Are Jews losing their story?


As we look back on the triumphs and failures of the past year, let’s reflect on one of the perennial shortfalls of the Jewish world — how we consistently overlook the importance of teaching the extraordinary story of the Jewish people. 

When I say “the story of the Jewish people,” I don’t mean biblical stories like Moses splitting the Red Sea or modern stories like the tragedy of the Holocaust or the miracle of Israel. Those are obviously important, and we hear about them often.

What I’m referring to instead are the fascinating stories of the “in-between” period — the 18 centuries of Diaspora history between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the beginning of the Holocaust. When’s the last time we heard any of those stories?

Seriously, where did those 1,869 years go? How did they become the big, black hole of mainstream Jewish learning? 

Try this test: Ask any bar or bat mitzvah kids if they know the story of their ancestors. Ask a Persian kid if she knows the epic story of Persian Jews. Do the same with Polish Jews, South African Jews, Moroccan Jews, German Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews and so on. Then ask the grownups the same question.

Chances are you’ll find that few Jews today know their own history. This shouldn’t surprise us. Compared to other items on the Jewish agenda, the story of pre-Holocaust Diaspora Jewry is simply not a priority.

This is a shame. As historian Deborah Lipstadt writes, “Those who do not know from whence they have come often have a hard time knowing where they are or where they are going.” Yes, we come from our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, but we also come from a long line of bubbes and zaydes.

It’s one thing to hear legendary stories about King David slaying Goliath during biblical times, but it’s quite another to hear about your great-great-grandfather David who studied kabbalah in Marrakesh.

The story of Diaspora Jewry is history with a family name — it’s a history we can feel and touch and own in a personal way. For too many Jews, though, it’s also a history full of mystery.

Where did our ancestors go after the trauma of losing the Second Temple? How did they split up? How did they forge a Jewish tradition without their holy Temple? 

Why did Maimonides study with Muslim philosophers? What ignited Reform Judaism? How did the Chasidic movement start, and why was it so vehemently opposed?

How did anti-Semitism come about and unfold over time? How did Jews adapt to their surroundings? 

Perhaps most important, how did Diaspora Jewry contribute to their adopted societies?

We’re always talking about building Jewish pride. What better way to do that than to teach our people the amazing Jewish contributions to humanity?

It’s sad to think that so few Jewish kids today are learning about the great Jewish scientists, artists, social activists, philosophers, musicians, rabbis, poets and writers who for centuries made such a mark on their world. 

Our Diaspora ancestors didn’t have the epic drama of our biblical heroes, or the tragic drama of Shoah victims, or the triumphant drama of Israeli pioneers. Maybe that’s why we’ve had a tendency to overlook them. But these ancestors are the resilient, unsung heroes who persevered and kept the Jewish flame alive for 18 long centuries.

Teaching our history need not conflict with teaching Jewish tradition or talmudic discourse. On the contrary, history provides a narrative context that enhances appreciation for that very tradition and discourse. History also enhances our humanity by shining an honest and candid light on our communal conflicts.

What about the critique that “history is boring”? Well, is it any more “boring” than any other subject? As historian and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once said to me, when you turn history into “story,” you make it a lot more interesting. Any Hollywood screenwriter will tell you that what makes the industry tick is the power of the story. We may be the people of the book, but are we not also the people of the stories?

It’s understandable that the horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent miracle of Israel have dominated our collective memory. If the Shoah represents the deepest darkness and Israel the brightest light, they both conspired to overshadow the formative journey that preceded them.

But, as much as the Holocaust and Israel are defining Jewish moments, they are the culmination of 18 eventful centuries that have shaped who we have become as a people, a nation and a culture.

We are blessed to be living in a generation where those 18 centuries of Jewish history can be felt right here in America, where Jews from around the world have gathered to create a phenomenal diversity. 

Just look around your own communities. See all the different countries and cultures that are represented, and imagine all the stories. How sad it would be to let those stories go. How great it would be to rescue them and share them with one another.

My wish for the New Year is that our schools, synagogues and outreach groups reignite the flame of Diaspora history. After all, how can we ask our people to continue the great Jewish journey if we skip over 1,869 incredible years?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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