Jewish Identity Lesson Plan

One of the earliest memories I have about what it means to be a Jew is when my mother told me that the Jewish people are like a hand. It was January 1991. You wouldn’t know it was a January because, in Los Angeles, the California sun skates on the asphalt the same as it does in the summer months. That year, that month, Saddam Hussein, then the dictator of Iraq, initiated a missile campaign against Israel.

My mother told me that the Jewish people are like a hand because I asked her why she was crying. “You see my hand,” she said. “If I cut one of my fingers, where do you feel the pain?” I must have said, “the entire hand,” because this is when she told me that the Jewish people are like one hand; that if the Jewish people are hurting in Israel, we hurt everywhere.

I come from a Russian-speaking family. The morose nature of her analogy therefore is not unusual. But it left a lasting impression on me. Moreover, it sparked a curiosity that I have been nurturing my entire life: who are the Jewish people? And while many may consider this analogy to be fraught with burden, it has liberated me. It is a great responsibly and privilege to be part of a people not bound by time nor space.

My mother, like many Jews from the former Soviet Union, has a very different relationship to her Jewish identity than the average American Jew. And although I realize that painting people with such broad strokes immures the nuance and complexity of what it means to be a Jew, it nevertheless presents a notable difference.

To understand the predicament of the Soviet Jew, one must comprehend Marxist-Leninist ideology, which holds that the ultimate goal for all citizens is to attain class consciousness. As such, all peoples, including Jews, were to unite in a common struggle to overcome class differences. This could be achieved by jettisoning one’s religious and ethnic markers of self-identification. Religion being the “opium of the masses,” Jews in the burgeoning Soviet state were thus forbidden from practicing the rituals of religious observance. Decades of religious prohibition caused Russian-speaking Jews to become religious orphans.

The same, however, cannot be said about the attempted erasure of Jewish peoplehood. Remarkably, in a totalitarian state that rejected any form of ethnic nationalism, Jewish nationhood—peoplehood—informed Soviet Jewish identity. Jews in the Soviet Union knew they were Jews not because they watched their mothers gather the light with their hands as they blessed the Sabbath candles or their fathers wrap tefillin around their arm. They knew they were Jews because they were marked as “outsiders.” In their passports, their ethnicity was penciled in: evrei (Jew). It was not, of course, solely the Jews who were ethnically marked: Ukrainians, Armenians, and Belarusians, for example, held passports with their ethnic identity similarly displayed. But in marking the Jew as an ethnic minority, the Soviets may have caused Jewish nationalism to flower.

So much so that when Golda Meir, the Minister to the Soviet Union from Israel, visited the Moscow synagogue in 1948, hundreds of Russian-speaking Jews flocked to see her. They rejoiced and held their heads high for before them was the promise of Jewish dignity. This sent Chairman of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin into a panic. And lest anyone believe that Stalin’s paranoia was limited to the common Soviet citizen, among the Russian-speaking Jews who gathered to greet Meir during her state visit was Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of Vyacheslav Molotov, second in command to Stalin himself. Zhemchuzhina, née Perl Solomonovna, who had devoted her entire adult life to serving the communist state, was accused of spying for the West and, for being a Zionist—the supreme form of Jewish nationalism—she was expelled from the party and exiled to the Gulag. Indeed, for the “sin” of Jewish nationalism, what many would call Jewish pride today, Stalin revived the oldest hatred. Anti-Semitism, which during the early Soviet period was outlawed by Bolshevik architect Vladimir Lenin, returned with a vengeance. Jews were targeted, accused of spying for the West and for expressing overt Jewish nationalism: Zionism.

Ironically, against the backdrop of a revival of anti-Semitism, Jewish identity began to flourish. Yes, as a reaction to anti-Semitism, but also because Israel, restored in 1948, signaled what had already been beaten into them: if they are ethnically Jewish, then their home must be Israel. It is for this reason that Zionism resonates so strongly for Russian-speaking Jews. Jews from the former Soviet Union, unlike their American Jewish counterparts, are not fazed by the particularism of a Jewish state because they know they are a particular people. 

Of the far-reaching tension between particularism and universalism, the great American Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick once told a story:

A man comes to a university and asks a student, “Who are you?” 
The student responds, “I am a Catholic.” 
He then asks the second student, “And you?” 
The student responds, “I am Episcopal.” 
The man then asks the third student. “And how about you?” 
The third student responds, “I am a citizen of the world.” 
“Ah!” proclaims the man, “You are the Jew.”

