The Power of the Arts in Judaic Studies

Mrs. Daniella Botnick
Judaic Studies, Tanach
Fuchs-Mizrahi School
Cleveland, OH

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This year I was given a group of five junior and senior students who all were uninterested or unable to take Gemara. I was asked to teach them anything related to Judaism that they would connect with, and I decided to try to focus on midrash, as this way the students would be exposed to some form of Rabbinic writing. I also chose midrash because of its often metaphorical approach that need not be taken literally and lends itself to multiple interpretations. As I began teaching, I experimented one day with taking a midrash we had just learned and asking the students to  convey their connection to the midrash through drawing. We had just learned the midrash about why Chana's tefilla became the paradigm of a perfect prayer, and I conveyed to them the idea that what made it so powerful was Chana's ability to honestly open up to G-d and speak her mind freely. I asked them to draw how they thought Chana felt throughout her tefilla. The drawings they produced were phenomenal, but more importantly, the students seemed extremely engaged throughout the process. 
I realized I was on to something. 
So I stuck with this approach -- I would teach a section of pshat [literal meaning of verses in the Torah] in Tanach, and then I would teach some midrash on the topic. I would then ask the students to draw their interpretation of the midrash and attach a "write up" that explained how their art connected to the pshat and drash [Rabbinic interpretation] of what we learned. Most of the girls in the class preferred the medium of fine art (using different forms of paint, pastels, paper and canvas), but one preferred taking photos and writing poetry. I'm sure if I had a larger group of students I would have had some students write songs or create drama. 

The course was more successful than I could have imagined it would be, and we culminated the year with a very successful art exhibit where many people came to hear the students explain the meaning behind their artwork. The most successful part of this exhibit for me was hearing from my students who were interviewed for a video we showed at the exhibit about why they liked learning in this manner. They explained that prior to this year, they had felt disconnected from Rabbinic writing, as if it were "made-up" stuff that didn't seem relevant to them. Throughout this course, however, they felt like they had a voice in understanding and interpreting the pshat through their own eyes, while still being able to appreciate the perspective of the Rabbis on the text.  

Because of the success of the class it will be offered again to students interested in taking art and exploring midrash. A few tangible successes that emerged from the course was that one of my senior girls decided to go to learn in seminary for a year in Israel. This decision was, in large part, due to her reconnection to learning Torah. Another junior student insisted at the end of year that she had to learn Honors Gemara next year. Whether or not she does is not the point for me: obviously something has been reignited in her soul. I am truly humbled by the power of the arts to help reconnect people to their Judaism and to learning traditional text. This year was an amazing experience, and I'm very curious to see how next year will be.