My first job — ever! — was as a tour guide at a Jewish history museum. I was mostly tasked with giving Evangelical Christian groups bullet point notes on nearly 5000 years’ worth of Jewish history. As you might probably expect, the tours were catered to my Evangelical audience. This all happened well over a decade ago, and my memory of it is a little rusty (trauma has left me with a whole host of memory issues, but that’s another topic for another day).
But from my recollection, the museum was divided into three rooms: first, we had an area dedicated to the Torah and the Ten Commandments. Then, we’d enter a room that highlighted the story of the Jewish community in our country, complete with artifacts, antique Judaica, and sepia-toned photographs. Finally we’d land in the Holocaust room, where we’d watch a short film about Anne Frank. The credits would roll and I’d ask, “Any questions?”
The questions, as you can imagine, were rather Christian in nature. Theological, mostly, with an emphasis on the Jewish perspective on Jesus. Who was Jesus to Jews? I’d shrug. I didn’t really know. Just some guy, really, I guessed. A Jewish guy, to be sure, but just some guy. My opinion on him was painfully neutral, which never seemed to satisfy their curiosity. But it was the best I could do.
I enjoyed my work at the museum, even if I wrapped up each tour feeling like a bit of a Biblical oddity for my Evangelical Christian students to gawk at. And yet, there was something about these tours that felt rather lacking, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it quite yet. It took a decade, but now I know.
I want to address something that’s been on my mind for quite a long time. I think — and this is just little ole me’s opinion, of course — but I think that the way that we teach Jewish history (if we teach it at all) is all wrong. It’s disjointed. But mostly — and hear me out here — it’s taught for the Christian gaze. Yes, even in Sunday school.
Let me back up a bit. Jews, as you hopefully know by now, are an ethnoreligious group and a tribe originating in the region of the world now known as Israel-Palestine. It’s a charged region, with a violent history of imperialism, colonialism, antisemitism, conquest, name changes, and more. It’s a region that has fundamentally changed the course of world history. Had there been no Jesus, Jewish issues today (and by extension, Israeli issues) would be of zero consequence to the world at large. Jews form only 0.2 percent of the world population, a teeny tiny minority. We should be, for all intents and purposes, statistically irrelevant. But by some strange twist of fate, Christianity (and later Islam) sprouted from Judaism, and all of a sudden, all eyes turned on us.
Christianity and Islam are both universalizing religions. They transcend geographic region, tribal identity, ethnicity, and more. They spread through proselytization and conquest, so much so that today 31 and 25 percent of the world is Christian and Muslim, respectively. Once again, Jews, by contrast, form only 0.2 percent of the world population. Our peoplehood long predates the western concept of religion. We, like all tribes before and after us, whether in Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, or the Americas, follow a spiritual framework that is specific to our land and to our tribe. In fact, it wasn’t until the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, that Jews saw Judaism as a religion.
The word “Judaism” doesn’t even come from the Hebrew language.
Before that, we were a people. Like all peoples, we practiced a set of traditions and ascribed to a set of spiritual beliefs. What’s truly remarkable is that we were able to maintain such practices throughout 2000 years of exile. We are still a people, though I believe that we are having a bit of an identity crisis.
Naively, perhaps, the Jews in Europe of the 18th century believed that, should they reduce their Jewish heritage to a religion, they could seamlessly assimilate into post-Enlightenment European society. I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that they were wrong.
All of this brings me back to the museum and its three rooms. It’s quite a bit of a jump, isn’t it, to go from the Ten Commandments to the Holocaust. But therein lies the problem, I think. The history depicted in our “religious” books — whether it be the story of Hanukkah or the reign of King Solomon — isn’t taught as history. It’s taught as religious doctrine. As fantastical stories from the Bible.
The Torah, of course, isn’t a history textbook. Like all peoples back then, the ancient Israelites were prone to hyperbole. Most rabbis today, from my understanding, would agree that the Torah isn’t always literal. But it is the oral and written history of our ancestors, meaning that it, too, is our history, just as the Holocaust is a part of our history today. And it should be taught as such, particularly when modern archeological and scientific knowledge can attest to so much of it.
Then comes the issue of skipping. Many Jewish holidays come with their own histories, whether it be the story of the Maccabean Revolt (verifiably a true story!) or the story of Purim. Each Hanukkah, for instance, we hear the same story over and over again. But it is taught alone, floating by itself in the ether, with no understanding of what came before or after and zero historical context. And without a historical timeline, it’s easy to think that the story of Hanukkah is just that…a religious story, not one rooted in our very own history.
In this light, it’s no surprise to me at all that many young Jews today think their families sprouted out of thin air in Lithuania or Poland. It’s no surprise to me that they believe Judaism is no more and no less than a religion, that instinctively they know that one can be an atheist Jew, but they don’t understand how, exactly, because how does that make sense? It’s no surprise to me that many think that the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel is one of religious fanaticism and not one rooted in the legitimate history of our ancestors. It’s no surprise to me that many of us fall for other people’s narratives about our very own identity.
And I think this is really sad. Because at the very least, young Jews — well, Jews of all ages — deserve to know who we are and where we come from. But how are we to learn this when we are not taught it in the first place?