Sometimes the courses we teach choose us. In 1996, I was a graduate student in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania with the opportunity to design my own first-year writing seminar. Although I was specializing in Victorian fiction, struggling to make sense of Trollope’s church politics (what was the difference between a bishop and a deacon anyway?) and George Eliot’s apostasy, and even Dickens’s Christmas tales, I found myself proposing a seminar far from England and its many churches and articles of faith.
As if from nowhere, a syllabus materialized in which, with extreme clarity, I laid out a course of study that paired texts about American slavery with those on the Shoah, the Holocaust of European Jewry, to investigate the relations between literacy and historical trauma. I was compelled by stories of what seemed impossible to write but had to be written. I wondered how language could bring together realities that seemed impossible to solder: the before, during, and after of lives shaped or interrupted by extreme violence and then restored or newly established as “ordinary” lives of human dignity. How could the same language suffice to capture both realities? How could the same letter I represent a self who had lived a life nearly impossible to credit from the other side?
At the same time, I was fascinated then — as I remain today — by the differences between fictional and nonfictional accounts of these crises, that is, the intersections of the literary and the historical. I knew the course needed to begin with autobiography. I wanted the voices of those who had been there — those who had seen and suffered because of the accidents of their birth, and then written to testify — to survive. But I wanted fiction, too— works that said you can inhabit others’ experience. The accidents of your birth matter, but they can never be all that matters. In a world where they are all that matters, we may find ourselves witness to or engaged in racial slavery or ethnic cleansing.
The work of the course insisted that across time and space, we are all human beings. To meet each other, there is such a thing as research; there is such a thing as responsible historical imagination. Boundaries can be crossed. Sometimes they must be crossed — with care and extreme caution.
I could not have known it in 1996, but I would wind up teaching variations of that course to American college students for nearly twenty years, in three different universities. Every time I thought of setting it aside, another student would tell me that he or she had never read such things, that they had never considered a world organized by the wholesale abrogation of some people’s human rights — that all they had known came from flat textbooks or shiny museums. And then, again, I would feel I did not have the right to stop teaching it, even when I wanted to.
Looking back, it is striking to me now that this course, with its shattering content, was from start to finish a writing course. For almost twenty years, I chose to teach students the mundane freshman skills of “reading and writing” from sacred texts of suffering and survival. These were texts that attested to the power of literacy to oppose wrong; to reassert identity and sometimes community; to describe the reverberations of history in our bodies, our families, our houses of prayer, our national institutions. Painstakingly, I taught the workaday things I had been hired to teach — close reading, topic sentences, working with quotations, building a descriptive thesis — from these texts, written in fire and blood. I married form and content: I taught the power of the word through powerful words, giving our own amateur attempt to formulate ideas the charge of historical responsibility – of world-making.I believed that teaching such texts and such skills might make actors of readers. This was my unconscious answer to the role of an educator in a world visibly roiled by war, hatred, murder, and competing, perhaps irreconcilable, needs and interests. I trusted — perhaps naively — that if you read such things, you would feel you had no alternative but to take to the streets, or to the pen, or to certain kinds of work or volunteerism because the world still held no shortage of troubles: genocide; slavery; dehumanizing labor and living conditions that made education nearly unattainable; impossible, violence-inducing gaps between haves and have-nots. I believed that reading such texts would make you seek out the injustices in what the ancient rabbis called your own daled amot, that is, your own near environs.
As I taught and retaught that course on American slavery and the Shoah, students and sometimes colleagues would ask me how I understood the coupling of those two bodies of material: What did it mean to set these histories next to each other? I asked myself this question, too, and when I could not articulate a satisfying theoretical answer, I returned to my practical answer: to attend intently to the particularities of each text we studied, to elucidate differences, and to note commonalities — not to compare historical wounds.
But a new clarity arrived when my seventy-five-year-old Israeli uncle, a historian who had been hidden as a child by Poles during World War II, told me, in the heat of summer in Beer-Sheva, that he could not understand how I had paired American slavery and the Shoah. It was then that I understood for the first time that what I was teaching was my own ethical identity, my deepest commitments as a Jewish American, Gen‑X adult. I was teaching my rationale for a vocation in education that had come as naturally as I had grown as a girl.
My two sets of texts constituted a coherent pair for a simple reason: both insisted, implicitly or explicitly, on the inviolable nature of every human life and the consequent obligations to a legal and social system built on justice and equality. This was the still, small voice: the calm, unwavering meeting point of Jewishness and Americanness that constituted the moral logic of my universe and my teaching. I saw my students, semester after semester, as just such human beings. Their existence was sui generis; their lives were valuable and briefly laid before me for nurturance. I saw them, especially the freshmen, as my charges.
When I ask myself where this intense consciousness of the sacred and the equal began, I think of my earliest encounters as a schoolchild studying the book of Genesis. In that book, human history — not Jewish history— begins as follows: “And God created humankind in God’s image.” Remarkably, over the course of my childhood and adolescence, the sacred nature of God’s creation of humanity seemed to lead naturally to the democratic ideals of equality and justice: if each human being is created in God’s image, then we are all of equal worth, with equal rights as a consequence. This distinctively American reading sidelined many other dimensions of the biblical worldview to teach a set of ethics that made national sense.
When religious faith settles upon central national values, it charges them with spirit. For better or for worse, children brought up on this meld of religious and national values do not experience them as a set of beliefs so much as a way of being a person in the world. To this day, it is impossible to say whether I believe in democratic values as a Jew or an American. And it was and is impossible to separate my sense of self from these values.
This excerpt from Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American is reprinted with permission from Rutgers University Press.
Texts used in the class:
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
Primo Levi, “On Obscure Writing”
Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After
Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl”
Jonathan Rosen, “The Trivialization of Tragedy”
Claude Lanzmann, sections from Shoah
Ilana M. Blumberg is a senior lecturer in English literature and director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American, Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels, and the Sami Rohr Choice Award-winning memoir Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books.