In a funny coincidence, I was introduced to David Gerwin through two different connections. He is a friend of a friend of my cousin, and he was also the graduate school advisor of a fellow Fulbright grantee. He teaches at Queens College in New York about how to teach history, and is on sabbatical in Jerusalem. He speaks Hebrew and has been here several times.
David and I had a great conversation in which I asked him many questions about the different styles of orthodoxy and how they inform the Israeli educational system. He described how there are so many definitions of orthodox – for some, the defining question would be keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath. For others, it would be whether you consider women part of the minyan. (At one small school that has parallel “secular” and “religious” tracks, the simple test was “does your family drive on Shabbat?”) He noted that the most liberal Orthodox schools were frequently a product of the English-speaking world beyond Israel, and that Israelis from non-Anglophone backgrounds were more likely to be either very observant (though most were not not ultra-Orthodox) or fully secular. He described the range of schools that one might consider in Israel, and how different identities might play out.
As we were discussing the different ways students are taught in different types of Israeli schools, David mentioned an interesting study comparing how students in Tel Aviv and students in the settlements learned about the story of Josef Trumpeldor, an early Zionist hero. As I understand it (I’ll have to get the citation), all Israelis know the mythic version of the story of Trumpeldor’s death. Both groups of students were taught a more recent account that scholars would assume was a less nationalistic reading. Then they came back later to test how the new narrative had affected the two groups. I believe that the more secular, Tel Aviv students mostly forgot the story, and reverted to the mythic version. The settlement students neither forgot the revisionist narrative nor did it weaken their nationalism. They reinterpreted the message of the narrative to support their nationalism (something that a scholar reading the new story would find hard to do and surprising.
David has some contacts for me, and some ideas for ways I can get started talking to teachers. I also want to bounce some of my interview questions off him to see what he thinks of them, what else I should ask, etc. He also introduced me to a delicious café, Shosh café, right around the corner from my apartment!