By Vicky Sweiry Tsur
June 1, 2021
I was born in London. My parents were born in Bahrain. My grandparents were born in India, Bahrain and Iraq. My great grandparents were born in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq. I grew up in London, where we belonged to a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. I spent my formative years surrounded by a cacophony of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, speaking Judeo-Arabic and eating Iraqi-Bahraini-Indian-Persian food at family gatherings. What does that make me? I have always felt like an ‘other’.
Fast forward a few years, and I find myself teaching 10 year olds Jewish Studies in a Jewish day school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Given the freedom to look at the school’s long standing curriculum with a critical eye, I began to examine the materials to which our students were exposed. To my surprise and delight, I saw that the 5th grade school year would start off with the students learning about the Rosh HaShanah seder, traditionally held by Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews. I opened the booklet and these words, the opening words, jumped out at me: A seder for Rosh Hashanah? Have we lost our minds? Are we talking about the correct holiday? My heart sank. I was not about to teach a classroom full of 5th graders that this centuries old tradition of my family and half the world’s Jewish population was an oddity born either from insanity or ignorance! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
I was fortunate enough to attend the JIMENA conference in San Francisco in January 2019 and learned about the very-soon-to-be-published JIMENA curriculum for Jewish day schools. I grabbed it with both hands, adapted it to suit my 5th graders, and built a month-long unit of study with JIMENA’s 12 part curriculum as my foundation. Our learning in 5th grade was varied and meaningful with lessons on the geography of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews; their expulsion from their homelands and the creation of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands; the symbolism and meaning behind the khamsa and its connection to tzedakah; traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi folktales; and yes, we made moufleta for Mimouna but we also learned so much more.
During the last lesson of the unit this year, having taught it successfully for the second consecutive year, I patted myself on the back for exposing my students to Jewish culture, traditions and history that they had never heard of and supporting such rich and diverse learning. One of my students raised a polite hand and asked if we were now going back to learning about “regular Jewish things”. And just like that, it hit me. I had done it all wrong. I had squashed the Sephardi/Mizrachi Jewish experience into a single month of my teaching year. I was setting it aside and making it ‘other’. I was devastated. That well-meaning 10 year old brought my spirits crashing down, but I picked myself up and resolved to do better next year.
Next year, I plan to break my month-long unit of study into mini-units, dispersing them throughout the school year and teaching them between the “regular Jewish things” on my curriculum. Next year, my students won’t start and then finish their learning of the Sephardi/Mizrachi experience because that experience is an integral part of the Jewish story, not a sub-unit. Next year, I will weave all those elements together. Next year… I’m rolling up my sleeves again.