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MFS – Who Am I?



Who Am I? 


  • Students will present their responses to Assignment #1: Who Are You? 
  • Introduce the concept: You are your family’s anthropologist
  • Students will begin to see their individual story as part of a greater story

When we think of ourselves, we consider ourselves as individuals. But how do others see us, or define us? When others try to understand who we are, they tend to overlook our individuality and categorize us as being part of a certain culture or social group. This is demonstrated in this unit by giving students the opportunity to represent themselves as individuals and then to experience how their own representations can be seen as reflecting a collective beyond themselves, such as their families or their classrooms. The idea is that a “true” individual with absolutely no roots or connections simply does not exist!

What are the goals of an anthropologist?

Anthropologists study the way humans are, especially humans from the past. They are interested in how people behaved, how they were connected with each other, and how they grouped themselves into a society.

Anthropologists are like detectives: they are interested in objects and how the objects can be pieced together to form a picture of what a particular group or society was like. What was their culture like? What was their day-to-day life like?

Anthropologists tend to overlook the individual: they are more interested in seeing how the things they discover paint a picture of a group, of a society, and less how they reflect the interests of a particular person.

Be an anthropologist

After introducing the concept of the anthropologist, explain that each student will have an opportunity to play the role of a young anthropologist. Before the presentations of Assignment #1 begin, the teacher should divide the class into two groups. Group A will present first and Group B will observe, and then both groups will switch.

The anthropology group (Group B) should imagine that the presentations they are about to hear and the objects they are about to see are “evidence.” The young anthropologists should think about how the evidence they watch and see reflects what “these humans” were like. Each person in the anthropology group should keep the following questions in mind when listening to the presentations (teacher can write these on the board):

Are the objects that people brought in similar to each other?

Do you believe that these people were part of the same or different groups?

If you believe they are from the same group, what group is it?

Do you believe that this group of students could be described as Jewish Americans/ Brits/ Australians/ South Africans [replace with the country in which you live]? Why or why not?

What objects or descriptions would have led you to the conclusion that the group you watched was, in fact, a group of Jewish Americans/ Brits/ Australians/ South Africans [replace with the country in which you live]?

Now let the groups switch places. After both groups have presented, ask for their anthropologist evaluation on the opposite group, and how they responded to the above questions.

We often think of ourselves as in a vacuum, as individuals who stand apart from others. The idea of the anthropologist helps us bring into focus the fact that others often try to understand how we fit into a particular group, what our interests can tell them about a larger society. For those looking in, the way we define ourselves tells them a story that becomes part of who we are: your individual story is actually part of a much bigger story. We are about to embark on an exploration to uncover each of our stories.

Presentation #1: Evidence from the Jewish Past

Explain that around 1600 years ago, people would adorn their floors with elaborate mosaics. Sometimes these mosaics would be purely decorative with designs and embellishments. Other times, people would use the mosaic to reflect the things that were most important or best represented their community, their values, and their story.

When archeologists uncovered one of these floor mosaics from the synagogue in Ma’on in southern Israel, they found that the beautiful mosaic depicted many different objects. Before showing the presentation, let students guess which objects were found in this mosaic. After letting them offer answers, show the mosaic [Slides 3 and 4] from Presentation #1. 

Which objects do the students recognize? Which ones do they not?

Review the objects of Jewish origin [Slides 4 &5]: the Menorah (with a three-pronged stand, evocative of the Menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem), the lions, the shofar, the inscription with Hebrew letters that is actually in Aramaic. The inscription is a dedication to the community members who donated money to help build this synagogue, and to three individuals in particular who donated the most money. Remind students that this is exactly like the ubiquitous plaques found in every JCC, synagogue, and Jewish school today which honor those who contribute to sustaining these institutions! 

Yet, some of the other depicted objects are not Jewish in origin at all. The plants and animals represent agriculture and winemaking, and very similar depictions are found in churches and other structures in the area. These images are Greek in nature. In other words, these objects while not Jewish, still reflect what was important for this particular community.

