Pho­to: The Cli­mate Real­i­ty Project / Unsplash

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 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 asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and past 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.