Why History Matters

Today‘s world is complex and can be confusing. Examining the past provides critical tools and a wide perspective—in global and local terms—that helps us to understand the way the world works. Without historical context, we are left with a shallow perspective on big picture issues like government, politics, education, economics, social justice and tragedy, and more.

I believe strongly that history matters. It is not merely an application of the idea that “what is past is prologue.” History demonstrates how the world can radically change—or remain the same—and demonstrates both the diversity of the human experience and also gestures at our shared characteristics. And Jewish history provides one lens through which we can understand the experience of minority groups throughout history, the continuities and diversities of cultures, and contested aspirations to statehood in modern times that so many have sought.

As teachers and scholars, it is our duty and challenge to impart the importance of history, especially in a time when the humanities and social sciences come under fire as irrelevant or a waste of time. I aim for students to come away from my teaching with more than a knowledge of the past and how it has shaped our world. I want students to learn to use the historian’s toolkit to analyze the world around them. I want them to gain skills, perspectives, and analytical tools that will serve them in a lifetime of cultural and historical awareness, no matter what field or career they pursue. And it also provides us, as scholars and educators, with opportunities to make the intellectual questions that drive our research relevant to a broader public.

With these learning objectives in mind, I have developed and taught a series of courses in Jewish history that aim to provide students with a deep understanding of the world around them, how we came to the present, and that allows them to begin to think deeply about the world around them.

Classes Taught

Jewish Thought, Politics, and Ethics: From Theory to Practice

(History Seminar)

Download sample syllabus for “Jewish Thought, Politics, and Ethics: From Theory to Practice”

This service-learning-based seminar traces the range of Jewish thought. Many Jewish thought classes focus on major Jewish philosophers and writers in light of their prominence and contribution to the Jewish cultural and intellectual tradition, and this course looks to rethink how we can teach Jewish thought with an eye towards helping students connect historical thinkers with their everyday lives outside the classroom. It thereby provides an overview of Jewish history and its traditions of philosophy, politics, and ethics, and examines how they play an active role in the twenty-first century. Students will read major figures throughout Jewish history, from ancient Alexandria to modern-day America, who straddled the boundaries between thinkers and philosophers, on one side, and active members of society who struggled with contemporary issues on the other. We will consider how and why Jewish history matters and the ways in which its lessons have moved from theory to practice, both in the past and in our own day. It will thereby offer an opportunity to consider how and why history matters and how its study can be applied to our present day and its manifold complexities and problems.

As a service-learning course, students work with a community partner organization on a service project. Through service learning and civic engagement, students reflect critically on issues of service, politics, peoplehood, and social justice as they may apply to the partners’ ongoing work with diverse communities. Each week, we will read primary source material written by a historical figure and consider how the ideas and concepts have and continue to be put into practice. A key learning objective is for students to link material in these central texts with the mission and ongoing work of these community partners. This course therefore provides an introductory framework for service-learning in Jewish studies, an introduction to Jewish history through a survey of diverse thinkers and other historical figures, and connects students with a number of relevant partner sites with whom they will be able to build ongoing relationships.

In this class, we deeply consider in critical perspective how and why we study Jewish history and how it is, and can be, applied. When we consider why we study the past, it is not merely for the sake of broadening our knowledge, or bringing new perspectives. It is also to consider the ideas and experiences that have shaped our world and world-views, and those of others, and to understand the horizon of possibility of the future. Through a survey of Jewish thought, politics, and ethics over the past two thousand years, students will gain an understanding of the arc of Jewish history and also sharpen their critical thinking and writing skills as they peer into the present to see how the past is put into practice.

The Jewish Nation, Invented or Imagined? History and the Politics of Peoplehood

(History Seminar)

Download sample syllabus for “The Jewish Nation, Invented or Imagined?”

Classical Zionism declared the Jews a nation in need of a state, “a people without a land for a land without a people.” Today, some claim that Jewish nationhood was a fiction created with political goals in mind. Are nations real or imagined, “organic” or invented? This seminar examines how history has been brought to bear by those seeking to foster national consciousness.

Jewish history is a useful prism to explore ties between the practice of history and the development of nationalism. The Jews’ ambiguous status—a nation, a people, a religion?—provides a case study in nationhood and history’s role in group consciousness. The range of national, religious, and social responses to the problems of Jewish existence can show how history can be “used and abused.” This course examines the role of the study of the Jewish past in the construction of Jewishness, and through it the relation between history and the formation of group identities.

After examining historical and theoretical underpinnings of nationalism and the case of Jewish nationalism, we read works of history as primary sources and study historians’ place in the development of nationalism as well as its critique. We explore twentieth-century Jewish historians whose scholarly work served political aims, as well as the relationship between current debates in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and questions of history. This seminar opens up dialogue about the real-world impact of history. We assess how historians of the Jews impacted Jewish nationalism of varied types along with contemporary ethnic-political conflicts, and also the broader nature of the relationship between history and nationalism and its legacy.

Hoarders, Buried Alive in the Archive: History, Memory, and Archiving in Modern Times

(History Seminar)

Download sample syllabus for “Hoarders, Buried Alive in the Archive”

We live in an information age surrounded by seemingly unlimited storage and a culture of archiving that privileges the packrat and borders on the obsessive-compulsive. One does not delete an email: it is archived. We document our lives digitally under the pretense of “sharing.” But photos and status updates are stored permanently, even after one’s passing.

Archives, it seems, surround us. The archive is a focal point around which we investigate questions about the relationship between archives, history, and modern memory. We consider the history of archives in the context of the emergence of the state, bureaucracy, the public sphere, and the beginnings of the information age. How do institutions that foster historical scholarship, such as archives, play an active role in fostering history and memory? What is the nature of contemporary cultures of collecting and hoarding? What part does collecting take, both by professionals as well as by everyday people, in shaping perspectives on the past?

Archives have been alternately termed the foundation of civilization, a historical laboratory, and a sealed room under lock and key, where archivists protect history for historians and from historians: hiding unseemly details of the past from prying eyes. And once past the Kafkaesque keeper of the keys to history, one may find herself, literally, buried alive in historical evidence. This seminar investigates the nature of archives and their purpose in public life and the historical discipline, and the twenty-first century everyday digital archiving experience and the future of history.

Other Courses and Subjects Prepared to Teach

I am prepared to teach courses in a number of fields, including:

  • Surveys and seminars in Jewish History in all periods
  • Surveys of Western Civilization and World History
  • History of Archives
  • German-Jewish History
  • American Jewish History
  • History of Zionism and the State of Israel
  • Modern Jewish Thought and Intellectual History

Courses Previously Taught as Teaching Assistant

  • Western Civilization to 600 C.E.
  • World History, 500–1750 C.E.
  • World History, 1750 C.E. to the Present
  • Holocaust: History and Memory