Two years after I began my 2010 Indian teaching adventure, I still have fond memories of my 5th grade class experiences.
I was the sole American primary teacher and the only Jewish person on campus. Unless you live in Israel, being a minority is a natural offshoot of the Jewish experience. In India, my minority status was more pronounced than ever. The Indian Jewish population is estimated to be less than 5,000 people out of a total population of more than 1.2 billion. Jews are a microscopic spec among the masses. In 2010, the world’s Jewish population was estimated at 13,428,300 people. Click the link for more information.
Shortly after arriving at the international school campus, I was advised that each class would be responsible for a performance. I was given the topic “Yom Kippur” and told that my class would be hosting an assembly covering the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah is a fall holiday that starts the Jewish High Holidays and ten days later Yom Kippur concludes this reflective time.
In my memoir, “MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE,” I recalled this unique opportunity.
I was overjoyed with the idea of bringing the Jewish holidays to life for a school population that had minimal contact with Jewish people. I was disappointed, though, that I would miss the performance itself. I had already made reservations to fly to New Delhi in two weeks to celebrate Yom Kippur with Josh and Rachael. I could have remained in Bangalore and attended services at the Chabad house, but I preferred to be with family and not spend the holiday by myself.
During the following week, I put my heart and soul into creating an engaging and informative thirty-minute program. I pulled colorful slides and You Tube videos off the Internet and provided speaking and dance parts for the entire class. As a topic, Yom Kippur was too narrow. I expanded the idea to include basic information about the Jewish people, with a spotlight on the fall holidays. We spent many academic periods rehearsing. It was thrilling to see how the students banded together and took pride in the production.”
When I prepared the assembly script, I had to keep in mind my audience. For most, I was the first Jewish person that they had encountered. The staff and the students knew little about Jews or their holidays. Unlike the U.S. where teachers have to be careful how they interject religion into a classroom setting, I had no restraints. Yet, I still felt obligated to present the material in a generic way that avoided imposing my religious views.
To my surprise, my students were delighted to learn the words to Debbie Friedman’s z”l (1951-2011) Aleph Bet song (Hebrew alphabet song) and the words to the children’s songs- Shalom Chaverim and Apples and Honey for Rosh Hashanah. Click this link to hear an audio clip of my former students singing- Apples and Honey for Rosh Hashanah. (To maintain my students’ privacy, I have chosen not to release the video portion.)
My students became enamored with the idea of eating apples and honey. The week following the presentation, the school treated all of the primary students to this Jewish tradition.
The girls enjoyed dancing to Chasidic music and everyone was eager to learn their speaking parts. One of the students was assigned the role to talk about the shofar, an instrument blown during morning services on Rosh Hashanah. When I shared an Internet audio clip of the sounds of the shofar, my students listened attentively. Much like a Jewish congregation that is awakened by the shrill and notable sounds of the specially crafted ram’s horn, my class was stimulated by their first exposure.
A few students asked probing questions as they tried to gain a better understanding of the shofar, the Jewish people, and their beliefs. I was so pleased that my new class was receptive to listening to explanations about Jewish traditions. So much can be gained by learning about different cultures. Being ignorant and misinformed can lead to embarrassing moments and inconsiderate behavior whereas being amenable to learning about different religious beliefs will hopefully lead to respectful and appropriate conduct. Far too often, uninformed people act in insensitive and thoughtless ways due to a lack of knowledge.
Since leaving India, I have reminisced as I watched the video clips from the dress rehearsal. Did I ever imagine that I would teach an international class with a mixture of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims about the Jewish people?
But this once in a lifetime opportunity came around and I seized it. I am delighted that I could introduce my former students to Jewish traditions and culture. I hope that this was not an isolated event. Sometime in the future, I hope that I can share my heritage with other students.
Will the ideas that I shared with this international school population have any effect on how these individuals view cultural diversity?
Did my brief introduction to the Jewish people help forestall any vestiges of intolerance or anti-Semitism?
I hope so.