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By The Book?

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

More than a quarter century has passed since I sat in Mr. Armstrong’s World History class and still I remember what it felt like to see the red marks all over the chapter test.


Though I was never the student that DadGiraffe was throughout his academic career, I had my subjects of strength and my subjects of weakness. History? A strength.

Oh, and did I mention that the subject matter of this particular chapter was “Judaism?”

This wasn’t a graduate level course. This was one lousy chapter in a high school textbook for a basic, basic world history class. But because my framework was Jewish, and I don’t speak Christian, I bombed that test, Soundly.

Examples of questions that I answered “incorrectly:”

  1. What do Jews call God?
  2. Name the three pilgrimage festivals.

Answer #1 — I mentioned that God’s Name, the tetragrammaton, is symbolized in English by the letters YHVH, but is pronounced Adonai so that we do not attempt to pronounce (correctly or incorrectly — both being problematic) God’s Name.

[And of course you are not surprised that the soon-to-be sixteen year old Frume Sarah used the term ‘tetragrammaton’ on her exam, are you?]


Apparently all Jews call God Yahweh. At least according to the answer key provided by the textbook publisher. I complained. I said that no Jew I knew used this term. The teacher said that I must not know many Jews. I polled every single Jew on my high school campus (roughly seventeen students). Not only did I tally one hundred percent in the non-Yahweh column, but not a single one had even heard of the term ‘Yahweh.’

That wasn’t convincing enough. Nor was my explanation of how the the term ‘Yahweh’ developed from the original Hebrew (yud-hey-vav-hey), as did the term ‘Jehovah,’ but neither were terms used by Jews.


Answer #2 — Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot.

[That was my “American” answer since at home we called the Shlosh Regalim Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos.]

{{WRONG}} Again.

According to the farshtunkner answer key, the correct answer is the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of the Tabernacles.

I could certainly see how that could be an alternate answer…though I wasn’t really certain what a tabernacle was. What I didn’t understand was why my answers were wrong when I knew them to be right?

Distance is a powerful lens. It allows us to strip away all emotional involvement in order to distill genuine understanding. This was nothing more than a power struggle between a less-than-stellar teacher and a combative, bull-headed teenager. Not being Jewish, he had nothing more than the teacher’s edition to guide him through areas beyond his specialty. How could he not feel defensive when confronted? And I, reflecting back on entire experience, already felt rather isolated as a religious minority and resented being told that I was wrong about the one thing I really knew.

As it so happens, I was wrong. My answers, while theoretically accurate, reflected my prior knowledge rather than the material presented in the textbook. For the playing field to be level, we were being tested not on what we knew from outside sources but what we had gleaned from the coursework.

A better educator would have pulled the insolent student aside and, after explaining that the exam was meant to be on the material in the book, would have given credit for the alternate, and verifiably correct, answers. The lesson would have been learned that much sooner.

And without the humiliation.

All of this came rushing back as I began to prepare a lesson on Judaism for the sixth grade at Beernut’s school for this Friday. The worksheet provided to the class ahead of my lesson begins with the following True/False statements:

  1. The Torah is made up of six books.
  2. Christians adopted the books of the Torah as the first books of the Old Testament.
  3. Because of God’s promise to Abraham, Israelites considered themselves to be God’s “chosen people.”
  4. Unlike the laws set forth in Hammurabi’s Code, the Israelites did not try to match punishments to crimes.
  5. In Judaism, only a husband could seek a divorce.
  6. The prophets of Israel said that all people — including kings and merchants — were equal before God.

How would you do on this little quiz?? Because I didn’t do so well.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, 11 January 2012 11:01 am

    You think that is something, wait until your children start learning about the history of the Middle East in their textbooks. According to my son’s highschool history book, the area was always called Canaan until it was called Palestine. The only people that ever called it Judea were Jews and they weren’t around for very long and were an inconsequential people except for Jesus. Oh and Judaism was the beginning of Christianity and Islam. Wait just wait for the misinformation and antisemitism in your children’s history books. I also checked out the authors of my children’s history books…not one was an ancient historian or knowledgeable in Jewish studies. But the editor was a professor of Arab history. BTW this is the book recommended by the New York Board of Regents.

  2. Wednesday, 11 January 2012 11:08 am

    Forgot to tell you that in this book the Holocaust wasn’t about the Jews. While the Jews suffered many others suffered too. I suppose we should be glad that the book didn’t deny that the Holocaust happened altogether.

  3. Wednesday, 11 January 2012 3:16 pm

    “he had nothing more than the teacher’s edition to guide him through areas beyond his specialty.”
    There is also something called intellectual honesty.

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