By Laura Seymour
Judaism is a historical religion — that means that our history defines our holidays, celebrations and even our worldview. To understand Jews, you must understand Jewish history.
The challenge is that it seems that we fall into two camps: those who love history and those who hate history. If you love learning and delving into history, then Judaism is perfect for you. Begin with the Torah and follow our people through today — it is an exciting adventure.
If you hate history, begin small. Learn these two phrases and then your interest will grow. The truth within a joke is that all Jewish history can be summed up in less than 10 words: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
It seems that our story is a real roller coaster — when things are good for the country we live in, the Jews contribute to society and are valued members. The minute something goes wrong, we get the blame. One of the fascinating stories is how we were blamed for the many plagues in Europe. Why were we blamed? We didn’t get sick like the rest of the population, so obviously (to them), we must have caused the plague. Why didn’t we get sick? Simple — before we eat, we wash our hands ritually. Even that small amount of cleaning helped us fight off the germs. What a great piece of history.
The second short phrase that tells so much about our history is: “You may not live here as Jews.” This phrase followed us to different lands, and the phrase got shorter and shorter. First, we were told that if we convert, we could continue living in the land. Eliminate “as Jews.” Next, we were told that we had to move — eliminate “here.” And finally, in Nazi Germany, it was “you may not live.” For us, the bad times have always been really bad.
So if you are part of the “I Hate History” group, what can you do to learn? There are some great books out there that make great reading. If you can get a copy of “Jewish History in 100 Nutshells,” great. There are many historical novels available today that make the stories come alive (even though they are not totally factual) – “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg is a must read.
Finally for those of us who would really like to get into the stories, I recommend Rabbi Kenneth Roseman’s series. Yes, they are for teens but they are truly involving. They are called “The Do-It-Yourself Jewish Adventure Series” and are designed for you to read a little, make a choice and then turn to the page reflecting your choice. Each time you read, you make different choices and the ending turns out differently.
The stories include subjects like the Tenth of Av, the Inquisition, immigration and the Holocaust. Throughout our history, Jews have made different choices and we learn by confronting those choices.
If you love history or if you hate history, our history is our family. Get to know your ancestors and their stories. Find a good summer Jewish history read. Visit the Tycher Library for some very good reads.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and director of Jewish life and learning at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.