I have a bad habit of assuming that whatever I have loved or enjoyed other people will also love and enjoy. Sometimes this assumption sends me down the wrong path, but in the case of my Jewish literature course for high schoolers, it led to the development of something beautiful and enduring for my students.
Creating this course was a dream of mine since falling in love with a Jewish Literature course in my freshman year of college. I was transformed by the class, and all I could think about throughout that year was: Why didn’t they teach any of these texts to me during my twelve years of Jewish education?
When I began teaching high school English in a Jewish day school bringing Jewish literature into my classes was a priority. The students came from a broad range of backgrounds and many felt detached from Jewish learning through ancient texts. Teaching Jewish literature was an opportunity to broaden their understanding of their religion, culture and what constitutes a Jewish text.
Realizing the dream to offer this course, however, proved to be more difficult than I had expected. Getting the school to buy into the value of a Jewish literature class was only the first hurdle. Convincing students that it was a worthy option when they could choose to take a creative writing or film class instead proved to be much harder.
Once the first group of students made the leap, the course managed to create successes for learners that surpassed my wildest dreams. Many students told me it was the most influential class they had taken in all of high school. The students even kept a group chat after they graduated so we could continue sharing meaningful texts, adding to our thoughtful discussions about Judaism. Using those successes to fuel my motivation, I found myself wondering how I might reach more students?
After receiving incredibly powerful, positive feedback and teaching the course for three years, I turned to JEIC and applied for a grant to help me think about how to share the benefits of this course and promote Jewish literature as a tool that could be used in all kinds of Jewish high school classrooms. Rabbi Feld helped me by asking these four, seemingly questions:
What is the course still missing?
What specific assignments could you create that would help other teachers implement the material in their own classrooms?
How can the material connect to conversations your students are having on a day-to-day basis?
How can you develop a simplified and easy way for all the material to be packaged for teachers of all disciplines to find texts they could use?
While these questions initially seemed to be rudimentary and basic on the surface, upon deeper reflection I realized they were incredibly powerful and guiding. I discovered:
The course was missing a stronger group of contemporary Israeli authors. It happened to be that at the moment I received the grant I was in the midst of my Israeli literature unit and was disappointed that it had a disproportionate number of male authors. When trying to think of strong female Israeli authors, I was embarrassed to realize I didn’t know any. So I went on a search and found beautiful short stories by Savyon Liebrecht and hauntingly moving poetry by Adi Kassar. Both of these authors offered unique Jewish perspectives to my students.
Students needed a dynamic group assignment that would bring them together and force them to synthesize and vocalize what they had learned. As a result I began thinking of how to divide the students into groups at the end of the year to lead a a presentation or debate around the forty plus texts we had studied.
Students needed to connect the content of the course to a contemporary, hot topic. Once I saw the students struggling with conversations around gender in today’s heated political climate, it became clear they could connect the material to their day-to-day lives by discussing gender roles. I then created an assignment called, “Tracing Gender in Jewish Literature.” They looked back through everything we had studied using a gendered lens, which led to fruitful discussions and debates. It also allowed them to develop their analytical skills and rethink the way they traditionally have seen gender roles.
Finally, taking a step back from the details of this course would be essential in order to break it down into a resource that would be useful to colleagues. In order to make the material as accessible as possible to other educators I developed a 12-page Jewish Literature Resource document, listing over 50 novels, short stories, poetry, plays and films that can be used in a Jewish literature classroom. I organized the texts by format, genre and theme in the hope that this would be a helpful resource to other teachers considering Jewish literature as a course or component of a course.
As the year came to an end, I was invited to present at a conference at the Yiddish Book Center for educators. Seeing how enthusiastically teachers responded when I told them about the Jewish Literature Resource document and how thrilled they were to have it as a tool, was a wonderful reminder that developing a totally new course was worth the educational risks.
As I began this innovative journey , there was no guarantee that high schoolers would be interested in Jewish literature, but seeing students in dialogue with the texts was only the first part of the curriculum’s success. My hope now is that other teachers will take risks like I did and realize that sometimes bringing new literature into a curriculum that already seems saturated with Jewish texts is in fact just what students need to feel connected to their Judaism.
Na'amit Sturm Nagel is a writer who teaches at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.
EDITOR’S UPDATE: You can learn more about “Jewish Literature Reimagined in the High School English Classroom” in the Fall 2019 issue of HaYidion: The Prizmah Journal.