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Another centenary, and we still need to learn

Our history matters to us - it's time to make it a central part of Jewish life, writes Jonathan Boyd

    The Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497, in a 1917 watercolour by Alfredo Roque Gameiro
    The Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497, in a 1917 watercolour by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (Roque Gameiro - A TRIBO DOS PINCÉIS: Quadros da História de Portugal via wikipedia)

    Jews love anniversaries. One hundred years since the Balfour Declaration. Fifty years since the Six-Day War. Three hundred years since the readmission of Jews into Britain. We’ve done them all recently. Not long ago, it was Jerusalem 3000; a few years earlier it was 500 years since the Spanish expulsion. Before we know it, the focus will be on Israel at 70.

    I guess that’s what happens when you have a lot of history. And, if there’s one thing that Jews have, it’s a lot of history.

    I love that about being Jewish. To me, it’s in our history where much of the drama lies. It’s by accessing our story that we uncover the remarkable depth and variety of Jewish expression over time. It’s there that we learn there is no single way to be Jewish, that Judaism has evolved over time, and that, while there are vital constants, there is also tremendous diversity of practice and belief.

    And, critically, we have an incredible story to tell. Paul Johnson wrote his History of the Jews because of “the excitement [he] found in the sheer span of Jewish history.” Martin Gilbert wrote his atlases of Jewish history to portray “the extraordinary diversity of the Jewish saga.” Simon Schama describes Jewish history as “one of the world’s great wonders.” Howard Sachar said that the greatest difficulty in studying Jewish history comes not from a paucity of material, but rather from “an embarras de richesses.” Indeed, all the great Jewish historians, from Graetz, Baron and Dubnow onwards, make much the same point: our story is extraordinary.

    I’ve been reflecting on this because I’m currently working on a large multi-national survey of Jews that will be carried out across the European Union next year. In constructing the questionnaire, I’ve been looking at existing research questions to consider how best to measure different aspects of Jewish identity in quantitative terms.

    Surveys measure Jewish identity in many ways. Almost all include questions about religiosity and observance. Many examine propinquity — how close we are to other Jews. Most include questions about communal affiliation. Those are all obvious methods. But Jewishness is also measured in many other ways: by cultural engagement, charitable giving, volunteering, commitments to social justice, attitudes towards work and learning, Jewish family life, attachments to Israel and the Jewish People and, yes, connections to Jewish history.

    And the evidence indicates that our history really matters to us. Or, more accurately, some of our history does. The Holocaust is particularly pertinent — JPR’s 2013 National Jewish Community Survey presented a representative sample of British Jews with 20 different aspects of Jewishness that might be important to them, and found that “remembering the Holocaust” came second, narrowly outscored by “strong moral and ethical behaviour.” By way of comparison, “believing in God” and “keeping kosher” came 16th and 17th. “Studying Jewish religious texts” came last. That doesn’t mean those are unimportant; it just means they don’t resonate for many.

    I have long felt that, on the infrequent occasions when we do learn some Jewish history, the heavy emphasis on the Holocaust, or for that matter, the state of Israel, often leaves us with a rather impaired and limited understanding of our past. These are important, of course, but there is so much more to learn and discover. And with so many Jewish children in Jewish schools, it should surely be possible to teach Jewish history with sufficient passion and depth to give each child a profound sense that they are part of one of the most compelling stories ever told.

    Perhaps the most important insight from social research is that Jewish identity can be measured in multiple ways because Jews express it in multiple ways. Our Jewishness lies in religious observance, of course, but also in politics and idealism, literature and music, law and debate, spirituality and meaning, food, friendship and family. And it seems to me that understanding our story, in all its richness and complexity, is the key to unlocking each of these possibilities, and helping us to find ourselves in the narrative of the Jewish People.

    So now that Balfour 100 is behind us, perhaps it’s time to start taking our history seriously and locating it much more centrally in the Jewish educational curriculum. Is it such a stretch to suggest that our future may lie in connecting to our past?

    Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

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