Jewish World History through Art

The first iteration of this project (which is to be continued and expanded) was a unit on menorahs from around the world, taken from a variety of sources including global Jewish museums, and the Betzalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art. Students reviewed menorah images organized by motif, noting that menorahs from different places share common motifs such as specific animals, architectural elements, shapes, and Islamic or other cultural motifs. They learned the history of these motifs, both in general and in their use in Jewish arts. In doing her research for the menorah project, our Education Director contacted curators and historians, and abbreviated and adapted academic research for a 3rd-5th grade reading level. The students learned that different regions developed different conventions for menorahs; for example, in some regions people did not place the candles on the same level or in a line; and, menorahs from communities that originate in Afghanistan often use separate oil cups that can be moved around; and, most of the menorahs from Yemen are made of stone, as opposed to metal or clay. Students identified the countries that the menorahs were from on a world map, and noted how certain motifs or design elements were either culturally specific or widely proliferated. As a result, they are learning early on in their Jewish journeys that Jews have lived around the world and practiced Jewish ritual in similar and different ways. They understood that Jewish life and culture has been influenced by the places that Jews have lived and the surrounding dominant cultures that Jews have interacted with, and that both then and now, Jews are living in two civilizations. 

This project is Kaplanian in spirit in that it: 
Offers students a rich understanding of how Jews have lived in various places and “host cultures” throughout time. It encourages children to think creatively about how Jewish practice changes across time and place. -It enriches Jewish living through the arts, and a deep understanding of how Jewish arts and culture have developed. -It allows cross-generational engagement by allowing students to present and teach about topics that adults in the community are not already familiar with. Adults AND children are learning together. It inspires what Kaplan refers to as the “acquisition of Jewish interests,” in that the students are excited to learn, deeply engaged, and demonstrate enthusiasm for Jewish culture. Informed by both antiracist Jewish education goals and Kaplan’s emphasis on “belonging” as a basis for Jewish identity, this project promotes a sense of belonging to the Jewish people by emphasizing our diversity, and the ongoing evolution of our religious traditions.’