When I graduated high school, I chose to go to University of Toronto. It was close to home, and one of the best universities in the country. That said, it had more than 80,000 students, and I did not know a soul.
I felt out of my depth and out of place until, on a whim, I signed up for a Jewish literature course. I was hoping that my years of Jewish education would give me an upper hand in the class, but was shocked to discover I did not have answers to any of the fundamental questions underlying the course: What does being Jewish mean? Can a piece of literature be Jewish if it is written by a non-Jew? Is Judaism primarily a religion or a culture?
How had I gone through 12 years of a Jewish education and never thought about these questions?
While I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in English literature, that first-year Jewish literature course made more of an impression than any other class I took in college. Being introduced to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick gave me new giants to look up to as both cultural and Jewish icons. Later, when I became a teacher, it saddened me that so many students graduated Jewish high schools with strong religious textual backgrounds, but little sense of their rich cultural Jewish heritage.
Intent on remedying the issue, last year I taught a yearlong Jewish literature course to seniors at Shalhevet High School. The students, however, were not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped.
When, at first, the students did not immediately love the Yiddish literature unit, I tried not to panic. I was only a year older than them when these texts were introduced to me. I had been floored by the sincerity and wit of the Yiddish stories, but perhaps my world was different?
As the modern Jewish literature unit began, however, it soon became clear that my students were struggling with the material. They were frustrated that there was no clarity in answering questions about what being Jewish means.
I surveyed my students at the year’s end and the results were illuminating: I had misidentified the point of the class. I had even misunderstood the effects that the earlier university course had had on my own identity.
As the teacher, I had my students analyze whether the texts had a Jewish identity, but had neglected to make them think enough about how these texts impacted their own Jewish identities. Instead of putting a text on trial to prove its Jewish roots, I should have been forcing my students to unearth who they were as Jews and how their personal identities connect to Philip Roth’s “Eli the Fanatic” or Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated.”
For me, college was a Jewish wasteland, compelling me to search for a way to connect my secular studies to my Jewish life. Most Jewish texts are about a Jewish character who lives as a minority in a majority culture, which is how I felt in college. It became important for me to understand that I was part of something culturally larger.
My students, on the other hand, are surrounded by Judaism and not looking for these connections during their senior year. In their current lives, in a Jewish high school, their Judaism makes them part of the majority. But one day, that will not be the case. Later, whether in Jewish or non-Jewish environments, they will need to think about what their Judaism means to them.
As I prepare to teach the class this coming year at Shalhevet, I think about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book, “Radical Then, Radical Now”: “If Jewish survival is problematic, it is because Jewish identity itself is problematic.”
The way to reconnect my students to the material will be to have them face what is problematic about their own Jewish identities and use the texts to face those problems head on.
My students might not connect to every text, but they will at least be reading and asking these questions. If I can teach them how to build confusion stamina, hold on to these eternal questions and keep asking, that could be the most important lesson I can give them.
Na’amit Sturm Nagel is a writer who teaches English at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.