Great Jewish Books: HBHA Student and Teacher Explore Jewish Literature at the Yiddish Book Center


Leah Sosland

This summer, junior Eliana Schuster and English department chair R. Gina Renee resided, at separate times, at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. where, among peers, they immersed themselves in an exploration of Jewish literature and culture.

The Yiddish Book Center offers numerous educational programs throughout the year, including the Great Jewish Books Summer program, a weeklong program for rising high school juniors and seniors with a focus on reading relevant and challenging works of modern Jewish literature. Schuster completed an application that required two teacher recommendations and responses to a series of short essay prompts. She applied because she “thought it would be interesting to see Jewish literature from a different perspective. At HBHA, we learn Torah and sometimes learn Jewish literature, but I wanted to look at it from a different angle,” said Schuster.

Schuster spent a week at the Yiddish Book Center participating in Great Jewish Books, a summer program for high school juniors and seniors. Photo courtesy of Eliana Schuster.

The Yiddish Book Center’s programs are not limited to high school students. Renee participated in the Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop,  a program for teachers at Jewish high schools or Jewish teachers at non-Jewish schools interested in cultivating a curriculum that reflects the variety and profundity of modern Jewish literature and culture. Renee applied after being referred to the workshop by her colleague, Michal Cahlon, who attended the program last summer. Renee describes her week as being less like the conferences and professional developments which she usually attends and could not have agreed more with Cahlon’s assessment that the program is more of a “delight” and an opportunity to “feed the soul” through “intellectual engagement with like-minded people and be exposed to a lot of Yiddish books and stories and Jewish literature.”

Schuster was struck by the pluralistic nature of the program. “You can’t assume anything about anyone,” she was told by the faculty on the first night. Schuster was used to finding herself in atmospheres that were relatively homogeneous, but her group of peers was constantly surprising her with their diverse identities, opinions, and beliefs. Schuster, who identifies with the Jewish Reform movement, found herself unaware of the orientations of her peers. “It was never really relevant,” she shared. “People didn’t identify themselves–I had people who I was great friends with, and I was surprised when, at the end, I found out their denomination. We were just connecting to learn about Jewish literature, and our Judaism didn’t come up as much as I thought it would.”

Alternately, Renee, who is not Jewish, found that Jewish orientation was a popular mealtime topic among her colleagues and peers. “What struck me was this need to out yourself: ‘I’m this or I’m that.’ Teaching at HBHA, I’m not privileged to those conversations, but being among peers and listening to this was educative for me because I didn’t realize how strongly Jewish educators orient themselves to one another on the basis of their levels of Jewishness,”  said Renee.

R. Gina Renee and her fellow participants in the Great Jewish Books Teachers Workshop smile next to the Yiddish Book Center Sign. Photo by Lesley Yalen.

Both Renee and Schuster are planning on incorporating the ideas and themes introduced to them at the Jewish Book Center into the coming school year.

Schuster shares that her favorite part of Great Jewish Books was that it was an opportunity for “learning to learn.”Although she knows that it will be difficult to transfer that into high school, where learning revolves around grades, she plans to “look for personal growth in my schoolwork” in the coming year. Already, one of the courses that she took called “Split Self,” which focused on the idea of having split identity in literature, has changed the way she reads. “When I was doing my summer homework for school, I saw themes from Great Jewish books, like perspectives on suffering, that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

In the same vein, Renee’s ninth grade English class will be informed by her time at the Center. During her unit on the Holocaust, rather than teaching “The Book Thief,” Renee will be teach “Maus,” a graphic novel written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, the son of a Polish Holocaust survivor.
One aspect of the Teacher’s Workshop that extends into the school year is the creation of a “resource kit,” a development of new teaching materials, Renee explained. “That relates in some way to Jews, Jewish art, Jewish literature in a very broad sense.” Renee, for example, chose to build a resource kit about Bayard Rustin, an eminent and openly gay activist in the Civil Rights movement, “because a lot of people don’t realize that he was pro-Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was very unpopular to be pro-Israel and openly speak out against anti-Semitism. This is interesting because the relationship between African Americans and Jews became extremely strained after their partnership in the Civil Rights movement.” Renee finds it to be “a pleasure for me to take what I know and connect it to the mission of the Yiddish Book Center and the program.” Renee’s resource kit will become available to teachers nationwide who are interested in connecting Judaism and the Civil Rights Movement in their courses. Already, Renee is planning on using the resource kits of two of her colleagues from the workshop in order to plan out Winterim classes she will teach in January–one about Jewish standup comedians and another on Jewish trans identity. “I never would’ve thought ‘let me teach a winterim on trans Jewish identity, on Jewish jokes, so that’s wonderful and worth it right there.”