Students discuss ideas in class.
Lesson

Jewish Identity and the Complexities of Dual or Multiple Belongings

Students continue to explore the question “Who am I?” by examining the concept of dual or multiple identities and reflecting on their own identities as Jews.

Published:

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

6–8

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About This Lesson

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.

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?

  • In what ways are our identities shaped by the fact that we are Jews?
  • What tensions can arise when we are asked to classify our identities?
  • Students will examine the concept of dual or multiple identities and recognize the complexities of a Jewish identity.
  • Students will reflect on their own identity as Jews.

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

  • 4 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 1 video
  • 1 reading, available in English and in Spanish
  • 1 assessment
  • 1 extension activity

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?

  • 1Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," World Tomorrow 11 (May 1928), 215–216.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

  • Begin the lesson by projecting the image Untitled: Four Etchings [B] by Glenn Ligon. Show the second etching in the series that centers around the quotation, “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.” If students have not read Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” explain the connection between the etching and Hurston’s essay (see the Context section and the full text of Hurston’s essay for details).
  • Follow the steps of the Analyzing Images teaching strategy to help students examine and reflect on the possible meanings of Ligon’s etching.
  • Ask students to consider, in light of the artist’s etching that they just analyzed, when in their lives or in what context they feel “most Jewish.” Have students finish the sentence starter “I feel most Jewish when . . . ” individually in their journals.
  • Depending on time, debrief the journal using the Wraparound strategy or ask a few volunteers to share their responses with the class.
  • Pass out the reading Kimchee on the Seder Plate. Read aloud or have the students read the essay themselves. Then, in pairs or small groups, ask students to discuss the following questions about the reading:
    • Create an identity chart for Angela.
    • What does having kimchee on the seder plate represent for Angela?
    • Discuss your response to Angela’s question, “If Judaism is about culture, what then does it mean to be Jewish when Jews come from so many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds?”
  • Before moving on to the next activity, have groups share highlights from their discussions. Then let them know that they will be watching a short video that also responds to Angela’s question about what it means to be Jewish.
  • Play the video clip A Jew Is Not One Thing, starting at 22:10 and ending at 28:30. Before watching, prompt students to listen for the different definitions of what it means to be a Jew. Pause the video after each speaker at 23:30, 24:39, and 26:18 so students can record notes and any questions that each speaker raises for them.
  • After watching the video clip, have students discuss the following questions in small groups:
    • What does Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman suggest about the tension in Judaism between the community and the individual?
    • What does poet Irena Klepfisz teach us about the Hasidic movement, and what does this suggest about the future of Judaism?
    • How does Israeli author David Grossman’s definition of himself as a Jew differ from the conventional definition?
    • Which one of the voices that you heard in the video clip resonates with you the most, and why?  
  • Then have each group share a brief summary of their discussion, and discuss the following questions as a class. Encourage students to refer to this lesson’s reading and video clip, as well as their own experiences, when answering the questions.
    • How would you answer Max Kornhauser’s final question: “What use would it be to be a Jew if you don’t even know what happened back then?”
    • In what ways are our identities shaped by the fact that we are Jews?
    • What tensions can arise when we are asked to classify our identities?
  • End the lesson by having students respond to the following question on an exit card: Which one of the voices that you read or heard in this lesson—Zora Neal Hurston’s, Angela Warnick Buchdahl’s, Rabbi Weiman-Kelman’s, or Irena Klepfisz’s—resonates with you the most, and why?

Assessment

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.

Extension Activities

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.

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