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Is Jewish History learning now history?

In a popular post in Haaretz titled Without Cyrus, Herod and Bar-Kokhba: High school students will no longer learn about the Second Temple Era (Hebrew), I learned about the new Jewish History curriculum in the Israeli public school system. It basically removes a cornerstone of our history, but is especially shocking because the secular-modern Zionist ethos is based primarily on Second Temple period heros.*

What I mean to say is that while this may be shocking to Traditional through Orthodox Jews, it should be even more shocking for Secular Jews. Where would Modern Israel be without the stories and songs about the Maccabees and Bar Kokhva? Where would we be without the “tradition” of ascending Masada and chanting “Masada shall not fall a second time!”?

This is the reason I called my current public tour “What was Herzl’s Favorite Emoji?” - a tour which begins in the Second Temple period and explores the development of Jewish symbolism from traditional through Zionist art from Bezalel Art Academy: Boris Shatz, Zeev Rabban, E.M. Lillien and others. I’m not as naïve as I am presenting myself. I am well aware that Israel in 2022 is not being run by the pioneers of the 19-20th century, or the visionaries who dreamed of a utopian safe-haven for the Jews. There are definitely big forces at work here, and there is far from a consensus on what this State should look like and what our purpose is now that we are here.

So I did something I usually avoid like the plague: I read the comments section, the forum responses and even Twitter responses about this post. There are many things I can say about this, as a Jewish History teacher and MA candidate in Ancient Jewish History at Revel in Yeshiva University (this being my second MA, and I took a break for a year to get married). I’m sure many of you are thinking of any number of quotes about the value of learning history, a nation without a past has no future, Churchill, Einstein, you name it.

The main reason that I left the Israeli education system in 2013, and finally stopped working in formal education as of 2021, is because I believe we’re going through a paradigm shift. We are going through radical change, and being in a system that is in flux is usually not productive toward having an impact. I have so much empathy for my fellow teachers, especially in Israel, who have to cope with very unfavorable conditions for education - salaries are the least of it.

Let me explain.

In what is one of the most famous TED Talks ever watched, the late Sir Ken Robinson argues that “school kills creativity”. It’s no secret that the role of schools is no longer seen as tasked with acquiring knowledge. This depends what society you are raising your kids in, but I am speaking in broad terms: Past a certain age, once certain skill sets have been learned (usually by osmosis), they will basically be self-learners, if you point them in the right direction. And that’s the idea: School is more about guiding kids through the endless sea of knowledge; training them to be critical consumers of information; how to prioritize what they should learn to be successful. At best, it’s also how to think.

And how is that going for us?

Can our children manage the dopamin that social media, TikTok, flashing screens program their brains to expect? Can a human being (teacher) in a classroom setting even compete? And what is a student to think about if their ability to sit and acquire knowledge is curtailed by impatience and urgency to learn other more exciting subjects?

Almost two years of school on Zoom has taught us that we have a lot more going on than we are prepared to deal with. We are imperfect, our systems are imperfect, and we are trying our best to engage our children in meaningful learning with the resources at hand.

That’s triage.

And this is a paradigm shift.

The way in which we perceive what a school is, how education should be done, and for what purpose, is being reconsidered around the globe. This was obvious to me in 2010, and I realized that the rapid changes in the Israeli education system which were crammed onto teachers top-down, was not the solution. I believe that there needs to be an organic, grassroots movement to change education, with the interest of parents coming first and foremost.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this. Like Rabbi Akiva (b. Makkot 24b) who laughed at the foxes in the ruins of the Holy of Holies: Sometimes the mockery of what we hold dear is the herald of better times to come.

* A colleague just sent me an English article:


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