Navigating Jewish American Identity | Facing History & Ourselves
Licensed image of Deidre Prevett from the 2018 PBS documentary film, "American Creed."

Navigating Jewish American Identity

Students use the ideas of W.E.B Du Bois and historian David Kennedy to explore their own Jewish identities and consider how they coexist with their identities as Americans.  


Two 50-min class periods


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

In this lesson, students will watch and respond to a video clip from the film American Creed in which historian and author David Kennedy draws from W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of “twoness” to explore the tensions that can exist when an individual’s American identity and their religious, ethnic, racial, and other identities are at odds with one another. 

In American Creed, David Kennedy discusses the changing attitudes towards what he calls “hyphenated Americans” (Italian-American, Irish-American, Jewish-American, etc.). He asserts that there was a time in the history of the United States political discourse when embracing a hyphenated identity was considered disloyal. He goes on to comment that while identifying with your ethnic heritage today is considered a good thing, there is nonetheless an underlying assumption that it should be less prominent than your American one. 

Over the course of this lesson, students will use Du Bois’s and Kennedy’s ideas to explore their own Jewish identities and consider how they coexist with their identities as Americans.

After watching David Kennedy’s American Creed video clip, students will read two texts that grapple with the idea of “twoness” and hyphenated identities. The first text is by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf who asserts that the many facets of his identity cannot and should not be categorized, and to do so would be dangerous. 

Students will then read a short narrative essay by New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman who reflects on what the phrase “I am Jewish” means to him. Like Maalouf, Friedman asserts that the different parts of his identity cannot be categorized into a hierarchy of importance. They all make up who he is. 

Through reading the two texts and watching David Kennedy’s video clip, students will discuss if it is indeed necessary that we relegate our various identities below our American identity. The students will end the lesson by reflecting on their identities and writing their own “I am Jewish” narrative response.

  • What does it mean to be a “hyphenated American”?
  • What tensions can arise when we are asked to classify our identities?
  • What is the relationship between our Jewish identities and our American identities?

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-minute class periods and includes:

  • 3 activities 
  • 5 teaching strategies  
  • 1 video 
  • 2 readings 
  • 1 extension 

In the full-length version of American Creed, politicians, activists, veterans, and first-generation college students at Stanford University draw connections between their family stories and identities, reflect on what it means to be American, and share their ideas about what we aspire to as a nation. Diplomat Condoleezza Rice, historian David Kennedy, Major League Baseball manager Joe Maddon, and civic entrepreneur Eric Liu are just some of the individuals featured in the film who reflect on the notion of the “American Dream” and challenge the viewer to engage in conversations across difference—to really listen to what others have to say and to hear their stories—in order to be reminded of the ideals that we share in common as a nation. The film poses a number of thought-provoking questions: “What is our common aspiration in the United States?” “What does it mean to be American?” and “In a fractured nation, what ideals do we hold in common?” While American Creed does not offer any definitive answers to these questions, the men and women featured in this film—through their commitment to service and fostering civil discourse—offer viewers a glimpse of what working together, in the words of David Kennedy, “to build and sustain healthy communities and not just individual lives” might look like.


Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and identities.

Because this lesson asks students to consider facets of their identities that may feel personal to them, it is important that your classroom is one that fosters mutual respect and an appreciation for different points of views and values. If you have not created a classroom contract, consider taking the time to do so before teaching this lesson. You might also consult the Facing History resource Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations for additional strategies and resources to help promote active listening, intellectual engagement, and thoughtful reflection in your classroom.


Because there are different options for how you might divide this lesson over two days depending on your students’ reading levels and the length of your class periods, we have not indicated how to break up the lesson in the Activities section of the lesson plan. You might devote the first class to David Kennedy’s American Creed video clip and explore the various discussion questions in depth. Then spend the second day with the two readings, assigning Maalouf’s One Identity, Multiple Belongings for homework on the first night if you think your students can read it independently. Alternatively, on the first day you might watch and discuss David Kennedy’s video and then start to read One Identity, Multiple Belongings, finishing the discussion of the essay in the second class period and then moving on to the third and final activity.

