Dreaming of an Inclusive History

Web page about Gertrude Elion from JWA.org
Web page from JWA.org

By Judith Rosenbaum

Michael Steinhardt has a dream, and it happens to be one that I share: a vision of a Jewish educational curriculum that is relevant and engaging, one that is rooted in “a history that we can see ourselves in, rather than a history that leaves us out” (Steinhardt, “The Future of Jewish Day Schools,” April 14, 2016).

As a Jewish historian, as well as a Day School graduate and current Day School parent, I agree that Jewish education is most effective when it not only instills text skills and knowledge of Jewish practice and ritual but also models how Jews can engage meaningfully in their own tradition and in the wider, multicultural community. I agree with Steinhardt that modern Jewish history serves as a powerful tool for this kind of education – and I also believe it currently gets short shrift in most Jewish educational settings, which prioritize history only insofar as it relates to the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel.

But in identifying the gaps in far too many current Jewish curricula, Steinhardt also reenacts another familiar blind spot in the Jewish story. His examples of those secular achievers who should be included in the Jewish story are numerous and include scientists and musicians, winners of the Nobel Prize and of Grammys. And yet they all share an obvious likeness … they are all white men.

For whom, then, is this proposed curriculum, based on a history in which “we” can see “ourselves”? Steinhardt clearly understands the educational power of seeing oneself reflected in a curriculum, but seems to miss how fundamentally alienating it is to encounter an inclusive pronoun that so obviously does not include you. Frankly put, we can’t possibly fulfill the ambitious goal of engagement that Steinhardt puts forward with a curriculum that purports to reflect modern experience but leaves out more than 50% of the population. And it is especially important that the modern stories we incorporate into Jewish education contain the voices and experiences of women, because those voices are left out of the religious texts that still comprise a great deal of Jewish curricula and are almost entirely male in perspective.

The Jewish Women’s Archive offers the kinds of curricular resources that Steinhardt recommends because we share his belief that modern texts and stories make a powerful case for the relevance of Jewish conversation and community, and successfully model a committed but non-parochial Jewish engagement. Our website, jwa.org, is a treasure trove of stories and materials about Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds. We hear again and again from educators that students are excited by our materials because they are fresh and nuanced, because they encourage students to engage in the world around them, and because they include a wider, more diverse chorus of voices that helps students understand that their own voices matter and belong.

The options for expanding the examples that Steinhardt listed are vast and could include Nobel Prize winners Gertrude Elion and Rosalyn Yalow; musicians Carole King and Regina Spektor; justices Justine Wise Polier, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; poets Adrienne Rich and Maxine Kumin; entrepreneurs Beatrice Alexander, Ida Cohen Rosenthal, and Ruth Mosko Handler – and so many more.

As JWA’s collections and resources demonstrate, there are many ways to integrate secular figures into Jewish learning; for example, combining an exploration of the leadership styles of Queen Esther and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, or Jewish family recipes as a lens onto the immigration experience and domestic holiday practices. The role of Jews in the 20th century American Labor Movement and Civil Rights Movement invites compelling conversation about identity and social responsibility through a distinctly Jewish lens combining both text and historical experience.

Like most of us over the age of 25, Steinhardt likely did not encounter stories of Jewish women in his own education, and perhaps this explains their absence from his many examples of noteworthy modern Jewish figures. Thanks to the work of scholars around the world and organizations like the Jewish Women’s Archive who translate scholarly insights and discoveries for a broader public, lifelong learners from elementary school students to powerful philanthropists like Steinhardt himself now have easy access to thousands of stories, primary sources, and lessons about the contributions of Jewish women that can transform our understanding of the Jewish story.

Steinhardt aptly declares that “American Jews want a story that speaks of who they are and can be in the real world.” I couldn’t agree more: we need a wide variety of role models to expand our sense of possibility. So let’s tell a story that speaks of American Jews of all genders and inspires the greatest possibilities of who we each, as individuals and as a community, can become.

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change. An educator, historian, and writer, Judith teaches and lectures widely on Jewish studies and women’s studies.