03 March 2014

Mnogo Bumagi: Experiments in Teaching Medieval Jewish History, Part I



Again, if I could take one resource on medieval Jewish history to a desert island, it would be The Chosen Path, but here are some sources I found and liked (whether or not I shared them with the girls) before I was aware of that textbook-cum-anthology's existence:

General
-A good map of medieval Europe. They can't go through life not knowing what the Iberian Peninsula is.
-One of the Many Chains of Torah Transmission – classic “aha” moment
-It wasn't so long ago – similar idea, more juvenile explanation
-Rav Hirsch's translation of para. 105 from Sefer Hasidim (his Collected Writings, Vol. VIII, p. 176). I like this because many people have a habit of reading mussar from the rishonim as if they're being yelled at. Here Rav Hirsch takes a passage from the Sefer Hasidim that could sound very scary, and translates it softly. I thought it was important for the girls to see this before I started giving them passages from rishonim to read.

-When I was in sixth grade, we each had to research a rishon and present the fruits of our research. I like this idea, and in consequence of it I still feel like the Ramban is “my” rishon – but, duh, you can't give people a research project if they don't have a library to research in.
-I had them make a timeline of world history, from Creation to the present, on which to plot the events of this course. In retrospect I would have them make parallel lines (maybe I'll give them different colors) for the events in Bavel, Islamic Spain and North Africa, Ashkenaz, Provence, Italy, and Eastern Europe.
-I photocopied, but did not get round to, the Ramban on “laasos” in Bereishis, which is a summary of world history, and the Meshech Chochma in Bechukosai about galus.
-I thought about taking a step back to look at how we know what we know, and showing them Rav Hirsch's analysis of Graetz's grievous errors in scholarship, but decided that it's not appropriate yet for this particular class.

Material slipped into various units along the way:
-Music for every unit, representative in some way of that time and place.
-The Routes of the Radhanites. I actually brought in some silk scraps on the off-chance that some of them are growing up in rayon and don't know what silk feels like. But they did.
-The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela – I gave one piece in class, and offered extra credit for the rest.
-A drop-spindle and raw wool. (These are inexpensive.) Every woman in medieval times – I assume Jewish women too – carried one of these around with her and kept her fingers busy spinning. I passed spindle and wool around and let everyone try it. (Halacha: a married woman who can hire servants to fulfill all of her housekeeping duties is nevertheless obligated to spin, because having no work to do can drive a person crazy. Why is spinning the duty singled out as essential? Because it is the role of the married woman to make connections, to take raw material and give shape to it.)
-I made much use of T. Carmi's anthology The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. He doesn't cite sources, only authors, which is maddening. The anthology is a curious mix of kodesh and treif, but I don't know where else to find the poems of Shmuel haNaggid, the Kalonymuses, anonymous medieval Jews writing about how much they miss their rebbeim &c., &c., much less with some English attached.
-The History of Jewish Costume by Alfred Rubens is also unreliable, but has some fun pictures. I gave the girls pictures of what Jewish women were wearing (admittedly at a much later time in history) in Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, &c. and asked them which traditionally Jewish dress (with, like, five layers and cloisonne enamel and gold embroidery and pointy headgear) they think we should make the new school uniform.
-The Wall Chart of World History is a vintage production – as the girls noticed, it is very racist, very Eurocentric, and very Catholic - but very helpful. We got a lot of "aha!" moments out of it. (A Jewish version, the “Timechart History”, does exist, but it is blatantly not in keeping with the mesora, nor is it nearly as interesting, since it follows only one nation.)

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