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Lesson Plans


  • Tell students that they will be watching a short video clip called “Twoness” from the film American Creed in which historian David Kennedy discusses the complexity of American identity. You might build schema by asking students to make predictions about the clip based on its title and topic. Students should then take out their journals before viewing “Twoness.”
  • Show the video David M. Kennedy: "Twoness" (2:24) two times. Before the first viewing, tell students to listen for ways in which the idea of dual identities has changed over time in America. Students can record notes in their journals during the second viewing of the clip.
  • To allow space for processing and reflection, ask students to respond to the following question in their journals:
    • According to David Kennedy, how have the ways Americans accept and understand the idea of hyphenated identities changed over time?
    • What role, if any, does being American play into your identity?
    • What role, if any, does being Jewish play into your identity?
  • Ask students to debrief in a Think, Pair, Share activity. Let them know that if they don’t feel comfortable sharing what they wrote about their identities, they can focus their discussions on the first question. Time allowing, you might ask a few students to share their ideas with the class.
  • Next project onto the board or pass out and read aloud Kennedy’s closing remark about today’s society Then ask students to either paraphrase the passage with a partner or do so as a class. Kennedy said,
    Now for people to identify themselves by their ethnic marker as well as their American membership in our society is thought to be perfectly acceptable and even a good thing to do....But in a sense this is a rhetorical trick. We still, I think, have internalized the expectation that the differences among us will, over time, lose their rough edges, be reduced in dimension somewhat, and we will all, in the end, embrace one another as fellow citizens of the republic.
  • Choose from the following questions to discuss Kennedy’s closing remarks as a class:
    • What are the possible costs and benefits of having a hyphenated identity?
    • Are strong individual identities a threat to the nation’s identity? How can we hold onto our individual identities yet remain loyal citizens? Is it necessary to give up aspects of our identities to do so?
    • How might this internalized expectation to "lose our rough edges, be reduced in dimension...and embrace one another as fellow citizens" be problematic when it comes to our identity as Jews?
    • How might this internalized expectation contrast with what is taught in a Jewish education class?
    • What are ways that Jews might maintain a hyphenated identity without losing our "rough edges"? Is that even possible?
  • Even though writer Amin Maalouf is not American, his reflections in his essay “Deadly Identities,” excerpted in the reading One Identity, Multiple Belongings, can help students understand what is at stake when we ask someone to categorize their identity into a hierarchy. Maalouf contends that this is a dangerous request.
    • Explain to students that hyphenated identities are not unique to the United States. Tell them that they will now read an essay by Amin Maalouf, a writer who was born in Lebanon and immigrated to France at the age of 27. In his essay, he discusses his own hyphenated identity and the dangers of choosing one identity of the other.
    • Pass out the reading One Identity, Multiple Belongings and read aloud as a class, paragraph by paragraph, using either a wraparound or popcorn strategy. Because it is a long text, you might pause every few paragraphs to check for understanding by asking one or two text-dependent questions and clarifying any confusion about vocabulary or main ideas. If you have time, discuss this reading’s three connection questions as a class.
    • To provide time and space for students to synthesize Maalouf’s and Kennedy’s ideas about navigating hyphenated identities, ask students to complete a Connect, Extend, Challenge in their journals.
      • Connect: How do the ideas and information in this reading connect to David Kennedy’s ideas about the underlying expectation that the differences between us will be reduced and we will lose the “rough edges” that distinguish one group from another?
      • Extend: How does this reading extend or broaden your thinking about hyphenated identities, specifically about your Jewish American identity?
      • Challenge: Does this reading challenge or complicate your understanding of your own identity? How might this essay imply that identity is a dangerous idea? How can we preserve our identity as Jews while still giving credence to Maalouf’s argument?
    • Debrief the response in a class discussion, emphasizing the ways in which the reading challenged or complicated their ideas about identity. If you would like for students to take notes during the discussion, consider using the Connect, Extend, Challenge Chart.
  • Thomas Friedman’s "I am Jewish" essay is an extension of Maalouf’s argument that identities cannot be categorized or placed into a hierarchy. Friedman was asked to respond to the phrase, “I am Jewish,” and, like Maalouf, he does not see one part of his identity as being more dominant than the other parts.
    • Pass out Reading 18: "I am Jewish" by New York Times Journalist, Thomas Friedman. Read the passage out loud to the class and then ask students to underline one sentence that resonates with them in the reading and to write a few sentences explaining why they chose it.
    • Ask students to debrief the reading with a partner by first sharing what they underlined and then adding any new ideas from Friedman’s paragraph to their Connect, Extend, Challenge Chart or notes from the previous discussion. Then ask a few pairs to share what they added to their charts.
    • Conclude the lesson by asking students to create their own “For me, the phrase ‘I am Jewish means’” response in the style of Thomas Friedman. This narrative response can be their exit card, or you might ask them to start a draft in class and revise it for homework.

Extension Activity  

  • Before teaching this extension, explain to students that the use of the word “Negro” used to be an acceptable term for referring to African Americans. While not offensive in the past, today the term “Negro” is outdated and inappropriate, unless one is reading aloud directly from a historical document. Then read aloud the following quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois’ iconic work, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he explains the idea of “twoness” and debrief the passage by discussing the two questions.
    The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife...He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American...without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. 1
    • What does Du Bois mean when he says that “America has much to teach the world and Africa” and, in turn, that the “Negro soul” has a “message for the world”?
    • How can we look at this quotations as it relates to Jewish identity? Following DuBois’ train of thought as it pertains to Jews in America, what do you think Judaism has to learn from America and what might America be able to learn from Judaism?
  • Conclude this activity by showing the video Di'Vennci Lucas: "Colorblind" (00:34) from American Creed in which Lucas, a first generation Stanford University student, reflects on the relationship between race and identity. Then ask students draw connections between Du Bois and Lucas by discussing the following questions:
    • How does Lucas’s statement about not wanting a “colorblind” America connect to, extend, or challenge Du Bois’ ideas about African American identity?
    • How does Lucas help you think about your Jewish identity in a new, different, or deeper way?
  • 1W.E.B Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. website, accessed February 7, 2018.

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