Saturday, October 25, 2014

Storytelling and the Power of the Object in Education

Torah Dedication
When Mom told me about her Synagogue's Torah dedication, I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to share. As a student of heritage and material culture, I am always on the lookout for objects that best exemplify the stories of humanity. This object is exemplary for its significance to the Jewish people and its importance to this culture cannot be overestimated.

I remember back to my childhood. Mom would tell me stories about my family history using the items in her jewelry box as launching points. We would light the menorah, play dreidel, and watch a new husband break a glass under his foot at a wedding.  The objects that told the stories of my heritage and of Judaism made a strong impression. 

But it is the Torah -- the book of Jewish laws --  that was revered. It symbolized the vitality of our community. I remember sitting in Synagogue at a young age and watching the removal of the Torah from the ark. There was a sense of tradition, celebration, solemnity, and togetherness in the room.  This object was held dear by everyone present. It embodied the reason for our connection. Every single person in the room felt that link implicitly when the door to the ark was opened and the blue cloth covered scroll was revealed.

Each Torah is created by hand for a community that commissions it. "Every letter in a Torah Scroll is vital, for if one letter is missing, the scroll is invalid." To be able to afford this special item, that is carefully constructed with faith and love, the community bands together to raise funds. When the object is completed, a celebration is held. (It is celebrations such as this that help bond communities and these objects that help legacies and traditions live on.) 

I was given the opportunity in a history class this month to talk about the history of Judaism as part of an introduction to religions of the world. I spoke about the people who molded the Jewish faith and carried on its traditions throughout history and how this faith fit alongside others. I talked about the Jewish culture in terms of its dances, foods, beliefs, and songs. I showed pictures of the Horah and breaking Challah bread. I talked about my childhood memories of "stealing" the afikomen and other rituals that bonded the young people in the household. I reflected on my neighborhood and how my Catholic neighbors shared their traditions with the Jews and vice-versa. I got to put up a Christmas tree with my Italian neighbors and partake in traditional Easter foods with my Russian Orthodox friends.

In class, I passed around the dedication pamphlet that I asked Mom to send me. The brilliant blue cloth pinned to the paper is soft. Students could touch it and conjure in their minds how it must have been for a young Ms. Mannon to watch her Dad kiss his Tallit (prayer shawl) and touch it to the object as it was carried around the room for the congregation. Within that little blue square is the spark to a story, a key to understanding, and the roots of our humanity. I saw its power to make my stories come to life in the eyes of my students and in their inquisitive questions.

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