This clever tale reveals the collective portrait of the diaspora Jew, a Jew who willfully gravitates toward universalism and thus denies his particularism. But not the Soviet Jew (don’t get me wrong, many if not a majority of the those who helped to build the Soviet State, were Jews). By the 1940s, and most definitely, by the 1950s, Soviet Jews knew very well who they are: a nation. This is what my mother taught me: that, above all, to be a Jew is to be part of Am Yisrael; that to be a Jew is to inherit a civilization that brought to the world ethical monotheism; that to be a Jew is a great privilege, for we are a people not bound by time nor space; that to be a Jew is to be a Judean. 

Like other Soviet Jews, for whom religious rituals became obsolete, my mother turned to Jewish literature written by Sholom Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, Dovid Bergelson, and, most notably, the German-Jewish writer Leon Feuchtwanger, whose historical fiction captured the enormity of a small nation’s history. Books, then, became a vital vessel of knowledge. The importance of secular literature dealing with Jewish history cannot be overstated in the case of Russian Jewry since this literary corpus was, in large part, what made Russian-speaking Jews acutely aware of collective Jewish history. As the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us, “History answers the question, ‘What happened?’ Memory answers the question, ‘Who, then, am I?’” Jewish identity, at once diverse and protean, has therefore one constant: collective memory.

Soviet Jews knew very well who they are: a nation. This is what my mother taught me: that, above all, to be a Jew is to be part of Am Yisrael; that to be a Jew is to inherit a civilization that brought to the world ethical monotheism; that to be a Jew is a great privilege, for we are a people not bound by time nor space; that to be a Jew is to be a Judean.

Collective memory happens to a people. Together we remember Egypt, the destruction of the Second Temple, the story of Purim, the story of our short-lived experience in Europe culminating with the Holocaust; conversely, together we celebrate freedom from enslavement, life, the giving of the Torah, the strength of the Maccabees, and, most recently, the revival of our national homeland, the Land of Israel. Because we are a family, we celebrate seminal events together. This, then, is the lesson of what it means to belong not just to a small nation but a large family.

Thirty-two years have passed since I learned that the Jewish people are a hand. I have devoted much of my adult life to educating both youth and adults on the history of the Jewish people and not to make them simply aware of their history, but to galvanize their Jewish identity. I have observed the unfortunate phenomenon of Jewish adults who had their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs or attended twelve grades in a community Jewish day school struggle to explain Jewish identity. Most of the time, they cite Jewish values: tikkun olam, chesed (kindness), or tzedek (justice). While one can indeed argue that kindness can just as easily be a Christian value because Christianity inherited a moral code from the Jews, the ways in which these values are presented to Jewish youth emphasize the universality rather than the Jewish context from which they stem. Even in Jewish Orthodox schools, where I must admit students demonstrate excellent literacy in the Torah and Talmud, the centrality of ethnicity to Jewish identity is still missing

Because we are a family, we celebrate seminal events together. This, then, is the lesson of what it means to belong not just to a small nation but a large family.

My desirous vision for Jewish education is rooted in lessons on peoplehood and collective Jewish memory. It is therefore my honor to share one such lesson that I have developed on Jewish identity and peoplehood with readers of White Rose Magazine. Employing the backward design method, I begin by setting the educational goals. Next, I think about the type of transformation I want to elicit from my students: affective or behavioral. Put differently, what would I like for my students to do with the knowledge they just received? Do I seek an emotional or behavior shift?

In the lesson that I developed, the objectives which I have outlined below, prompt students to act; with the knowledge that Jews are an ethnicity, students are equipped to understand that anti-Zionism is an attack on their Jewish identity. With this knowledge, they will be better prepared to take on today’s most potent variant of the oldest hatred, anti-Zionism.


Lesson Title: “Who are the Jewish People? The Story of a Hand”

Desired Student Age: Middle and High School

Length of Lesson: 90 minutes

Lesson Objectives:

  1. Understand the primary difference between a religious and ethnic identity.  
  2. Unpack the five concepts foundational to Jewish history and collective memory.
  3. Trace the origins of the Jewish people as well as the origins of the term “Palestine.”

Lesson Goals: What will students be able to do with this knowledge?

  1. By understanding that the Jewish people are first and foremost an ethnicity, Jews in the diaspora will be able to better understand their own history in order to combat anti-Zionism.
  2. By examining these five leading concepts, Jewish identity will be fortified.
  3. By tracing the origins of the term “Palestine,” we will be better equipped to combat the lie that Israel is an occupational force or that Jews come from anywhere other than Israel.

Download a PDF of the lesson plan here.