One 50-minute class period

Identity in a Modern World

Learning Objectives

This lesson will give students the opportunity to explore the ways in which their own communities and identities are influenced by other people and how identity can change over time. It is also an opportunity for students to think about the ways that eastern European Jews struggled with the notion of identity and to recognize how these experiences might echo some of the struggles students face in their own lives or might otherwise resonate with their own experiences. The lesson can be used to introduce students to Sholem Aleichem’s work, the kinds of themes he wrestled with, and the time period during which he wrote. It can also be used after the other two lessons in the Sholem Aleichem unit to encourage students to think about the consequences of modernization for Jewish identity at the turn of the twentieth century.

Essential Questions

  1. What factors influence someone’s identity? What role do other people play in shaping our identities?
  2. How might someone’s identity change from one time or context to another? To what extent can we control these changes?
  3. How might your identity affect the kind of power you have or the kind of power you think you have?


One of Sholem Aleichem’s later stories, “On Account of a Hat,” addresses the tension of constructing an identity for oneself that is unique and modern but also acknowledges and is respectful of one’s ancestry. As Dan Miron says in this film clip, “Sholem Aleichem was exploring one question: How to be Jews in a modern world—how to adapt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of a civilization that was Jewish.” While “On Account of a Hat” itself is a relatively simple story, Laughing in the Darkness insists on its deeper importance and its capacity to address a community’s crisis of identity.


This lesson plan focuses on one of Sholem Aleichem’s later stories, “On Account of a Hat” (1913), which is featured in the selected film excerpt from Laughing in the Darkness. “On Account of a Hat” is a story in which a Jew from the shtetl of Kasrilevka is momentarily and accidently elevated from a poor Jewish laborer to a decorated Russian official. When the main character looks in a mirror, in fact, he doesn’t recognize himself. When he returns to Kasrilevka, the people in his hometown (the narrator included) mock him for stepping beyond the boundaries of his old Jewish identity (even if this transgression was accidental). The fact that the main character doesn’t even recognize himself is one of the central jokes of the story and a way for Sholem Aleichem to address the crisis of identity that many Jews were facing at the time. The story mirrors the larger changes that Jewish communities all over eastern Europe were undergoing at the end of the nineteenth century.


  • shtetl : (n.) small town, village (Yiddish).


Processes such as industrialization, urbanization, and the construction of mass transportation systems (including railways, which provide the setting for part of the story) had begun to change the socioeconomic landscape in places where many Jews lived at the end of the nineteenth century. What were once small and relatively isolated communities were forced to open up, a process that was often as perplexing as it was painful. For many, modernity came at a great price. 

Passengers board the express train to Saint Petersburg. Railroads revolutionized the world, providing fast and efficient transportation of goods and people. In the work of Sholem Aleichem and other authors of his time, trains often symbolized change and modernity.

Once modernization began to impact these communities, traditional structures (such as the patriarchal family unit, religious learning and observance, and traditional worldviews) began to dissolve rapidly. Jews began to move to the big cities and industrial centers. There they were exposed to alternative religious teaching, secular education, and revolutionary ideas about society, gender, and government. In this context—for some, a bustling marketplace of ideas and theories—many joined youth movements, scholarly and literary organizations, and political parties that competed with traditional institutions and norms. Since those older institutions had provided structure and context for Jewish life, their erosion left many Jews with neither the comforts of the familiar nor a clear roadmap for navigating the changing relationship between Jews and gentiles. The train—a symbol of industrialization as well as a space in which one encountered people from many different backgrounds—appears frequently in Sholem Aleichem’s work, including “On Account of a Hat.” It serves as a means of discussing the relationship between tradition and modernity.


  • gentiles : persons who are not Jewish.



  1. Identity Chart Activity 

    As an introductory activity, you may choose to use the Identity Chart teaching strategy by having students first construct an identity chart for themselves in the present. Then have students construct an identity chart for themselves two or three years ago. Have students discuss the following questions: What has changed? What has stayed the same? Why do identities change over time? What role do other people have in shaping our identities? Does each of us really have one fixed identity, or are they multiple? As a follow-up activity, ask students to think of a favorite article of clothing that says something about their identity, such as a cap with the logo of a favorite sports team, a favorite T-shirt, or a piece of jewelry from a family member or friend. Students can describe the article of clothing to a partner or small group. Have them consider the following questions: What does this piece of clothing say about you? How do you feel when you wear it? How do you think other people perceive it? Do the things we wear reflect the way we see ourselves or the way we want others to see us? Give students a moment to think about the item, and the ways in which identity can be altered simply by changing a piece of clothing, before discussing their selection and ideas with a partner. You might have each student present his or her item to the class.

  2. Watch the film clip "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness: Identity in a Changing World."

    After showing the clip, have the students debrief with their partners by talking about what they just saw. You may choose to have students discuss two important messages in the clip by doing a Big Paper activity with the following quotes and questions:

    Dan Miron says in the film that Sholem Aleichem “was exploring one question: How to be Jews in a modern world—how to adapt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of a civilization that was Jewish.” He, like many of his generation, wrestled with these questions: Is it possible to adapt to modernity without losing touch with the past? How might these two paths be reconciled? Are there other groups that must confront these questions?

    Ruth Wisse says in the film that “if one has lost access to Sholem Aleichem, then, in fact, one has lost access to that process of modernization itself. If you cut it away, then what you cut away is such a valuable understanding of one’s own transformation into who we are. . . . And when that is lost, then one is empty of something—empty of something that is really part of one’s self.” What does she mean by this? What is the “process” of modernization? How does Sholem Aleichem allow us to access “that process of modernization itself”? Does one need to have access to his or her group’s past to be whole (or, at least, not empty)?

