not the other way around.
to enhance that environment.
Let's hope that 5774 ushers a new dawn for Jewish
Our students should grow up believing that their
education, one that will see as many kids and their
Judaism has added value for the rest of their lives –
families opt to go on waiting lists for Jewish schools
not just until they're done with their bar or bat mitzvah.
as they currently do for summer camps. In order
Children – and especially tweens and teens – have to be the "Choosing People," the least our children
a more nuanced understanding of the world; for
deserve is to be presented with real, compelling
them, things aren't as black and white as some edu-
cators might have you think. Children are far more
ready to understand the gray areas than we give
Simon Klarfeld is the executive director of Young Judaea,
them credit for.
America's oldest Zionist youth movement.

October 10 • 2013


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