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The Way We Were

The Way We Were

Lubartovska Street circa 1937 was a vibrant and predominantly Jewish thoroughfare in the industrial city of Lublin, Poland. Men wearing top hats and well-coiffed women shared the cobblestone artery with horse-drawn carriages. Yiddish and Polish signage advertised kosher restaurants, hardware stores and lingerie boutiques. Now it’s possible to take a virtual stroll down the street as it looked on the eve of World War II.The online tour of Lubartovska Street is one component of the Educational Program on Yiddish Culture, a new and comprehensive high school curriculum developed by the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research ( Last year 18 Jewish and public schools in the United States, Israel and Mexico took part in EPYC’s pilot program, and the institute hopes the program will be farther reaching in 2005, particularly with the launch of its Hebrew-language version slated for June.

Drawing on YIVO’s extensive archive, EPYC highlights pre-war Yiddish culture and society that were killed along with millions of Eastern European Jews.“You can’t understand the depth of the tragedy of the Jewish people unless you understand the culture that permeated 1,000 years of Jewish life,” said YIVO Executive Director Carl Rheins, noting that Hitler’s rise in 1933 and the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945 are, too often, the bookends of high school Holocaust study.EPYC is the first high school curriculum the institute has designed since 1938, when YIVO, then based in Vilna, Poland, created Yiddish linguistics and literature lessons used in secular Jewish schools in Eastern Europe.

Over the past four years, YIVO spent about $675,000 on EPYC staffing, curriculum development and educator training. The result: a seven-volume text and various supplementary teaching materials combining history, sociology, religion and folklore. Its focal point is a comprehensive look at the city of Lublin, Poland, which once housed the seat of Jewish self-government and, on the eve of World War II, was home to about 40,000 Jews. EPYC traces Jewish immigration to the city beginning in the 14th century; Lublin’s rise as an industrial city and the Jewish community’s economic role within it; the construction of its landmark synagogues; the political battles between the religious, secular and Zionist parties; and the music, literature and art created there. It also explores the city’s economic and political decline and ultimately, the annihilation of most of the Jews who lived there. Lublin was chosen as the curriculum’s cultural monograph because it is a strong example Jewish innovation amid discrimination and economic hardship, according to sociologist Adina Cimet, a Mexico City native, who penned much of the EPYC curriculum.“

How does a minority in this situation gather the energy to produce and reproduce its culture?” Cimet said. Lublin “gives you a window to understand that.“Especially in Jewish schools, they teach about Chasidim, they teach about Zionism,” she continued, “but there’s no trajectory that makes it clear to a student that things have cause and effect. They’ll talk about the migration of Jews to a certain area, but not about what happened or what was produced during the centuries they lived in places [like Lublin]. … The more we keep silent on things, the more we lose.

We’ve already lost six million.”Last year, Robert Shapiro integrated EPYC materials in his history classes at Ramaz. “By focusing on the Lublin region, it allows one to learn about concrete places and people,” said Shapiro, who now teaches Jewish and Holocaust studies at Brooklyn College. “In teaching about the Holocaust, there’s a danger of identifying Jews as only being victims without knowing who these people are,” Shapiro continued. EPYC provides “a more human and humane way of learning.”In addition to Ramaz, the New York-area schools that participated in the EPYC pilot program are Harrison High School in Harrison, N.Y.; Yeshivah of Flatbush and Beis Yaakov Academy in Brooklyn; The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan; and the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva High School for Girls in Queens.

Each set of classroom materials costs $250.Like Shapiro, Mira Cohen, a world history teacher at Beverly Hills High School, worried that the Holocaust is taught in a vacuum. “There’s so much about the number of Jews killed, how they were killed, where they were killed,” Cohen said. “I think it’s important to talk not just about Jewish death, but about Jewish life.”During the 2003-2004 school year, she used EPYC’s curriculum materials to compare and contrast the philosophical movements of the European enlightenment and the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, and explored the roots of Yiddish folk songs and klezmer music. “To the students, the music –– its tune, the timber of the voice –– sounded sad,” she said.

This year, Cohen wants to incorporate EYPC’s recently launched free companion Web site, where students can read a translated Yiddish-language memoir written by a young man in 1939 Vilna and view photos of magnificent Eastern European synagogues that were reduced to rubble during the war. She plans to have her students plumb the Web site and write diary entries of fictional but historically accurate characters living in Eastern Europe. An educator from each pilot school spent a week in New York during the summer of 2003, learning how to use EYPC materials. YIVO’s Rheins said a recent $50,000 matching grant from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany will enable YIVO to train another 10 to 20 educators to use the curriculum by year’s end. Still, Rheins acknowledges that because of the breadth and depth of the curriculum, it would be rare to find an educator who would have the time and leeway to use EPYC as anything other than supplementary materials.“It’s one thing to ask a faculty member to master 12 years of Holocaust history,” he said. EPYC “is asking them to master 10 centuries.”

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