  3. Read Sholem Aleichem's story "On Account of a Hat" 

    You may wish to have students read Sholem Aleichem’s story “On Account of a Hat,” which is summarized in the film clip. When assigning the reading, provide the students with some background information on Sholem Aleichem (if they are not already familiar with him). The introduction to this unit may be helpful.

    The following exercises may be used to assist students’ comprehension of the text.

    Use a T-Chart/Graphic Organizer to help students structure their thoughts about the story.     

    On the left side of the chart, place the following statements that the narrator makes; on the right side, have students write two or three examples they find in the text to support each statement. It is important to note that Sholem Aleichem is known for his use of irony and his humorous engagement with the audience. You may wish to have students note any contradictions they see on the right side of the chart and keep in mind the tone that Sholem Aleichem uses. Ask: What is the effect of multiple narrators? How do you think Sholem Aleichem feels about the train? How do the characters in his story feel about it?

    • The narrator of the story says that this is a “true story.”
    • The narrator says, “We were better off without the train.”


    Reader’s Theater Activity

    Have students apply the Reader’s Theater teaching strategy for several key moments in the story. This activity is a chance for students to break down and think about important moments and the choices that characters make in the story. The following are scenes you may wish to have students recreate as part of the activity; otherwise, let the students choose their own.

    • The moment when Sholem Shachnah reasons that he should be able to take a nap before the train comes (“To make a long story short . . . what would you have him do?”)
    • The moment when Sholem Shachnah places the Russian official’s hat on his head and goes to buy a ticket (“Time? What time? . . . And there he is, alone at last.”)
    • The moment when Sholem Shachnah sees himself in the mirror (“Left alone in the carriage . . . one followed by another, and then, good night!”)


    Comprehension Activity: Think-Pair-Share 

    The following may be used as comprehension questions to assist students in understanding key themes in the story.

    • Think about the description of the Purishkevitch and what you know about the relationship between Jews and Russian officials during this time period. What are the different factors that might have played a role in shaping Jewish life at that time?
    • Can you think of any other stories in which a train or a railroad is a prominent feature? Why do you think trains serve as a setting for this and other stories Aleichem wrote?
    • Sholem Shachnah tells his wife that he will be home “without fail” for Passover. How do you understand this expression of certainty, and Sholem Shachnah’s failure to make it home, in the context of the story?
    • Why do you think Sholem Shachnah’s identity changes so easily (with the change of the hat)? What factors shape his identity? Use the Identity Chart strategy to create an identity chart for Sholem Shachnah.
    • Even though Shachnah takes off the Russian official’s hat, people still call him “Your Excellency.” What is the difference between the way people at the train station address Sholem Shachnah and the way the people in his town address him once he has returned? How do you explain their responses?
    • The narrator ends by asking, “You think it’s so easy to put one over on Kasrilevka?” In what tone is he asking this? Why do you think the story ends this way?
    • This story is being told from the point of view of an outside narrator. How do you think this affects our understanding of Sholem Shachnah? How do you think the story might change if Sholem Shachnah were telling it himself?
    • You may wish to conclude the discussion by returning to the exercise in which students selected a personal article of clothing. How does this activity help you understand the importance of the hat in “On Account of a Hat”? Someone who changes his or her demeanor or personality depending on the situation is said to “wear many hats.” What are the benefits of “wearing many hats”? Are these different personalities all part of one’s identity, or can they be taken on and off like a simple piece of clothing? How fluid is identity? Can identity ever be fixed, or static?
  4. Debrief Discussion

    As a class, discuss what the story suggests about the relationship between an individual and the context of his or her experience. Ask: What changes might you notice in your identity over time or with a change of context? Are there ways in which you have stayed the same? What parts of your identity are influenced by your parents, their economic class, or their cultural background? Are there ways in which you are moving away from the values your parents hold? What role do the traditions of your parents or grandparents play as you think about your present and future? You may want to pose these questions in a class discussion or have students respond to them in their journals or as writing prompts.


  • Passover : the Jewish holiday celebrating the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian slavery (in Hebrew and Yiddish: Pesah or Pesach).


Suggested Extension 1: Read “I’m Not Really Jewish” by Joey Goldman (The Jews of Poland, chapter 1, reading 6)

The text "I'm Not Really Jewish" helps students explore Jewish Identity. You may want to have students read the whole text as a class or in groups, or have individual groups each focus on one of the three moments in the text when the author, Joey Goldman, defines his Jewish identity. Each of the small groups might then present how Joey feels about being Jewish and how influential a role it plays in his life at the group’s assigned moment from the text. How is the way that Joey Goldman’s identity changes over time similar to and/or different from the way Sholem Shachnah’s identity changes in the story by Sholem Aleichem? How do we relate to the traditions of our parents?

Suggested Extension 2: Barometer exercise

You may choose to do a Barometer exercise to help students explore the question of whether or not identity can be fixed, or static, in our ever-changing world. Place the statement “Sholem Shachnah can return to the sense of identity he had at the beginning of the story” at one end of the barometer chart and the statement “Sholem Shachnah’s identity has fundamentally changed” at the other end. Students can arrange themselves between the two positions. Then give students the option of discussing their choices. Moving out from the particular story to universal questions about issues of identity and an age of globalization, consider using the following prompt “living in diverse communities makes it more important for people to hold on to their family's identity and traditions.” To explore the other side of the question you might have them respond to the following prompt: “living in a diverse community requires people to give up their family identity and traditions.”

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