Black and Jewish students explore parallels in their heritage

January 08, 1995|By Arlene Ehrlich | Arlene Ehrlich,Special to The Sun

It's a black thing. It's a Jewish thing. And the goal is understanding.

In the fall, 27 students from Northwestern High School in Baltimore City and Beth Tfiloh Community School in Pikesville explored the common aspects of African-Amercian and Jewish experience in a course at Baltimore Hebrew University. Entitled "Keeping the Faith," the course surveys the history and culture of both groups.

A chartered bus picks the students up and returns them to their respective high schools. Students receive three college credits for successfully completing the course.

According to Rabbi Seymour Essrog, who teaches the Jewish component of the course, "Our goal is to foster understanding and sympathy for each other. The kids learn that blacks and Jews share a common heritage of prejudice and bigotry. I try to teach them there's more uniting us than dividing us."

Rabbi Essrog points to the similar tactics used by Jews and blacks to resist oppression. "On a field trip to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum," he says, "we saw an exhibit where a runaway slave was cutting off his finger to avoid capture. From that, the students could understand why Jews in Czarist Russia maimed themselves or their children to avoid induction into the Russian Army. Military service for them was a kind of enslavement and death, because it meant forced conversion."

Rabbi Essrog adds, "Another way the slaveholders degraded black people was to deny them the use of last names. Similarly, Jews in the Middle Ages did not have last names at first. When they were required eventually to take last names, they had to pay. The more they paid, the more dignified the name they received. Those able to pay only a little money received an embarrassing, ridiculous name."

Barbara Murray, an associate professor of economics and African-American history at Baltimore City Community College, teaches the African-American component of the course.

"One of the things I emphasize," she says, "is that African-American history doesn't begin with slavery. We start by talking about anthropology and archaeology, about the ancient kingdoms of Africa, and about our common human origins on that continent."

From there, Ms. Murray takes her students through a survey of black history in America -- slavery, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the age of Jim Crow and the rise of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, the modern civil rights movement.

Jewish students, Ms. Murray says, readily empathize with the suffering of black people. "At the Great Blacks in Wax Museum," she recalls, "we saw a replica of a slave ship. Much as one walks through the U.S. Holocaust Museum and becomes immersed in the experience, we became part of the Middle Passage."

On leaving the museum, she says, "I overheard the Jewish students saying to one another, 'Remember! Remember!' I understood what they meant. They have been taught to 'never forget' the Holocaust. They were saying that these overwhelming, tragic human experiences must be remembered and spoken about so that they cannot happen again."

According to Ms. Murray, learning about injustice often makes students -- both black and Jewish -- angry. "When we go to these overpowering exhibits," she says, "the students don't emerge unchanged. Sometimes the black students become angry, and they direct that anger against whites.

"I tell them they must learn how to direct their anger properly. They can't let it destroy them; they have to learn what to do with it. I tell them to use their anger to become better informed and to communicate more effectively."

Both Rabbi Essrog and Ms. Murray believe that students benefit not only intellectually, but socially, from participating in the course.

"The students enter the course believing a lot of stereotypes about the other group," Rabbi Essrog says. "We ask them initially to write, without putting their names on the papers, their perceptions about Jews and blacks. Then, as the students interact, we see those stereotypes breaking down and a more mature understanding begins to emerge."

"We talk about stereotypes," says Ms. Murray. "Right from the start, we talk about a dominant culture and a subordinate culture, and how and why the dominant culture uses stereotypes to preserve its dominance. We talk about how to overcome stereotypes and get at the truth."

At the beginning of the course, students meet at a dinner party. "At first," says Ms. Murray, "it's like a junior high school dance, where each group is sitting apart, eyeing the other warily. But gradually, they relax and introduce themselves. Eventually, the barriers start to come down."

Dana Land, a Beth Tfiloh senior enrolled in the course, agrees. "I was really surprised," she says, "at how middle class my black classmates were. I guess I just assumed because they live in the city they must all be poor, with the typical inner-city values. But I was impressed with the way they conducted themselves, and I learned that they come from varied backgrounds."

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