What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
Alternate Jewish Ed Unit Essential Question:
How is our Jewish identity tied in with the history of the Holocaust?
This lesson follows Lesson 2: Exploring Identity so that students in Jewish settings can apply what they learned about universal themes of identity to understanding the complexity of Jewish identity. In this lesson, students will continue to explore their answers to the question, “Who am I?” by examining the concept of dual or multiple identities, with an emphasis on what it means to have a Jewish identity. The activities that follow invite students to reflect on the pressure to choose an identity or prioritize one aspect of their identities over another. The lesson begins with students analyzing an etching by Glenn Ligon that centers around a quotation from author Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and applying Ligon’s ideas to a Jewish identity. Then students will read Angela Warnick Buchdahl’s reflection on having a dual identity and the tensions that arise when she feels pressure, either perceived or real, to choose just one. Finally, students will watch a short video and consider a range of perspectives about what it means to be Jewish today. The readings and discussions in this lesson help students complicate the notion that having a Jewish identity means one particular thing or can be separated from their other identities or belongings.
Jewish educator Avraham Infeld asks, “Is it possible to be unified without being uniform?” Today, being a Jew can mean different things to different people. It can also mean different things in different surroundings or at different times in our lives. Zora Neale Hurston explores this idea in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in which she examines the times when she feels most “colored” as well as when she feels most herself. Over the course of the essay, she comes to the conclusion that the two are neither synonymous nor conflicting:
I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
For instance at Barnard. "Beside the waters of the Hudson" I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again. 1
In this passage, Hurston refers back to a time before she “became colored,” when she lived in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, when she achieved the “unconscious Zora.” She contrasts growing up in Eatonville with her experiences at the predominantly white Barnard College and, in her essay, reflects on the moments when she feels most like herself.
Hurston's personal reflection on what makes her feel most authentically herself can be a way to invite students in Jewish settings to reflect on the same dynamic. When do they feel most Jewish? Is it when, like Hurston, they are thrown against a predominantly non-Jewish background, blending in with the majority non-Jewish culture, or when the "water ebbs" and they connect with members of their Jewish communities? Is Jewish summer camp or Hebrew school a place where they feel most Jewish, or do they feel that this part of their identity is most pronounced when they are “thrown against a background” of people unlike themselves?
This lesson could exceed a 50-minute class period. To keep it within one class period if you don’t teach on a block schedule, have students examine Glenn Ligon’s image for two minutes in silence and then respond to the first activity’s journal prompt rather than using the Analyzing Images teaching strategy. Alternatively, you can divide the lesson over two 50-minute periods, ending the first day with a discussion of Kimchee on the Seder Plate and watching and discussing the video on the second day.
Evaluate the exit cards students submit at the end of this lesson to gauge how they understand the issues surrounding Jewish identity that the reading and video explored.
Read and Discuss “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”
Have students read Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in its entirety, and facilitate a class discussion based on the following questions:
- Create an identity chart for Zora Neale Hurston.
- Why does Hurston say she was no longer Zora when she disembarked at Jacksonville? What does she mean by that?
- Look through the text and underline what qualities Hurston relates to being “colored.” What adjectives does she use? What does being “colored” mean for her?
- How does she manipulate the word colored to show its multiple meanings?
Then have students make connections between Hurston’s essay and their own lives using the Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World teaching strategy and handout.