January 19, 2020

What is Jewish literature and does that question matter?

When I graduated from high school, I chose to go to University of Toronto. It was close to home, one of the best universities in the country and had a strong English program. 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 I was shocked when 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?

I was indignant. How had I gone through 12 years of Jewish education and never thought about these questions?

I subsequently completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in English literature, but that first-year Jewish literature course made more of an impression on me 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 cultural and Jewish icons. These authors made me think about my Judaism and identity in new and profound ways.

When I became a teacher, it saddened me that there were so many students graduating from Jewish high schools with strong talmudic, biblical and textual study backgrounds, but little sense of their rich cultural Jewish heritage. I became intent on remedying the issue.

Last year, I got the opportunity to teach a yearlong Jewish literature course to seniors at Shalhevet High School, and I was overjoyed. The students, however, were less than enthusiastic. As any parent who has looked forward to introducing a favorite toy, book or pastime to their child quickly realizes, the child rarely acts with the enthusiasm one hopes for.

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 by the very questions that had animated me years earlier and energized me to teach the class now. There was no clarity in answering questions about what being Jewish meansThe lack of consensus on the subject was confusing, but even more frustrating was obsessing over the issue. The next question became, “So what?”

I surveyed my students at the end of the year and the more surveys I read the clearer it became: I had misidentified the point of the class. I had even misunderstood the effects that the earlier university course had had on building my own identity.

As the teacher, I had my students obsess over whether or not the texts we read had a Jewish identity but had neglected to make the students think enough about how these texts impacted their own Jewish identities. Whether or not a piece of writing has a Jewish identity does not really matter to my students. Rather, it is more important for them to ask, “How does this text connect to my Jewish identity?”

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 identity connects to 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 the Jewish life I had been immersed in since as long as I could remember. Most Jewish texts are about a Jewish character who lives as a minority in a majority culture, which is how I felt in college. Therefore, it became important for me to understand that I was part of something culturally larger.

My students, on the other hand, are in a nurturing and delicately crafted bubble. They are surrounded by Judaism and not looking for these connections during their senior year. In their current lives, 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, what kind of Jew they want to be.

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 of the course 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 may not connect to every text they read, and they also may feel that the questions we ask are too broad. But they will at least be reading and asking themselves these questions, preparing themselves for the day when they will want to find answers.

If I can teach them how to build confusion stamina, hold on to these eternal questions and keep asking, that may be the most important lesson I can teach them.