Object Lessons in Jewish History

Pastrami Sandwich from Katz Deli; photo by Erika39 via Wikimedia Commons.
Pastrami Sandwich from Katz’s Deli; photo by Erika39 via Wikimedia Commons.

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

New York – Aug. 26, 2015 – Consider a pastrami sandwich, a tallit, and a pot and ladle. Now connect the dots.

A group of Jewish educators from across the country recently gathered at the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan to do just that while immersing themselves in a new educational project focused on the Jewish immigrant experience.

For Jonathan Goldstein, who teaches after-school programs at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York and the JCC Manhattan, it’s the pastrami sandwich that encapsulates just about everything. Even preparing one evokes stories of his great-grandfather, Abraham Fried – an immigrant to America from a shtetl near Minsk – who opened a Bronx deli, where pastrami apparently was king.

“I make a tremendously strong visceral connection between pastrami sandwiches and my great-grandfather and his deli,” he said. “To me, it represents our family’s Jewish and historic heritage, and creates a longing to ask questions and discover more.”

And so right there is the common denominator. Seemingly random objects – collectively or singularly – can map a journey toward personal identity and family history, and link to the greater Jewish-American narrative.

The Tenement Museum is seizing on that reality with a major new initiative that embraces objects as a portal to teaching history and heritage, leading students to define their present-day identity.

This is an age, after all, when images and storytelling, often wedded to social media and other digital platforms, are powerful cultural connectors and educational tools, and museum officials know it.

“Whether it’s a food, or a candlestick, or a piece of jewelry or clothing, objects are representations of a history and a heritage and are critical vehicles for storytelling,” said Miriam Bader, Director of Education. “And more meaningful storytelling creates paths to learning our histories and values.”

Leveraging that, the Tenement Museum is poised to launch Your Stories, Our Stories, a new project embracing an objects-based approach to teaching the immigration story with a direct link to history, heritage and identity. The focus is on religious and ethnic groups, including Jews, who have defined the museum’s historic Lower East Side neighborhood through its multiple incarnations.

About 20 Jewish educators convened by the Tenement Museum, with the support of The Covenant Foundation, attended a two-day retreat to explore the immigrant history of the Lower East Side, delve into the past and present Jewish footprint there, and gain exposure to the new initiative in order to pilot it in classrooms beginning this fall.

Central to the project is a Tenement Museum website, going public in the fall, which is a digital extension of the museum itself. Hundreds of images of objects and stories about them submitted by students in New York City public schools already populate the site and represent a cross section of immigrant waves to America.

The outreach to Jewish educators creates an opportunity to bolster strong Jewish content and create an open-sourced educational approach specific to Jewish classrooms, museum officials said.

“This is an immersive space where students and others can tap into objects and stories that touch on identities – how they are preserved, defined and redefined,” said Annie Polland, Senior Vice President of Programs and Education.

“The immigrant story – whether on the Lower East Side or anywhere else – captures this process vividly. For a young generation of American Jews who are defining themselves as Americans and as Jews, there are lessons here that are relevant to their lives.”

The Museum is encouraging Jewish educators to use their classrooms as living extensions of Your Stories, Our Stories – engaging multiple generations, using primary source materials, studying family stories and objects that reflect Jewish identity and history – and empower students to become contributors to what is, in essence, a limitless digital archive and museum.

Jewish educators said the initiative is appealing on a variety of levels, not least among them the fact that it connects their classrooms to the resources and counsel of a world-renowned museum and study center, and offers them an opportunity to create and share best practices.

Andrew Abramowitz, who teaches Jewish History to sixth graders at the Einhorn Center for Jewish Education at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY, said he is redrawing curricula for the fall to include object-generated storytelling.

“We have to incorporate objects to captivate students,” he said. “Giving them straight facts and statistics is not enough. We remember stories for a long time, never forgetting the feeling and the visual and the takeaway.”

Marilyn Heiss is Senior Educator at The Kitchen, an upstart Jewish religious community in San Francisco. She views the focus on Jewish immigrant experience and stories of other religious and ethnic groups as particularly useful in social justice classes she leads for youth and adults.

“American Jews are getting farther and farther away from their own immigrant roots,” she said. “So if we can teach about this more effectively, and tie it to our individual and collective histories and values, then we can come to a place where we can be more engaged with the immigration debate in the country right now and act with a more personally informed social justice consciousness.”

The educator retreat also featured tours of the museum itself, and walks around the Lower East Side, with stops at the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue and the famous Russ and Daughters shop and cafe. The exposures, participants said, deepened their understanding of the Jewish immigrant experience in order to better teach it.

“There is so much powerful history on the Lower East Side,” said Bader. “It represents cultural negotiation and adaptation at its best and reflects what any Jewish kid in school is dealing with, being both American and Jewish. They are grappling with the formation of identity, and this is a place where many people did the same.”