While scanning the drop-down list of electives, cynical sophomores or jaunty upperclassmen may wonder what to do with the line that says “Wanderings: The World Through the Jewish Experience.” The class seems a bit off the map compared to the usual history offerings, and many students, non-Jews especially, do not know what to expect.
Social studies teacher Robert Sandler has been teaching the Jewish History class for 11 years, covering several millennia each fall semester. The chunk of time from the biblical period to modern day Israel is colossal, but Sandler tries to focus on the turning points of Jewish history.
“In all honesty, we go quickly through the ancient and medieval periods to get a foundation. The real focus of the course is on the Jew of the modern world, I would say from the 18th century onwards,” Sandler said.
A topic that students often discuss during the course is the conflict of the Jewish Diaspora, and its advantages and disadvantages.
“That’s what I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the course, the Diaspora, which makes it even harder to teach, because not only am I teaching a huge span of time, 5,000 years, but I’m also teaching about a group of people who have been dispersed, who have been living in so many different places,” Sandler said. “There are so many different types of regimes with different degrees of freedom and different degrees of hostility, but that’s what I love about it, that’s the challenge of the course, to try and make it all come together.”
Students learn about historical events from a Jewish standpoint. Sophomore Kathryn Rafailov said, “The class puts a new perspective on history class. For example, we learn in history class about, say, Henry Ford and the huge contribution he made to the world with the automobile, but we never learn that he was a huge anti-Semite and published anti-Semitic papers. It’s fascinating, really. You can’t learn this stuff anywhere else.”
“We learn much more than just the history and culture of the Jewish people. We learn about everything they have affected, from Hollywood to Klezmer music. We’re fully immersed,” senior Pooja Desai said. “We’re exposed to images, music, movie clips, recent news articles, and even food. We learn about Jewish History from all angles, and the use of multiple sources of media in the class really brings the topics to life. Especially as a non-Jewish student, the exposure to a different culture and having open debates on issues that still effect Jews, and on a larger scale, the world, has made me a more cultured and knowledgeable student.”
The class also goes into the evolving relationship between the Jews and other religious communities. They learn, for example, how Jews used to be generally well-treated in Muslim areas and ruthlessly persecuted in Christian countries, while in the present those roles have been practically reversed.
Another interesting point of comparison is the way Jews assimilate in their adopted countries. “Where the American history is confined within the borders of the United States […], we talk about the Jews in Ottoman Turkey, we talk about Jews in Enlightenment Germany in the 18th century. There were Jews in Tsarist Russia. We talk about Jews in Charleston, South Carolina,” Sandler said.
Some lighter aspects of the class include exploring Jewish comedy. Sandler suggests that stand-up comedy was invented by Jews, namely those from the Catskills’ Borscht Belt and Woody Allen.
In addition to watching movies, debating, reading numerous primary source documents, and listening to visitors’ lectures, the members of the class also go on field trips. “The first trip was a tour of the Jewish Lower East Side, where the Jews congregated for the most part upon entering the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Desai said. “[We] were able to acknowledge the significance behind small things that we would have easily passed on a stroll through the Lower East Side. We compared the different crowds certain synagogues attracted, and noticed the different styles and setups of the synagogues. Afterwards, we went to Katz’s Deli, perhaps the epitome of Jewish food in NYC, and had their classic pastrami sandwiches. We also visited Russ and Daughters, after learning about the history behind the shop.” For the second trip, the class visited the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The class also visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is located near Stuyvesant High School. “I had been there before, but got so much more out of the trip this time around,” Desai said. “Having learned the topics in class already, it was easy to make connections between what I already knew and the artifacts I was viewing. At the same museum, we also went to an exhibit about eugenics called ‘Deadly Medicine,’ that was brought over from the Holocaust Museum in Washington.”
Everyone is invited to take this course, and the students’ backgrounds are as varied as the countries of the Diaspora. Sandler is very enthusiastic that so many students are open to learning about other cultures and that more than half of his class is not Jewish. He commends the “open, cosmopolitan population” at Stuyvesant and stresses that this course is a benefit to all who take it.
“The Jews have […] lived all over the world, so the course material allows us to look at lots of different societies throughout time from one unique angle, which is fascinating,” senior Batsheva Moriarty said.
“Mr. Sandler always says, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even the past,’” Desai said. “In the same way, Jewish history is never dead, and the class really makes the history and culture come alive.”