The History of the World

For World History, Ancient and Modern, in 10th,and 11th grade respectively, I got Mr. Lewis. Mr. Lewis was a drolly humorous, laconic man whose heavily-lidded, half-closed eyes reflected the boredom of his teenage charges. Pass the Friday quizzes, kids, his expression confided, don’t blow the midterms, and I’ll get you outta here in June with B’s.

Mr. Lewis’s curriculum, as mandated by Connecticut’s Board of Education, started with “the cavemen,” continued along to the Fertile Crescent, proceeded on up the so-called Ladder of Civilization (not necessarily in the following order) from Babylon and Mesopotamia to the pyramids and the Vikings, the Pirates, and Magellan. The rise and fall of empires.  Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome. Leonardo DaVinci. Copernicus. The Dark Ages, and the Middle Ages. This king, and that king. That war…and this war. The Inquisition.  And the Crusades.  Benjamin Franklin. America’s Civil War….The Renaissance was in there somewhere, and the Enlightenment. Communism and Socialism. Democrats and Republicans. World War I, World War II…

The Present, meanwhile, in which we sat entrapped at our desks like insects under glass, waiting for the bell to ring, would remain immune to that onrush of chapters. We ourselves would not get old. We were the wave of the future; we were Breaking News. The lineup of unconnected names, places and dates, that we had to string together and preserve in memory in order to graduate, could not catch up. To guide us in our life choices we had the lyrics of pop songs on the car radio, and navigating around the randomness of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (we’d already learned that stuff, anyway, in Mr. Lear’s Science class, Grade 9) we’d get through college, get good jobs, get married, have two or three children, and stay well-rounded by joining Civil Rights Marches and Peace Rallies, and with subscriptions to The New York Times. We’d live in beautiful houses. We’d go to Europe in the summer.

Never did we dream—nor could Mr. Lewis, then in his own middle ages, ever have dreamed– how fast our days would fly, turning 20th Century conveniences and inventions white-haired, backward, and obsolete, and as quaintly irrelevant, for all practical purposes, as George Washington’s wig. Our Selectric electric typewriters and touchtone phones, the Volkswagen stick-shifts  and handheld TV remote controls…change channels from across the room, from the comfort of your armchair!…The 75 R.P.M. record players and pocket-size tape recorders, and portable home-movie cameras…the rolls of Kodacolor film you’d take to the pharmacy, your photos ready for pickup–presto! – in just 24 hours.

To borrow from some other high school literature textbook—probably the poetry anthology we used in English, with Miss Sherry—it was a whole lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and every morning, with hands on hearts, we recited ploddingly:

I pledge allegiance to the flag

Of the United States of America.

And to the Republic

For which it stands

One Nation, Under G-d


With Liberty

And justice

For all.

 I daydreamed through most of this, but every once in a while, some detail in class would catch my fancy and I’d be roused to attention. I remember, for example, the rhythmic, poetic singsong of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s ships: Nina, Pina, and the Santa Maria, in which Christopher Columbus sailed in search of a new route to India. Instead of finding curry, however, he would be responsible for the birth of suburbs such as ours, with our Main Street and Elm Street, and our choice of three different country clubs. We had five Christian churches (Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, Episcopal, and Protestant), two large supermarkets (Grand Union and Safeway) and the comfortable, well-lit, well-ventilated high school classroom in which Mr. Lewis droned good-naturedly on, and on, each day, ‘till the end of time: a cog in the wheel of what was reputed to be our town’s excellent educational system, rated #1 in the State of Connecticut.

One of the things that stayed with me, from the 20th Century unit, was a black-and-white photograph of the black-mustachioed German Fuhrer, may his name be expunged, reviewing a parade of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers, rifles slung rigidly over shoulders, heads turned smartly right in salute. I knew from things I’d heard about at home that far, far more than his other victims, he’d focused on the Jews, but this wasn’t written explicitly in our textbooks.

In fact, from 1st grade through 12th, in our top-rated educational system, no mention was made of Jews at all. No mention of that word, or what Ancient Rome did to their Temple. I remember learning that the Roman Coliseum, an architectural triumph, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but not whose death it was, as they were mauled by lions in the Coliseum’s arena, that Roman spectators enjoyed watching.

No mention of the Greeks’ persecution of the Jews, or the Inquisition’s, or Russia’s.

Another photo that I remember catching my attention was of the white-mustachioed Albert Einstein, with his exotic mane, and name. No mention was made, neither in the textbook nor in class, that Einstein’s name was a Jewish name, and since I, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, was aware of being a Jew, the silence silenced me. If millions of murders can go unmentioned, then burying one child’s identity isn’t a stretch.

And it goes without saying that the main personages from a Torah perspective were utterly absent from the overarching curve and sweep of mankind’s story.

In a genteel American town such as ours, silence was the only form that an inborn, inexplicable hatred of the Jew could take at that point, so soon after the Holocaust. Decent people didn’t want to be associated with the evil of Germany, but couldn’t come to terms, either, with their own quietly enduring anti-Semitic streak. They found themselves despising Jews for being rich and powerful, and despising Jews for being poor and powerless.

Were it up to me to come up with a title for the ancient and modern history curriculum of our secular American high school, I’d call it “What We as Educators Would Rather Not Explore:  The Endlessly Pivotal and Essential Role of Jews and Antisemitism in the Successive Eras of World History.”

“This is our salvation,” reads the line in the Haggadah, without specifying what “this” refers to.

This,” HaRav Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss, shlita, recently declared, “is precisely in the fact that in every generation an enemy rises up to destroy us. It is in their desire to destroy us that our salvation lies.”

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor whose most recently published books are "Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land" and "All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing."
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