In considering why is it so important for young Jews to have historical literacy to have a strong Jewish identity, and why is so much of that historical literacy is centered on the Land of Israel Natan Sharansky observed,
Our history, whether talking about 2,000 years ago, or the struggle of Soviet Jewry, or where it is today is something that we have to bring to every young Jew. If you want to be part of the world of freedom and justice and tikkun olam, your identity is your source of strength to fight for those things – your identity, which is based on your history, on your traditions and of course on your connection to Israel.
Since many are trying to negate the Jewish historical claim to Israel, it is vital for us to understand our historical and current claim to Israel. The most effective method to develop a clear understanding regarding the achievements and challenges facing Israel is to have a deep knowledge of our history and of course to visit Israel, preferably on a peer group educational touring program. Professor Gil Troy commented, “In the face of a vicious assault on Israel’s legitimacy, it is crucial these days to understand the depth of the Jewish attachment to Israel.”
Zionism did not start in 1897 at Basle. It has been an inseparable part of Judaism since its inception. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis infused “proto-Zionism” into Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observed:
The consciousness of living in exile was common to Jews throughout the world. It explains why Zionism, a small political movement at its inception, could grow within half a century, to be the largest and most unifying movement in Jewish life.
Despite the explosion of Jewish studies at the University level, there is a severe gap in the teaching of Jewish history at the High School level. By the time our children reach college, they are not armed with the foundation knowledge that can perpetuate their Jewish heritage, defend them against prevailing anti-Zionist tendencies on campus, and help them find commonality with Jews from other walks of life. Building a strong Jewish identity foundation based on our long history is critical to our future. Our Rabbis wrote, “Know from whence you come and to where you are going” (Mishnah: Avot). Rabbi Lord Sacks noted that:
There is nothing inevitable about the crisis of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. It is the result of a century of bad, if understandable, decisions, one above all: we neglected Jewish education. The result is that we know little about Judaism or Jewish History, and our children know less. They know about the Holocaust. They know about how Jews died, not how they live. They know about Israel, but that is somewhere else, not here. Today’s young Diaspora Jews are the most secularly educated and Jewishly illiterate of all time.
Jewish Journeys: The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 536 BCE–136 CE (Koren: 2021) is my attempt to address this issue. It an accessible and student-friendly Jewish history curriculum, which is also suited to the layperson interested in a concise record of important events and key figures in the history of the Jewish people. This volume is lavishly illustrated with photographs, illustrations, and maps, as well as focusing on sites in Israel that are relevant for each chapter. It is part of an integrated curriculum, combining elements of knowledge of related sites in Israel and source material. The multifaceted approach of Wiggins and McTighe, as expounded in their “Understanding by Design,” is the inspiration of the concluding section of each chapter.
This volume traces Jewish history from the Persian period in 536 BCE to the conclusion of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 136 CE. In doing so, the interaction of Jewish with world history is always noted. The time period covered in this volume was an extremely formative era in Jewish history. One that in many ways laid the foundation of the Jews’ survival as a people without a land, and most importantly gave them hope that, against all the odds, they would one day return to that land.
Many key features of Judaism, and indeed Jewish continuity, were introduced during these important six centuries. Many events in this period also served as an inspiration for the modern Zionist movement and the construction of an Israeli national tradition. During the Persian period Ezra and Nehemiah, while implementing a widespread program of universal Jewish education, introduced the concept of the exclusivity of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, as the Jews in Judea developed a form of self-government and were ruled by a theocracy of priests, the diaspora expanded considerably. Jerusalem and the Temple become the focus of Jewish life for the expanding Jewish communities.
The period covered in this volume, starting with the Persian period, and concluding with the Bar Kokhba Revolt, presents a remarkable story of resilience, courage, and adaptation. The early Zionists eagerly seized on the Bar Kokhba Revolt as proof that Jews, when faced with persecution, were capable of fighting for their dignity and self-respect. This became a symbol of national revival. It is crucial for young Jews to have historical literacy to have a strong Jewish identity.