Jewish History and Memory: Why Study the Past? | Facing History & Ourselves
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Jewish History and Memory: Why Study the Past?

Students prepare for their study of the Holocaust by reflecting on the ways in which memory is an integral part of Jewish identity.


One 50-min class period


  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

This lesson provides an introduction to teaching the Holocaust in a Jewish setting and is designed to help students reflect on the ways in which memory is an integral part of Jewish identity. During the lesson, students consider the place we give the Holocaust in Jewish memory, which is one facet of Jewish identity. In a Jewish setting, the Holocaust is part of many students’ family stories, and all Jewish students share the Holocaust as part of their collective story as a people.

To explore the relationship between history and memory in this lesson, students will view three video clips featuring Jewish educator Avraham Infeld. In one of the videos, Infeld compares the idea of Jewish peoplehood to a “five-legged table,” whereby each person chooses at least three of the following five “legs” to express their Jewish identity: memory, family, covenant, Israel, and Hebrew. Infeld explains that although a table that stands on five legs is the strongest, as long as it stands on three, it is stable. Thus, if every Jew identifies with at least three of the five legs, we all will have at least one leg in common. The lesson concludes with a discussion of a poem by Chinese poet Ha Jin that explores the relationship between the individual and the past, helping students grapple with the question of why we study the past and the ways in which history and memory impact their Jewish identity.

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?

  • What is the difference between history and memory?
  • What place should the Holocaust occupy in the collective memory of the Jewish people?
  • Students will reflect on the difference between history and memory when studying an event like the Holocaust.
  • Students will reflect on how the history of the Holocaust impacts their personal sense of Jewish identity.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 3 videos
  • 1 assessment
  • 1 extension activity

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story—an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story—something that happened to me and is part of who I am . . . As with individuals, so with a nation: it has a continuing identity to the extent that it can remember where it came from and who its ancestors were.” When we study the Holocaust, history and memory, as defined by Rabbi Sacks, collide. The Holocaust is a story that has become part of Jewish memory.

Like Rabbi Sacks, Jewish educator Avraham Infeld also stresses the importance of memory for the Jewish people. He writes: “The only purpose of Jewish education is how you take the individual Jew, open their mind and help that person link their personal memory to the collective memory of the Jewish people.” He reminds us that the verb zachor(“remember”) is repeated everywhere in Jewish ceremony and liturgy: under the wedding canopy, during the Pesach seder, in the Ten Commandments, during Shabbat, in siddurim (prayer books). Using Infeld’s ideas about the connection between identity and memory, this lesson is meant to spark conversation about the place that history, and specifically the history of the Holocaust, occupies in our collective Jewish memory.

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Lesson Plans


  • Explain to students that in this lesson, they will be thinking about the relationship between history and memory. Have students respond to the following question in a quick journal entry: What is the relationship between Jewish history and memory?
  • Debrief the journal as a class, recording students’ ideas on the board or chart paper. Revisit these ideas after watching the two video clips.
  • Explain to the class that they will be watching two short video clips of Avraham Infeld, a renowned Jewish educator and writer who is originally from South Africa but living in Israel today. Play the video Avraham Infeld: No Such Thing as Jewish History (02:15) and then use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to have students discuss the following questions:
    • Why do you think Avraham Infeld’s father believed that there is no such thing as Jewish history?
    • Do you agree or disagree with this idea? What makes you say that?
  • Then play the video Avraham Infeld: History and Memory (00:50) and have students respond in their journals to Infeld’s question: “What does that which happened in the past have to do with who I am today?"
  • Facilitate a brief class discussion in which students share their ideas from their journal responses and pair shares. Prompt students to consider how Infeld helps them think about the relationship between Jewish history and memory in a new, different, or deeper way.
  • Divide the class into groups of four. Explain that Avraham Infeld understands that the reality of Jewish peoplehood today is that we do not all see or express Jewishness in the same way, and his vision for the Jewish people is to find a way to be “unified without being uniform.”
  • Before providing students with Infeld’s list of the five “legs” that he believes connect the Jewish people, ask groups to discuss the following question and record their response in list format: What makes us connected as Jews?
  • Have groups share their ideas with the class, making a list on the board.
  • Show the class the video Avraham Infeld: The Five-Legged Table (01:14). Explain that the five elements of Jewish peoplehood, which Infeld compares to the legs of a table, are the following: memory, family, covenant, Israel, and Hebrew. Write these five “legs” on the board.
  • Next, have groups discuss the following questions:
    • What are the similarities and differences between your list of what connects the Jewish people and Infeld’s list?
    • Why do you think Infeld includes each one of his five “legs”? Discuss them one at a time.
    • What does it mean to be unified without being uniform? How does this idea apply to the Jewish people?
  • Have students respond to the following question in their journals: Given Infeld’s five “legs,” which three (or more) do you feel most connected to, and why?
  • Test Infeld’s idea by having students circulate and share their “legs” with their peers. After discussing their “legs” and finding any similarities with a different student, they should move and share with a new student until everyone in the class has shared their “table” with each other.
  • Explain to the class that they will now read a poem by Chinese poet Ha Jin, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and has lived in the United States since 1989. The poem explores the many different ways we can connect to our pasts.
  • Pass out the reading Connecting to Our Past and read the poem out loud with the class. Then have students work in pairs or groups to understand the poem’s many metaphors. Instruct students to identify and circle the metaphor in each stanza and then sketch an image for this metaphor alongside the stanza. Model the first stanza together by circling “shadow” and sketching your idea of what memory as a shadow might look like. Then have students work together to complete the remaining stanzas.
  • In journals or a paired or class discussion, ask students to respond to the following question: Which metaphor in Ha Jin’s poem resonates with you the most, and why?
  • Explain to the class that Ha Jin seems to be saying something about how an individual may relate to his or her past, but the poem can also be read through the lens of collective or communal memory. Infeld teaches us that Jewish peoplehood relies on the commitment to at least three of the five legs, one of which is memory.
  • To connect Ha Jin’s poem to Infeld’s teaching, discuss the following question as a class: If we were to reinterpret the poem from the point of view of Jewish peoplehood, which stanza do you think best describes how we should collectively relate to our past—a past that includes dark moments such as the Holocaust?


Read the following quotation from Avraham Infeld, and then have students create a final stanza of Ha Jin’s poem that they feel reflects the place that the Holocaust should occupy in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

For me, the memory of the Holocaust is both central and peripheral at the same time. My grandmother and many other relatives were killed in Belzec. I lived this experience as a core memory; likewise, many Jews today . . . experience the Holocaust as a central Jewish memory. . . . It shows us the danger of dehumanization and the obligation to make the world a better place. It needs to be given its appropriate place among the collective memories of the Jewish people.

Extension Activities

  • Ask students to read the following two quotations by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and James Baldwin. (Explain that Baldwin wrote about the struggles and the experiences of being black in America in the mid-twentieth century.):
    • “There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story—an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story—something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures, and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as past. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity.”
      —Rabbi Jonathan Sacks 1
    • “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that owe our frames of reference, or identities, and our aspirations.”
      —James Baldwin 2
  • Then, in small groups or as a class, have students discuss the following questions:
    • What do both authors’ statements about history have in common?
    • What do they suggest about the link between memory, history, and humanity?
  • 1Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29.
  • 2James Baldwin, "Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes," originally printed in The White Problem in America, ed. Editors of Ebony (Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1965).

Materials and Downloads

Explore the Materials

These are the videos that students use throughout the Jewish History and Memory: Why Study the Past? lesson plan.

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