1600 years ago, a Jewish community wanted to let people know a little bit about themselves. They wanted people to know that this was a Jewish synagogue, but that this community was also part of their surrounding culture. Both parts were important to them. Both became part of their story.

Continue with slides showing synagogues from different historical periods and different Jewish cultures. These models come from ANU – Museum of the Jewish People collection. They are all examples of the complex and creative ways Jews have represented themselves.

The common feature amongst these synagogues is that there is nothing about their exterior to indicate that they are specifically Jewish. They all resemble structures from their surrounding culture. First, ask students to think about what a synagogue should look like.

Then proceed to the first synagogue slide [Slide 7], a picture of the synagogue from Kai Feng Fu, China. Built in 1163 and rebuilt in 1653, it very much resembles traditional Buddhist temples found in China. This synagogue no longer exists as the community in Kai Feng disintegrated due to family movement and assimilation.

The next synagogue [Slide 8], the Tempio Israelito from Florence, Italy, built in 1882, again shows the influence of surrounding cultures. It has Moorish/Spanish influences as well as a clear influence from the neighboring Duomo, the grand cathedral in Florence.

When looking at the next synagogue [Slide 9], ask students what kind of building this looks like. This synagogue was built in 1626 in Lutzk, Ukraine, and it was built as a fortress for protection. The Jewish community in this town was given permission to build the synagogue by King Sigismund III, but only if they provided their own security against attacks from neighboring countries.

The Ukrainian synagogue stands in contrast with the last model from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania [Slide 10]. This vast structure was designed in 1959 by the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Ask students to comment on the design. The building is intended to resemble Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah.

While the structures of these synagogues were vastly different from each other, when we look at the inside of a synagogue, there are many more similarities. In every synagogue, one will find the Aron Kodesh (the ark for the Torah scroll), the Bima (the stage where Torah reading takes place), and perhaps a Ner Tamid (a lamp over the ark that remains lit). Ask students to find similar items.

The first interior [Slide 12] is from the Great Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, Holland. Built in 1675, the interior reflects the Spanish/Sephardic influence of the community that came to Holland after the expulsion from Portugal in 1497, while at the same time showing the European influence of Holland.

The second interior [Slide 13] comes from the synagogue in Cochin, India, built in 1568 and restored in 1664. Since the community that erected this synagogue came from Spain and not from the older Indian Jewish community, it reflects a complex combination of Indian, English, as well as Spanish influences.

The third interior [Slide 14] is from the Danan Synagogue in Fez, Morocco. Built in the mid 17th century, it shares many characteristics with the previous two synagogues. However, note the seating arrangement. Rather than having seats that face the Aron Hakodesh or the bima, the benches face away from these usual center points and face each other. Ask students why the seats would be arranged in this way. Perhaps when Jews came to this synagogue it was also an opportunity to socialize and have conversations with each other. This synagogue, like many others, functioned as a Jewish community center as much as it functioned as a religious center.

The museum collects the stories of the Jewish people from all around the world, their family trees, the things they created to represent themselves, and evidence of how they lived their lives. What your students are being asked to do is much the same as what has taken place for hundreds of years: to create a way of representing their stories.

Optional activity:  A live virtual with an educator from ANU – Museum of the Jewish People on how we can be historians and use physical structures, such as synagogues, to learn about a community. 

ANU – Museum of the Jewish People invites groups around the world to join us on an innovative and groundbreaking virtual tour of one of our central galleries, all within the span of one class period. In the online live tour, your group will be able to tour the museum in Tel Aviv from the comfort of a smartphone or computer. Students will be able to tour the Jewish world, and participate in a fascinating and interactive tour of our “Hallelujah! Assemble, Pray, Study – Synagogues Past and Presentgallery. Students will engage in questions of Jewish life, peoplehood and culture, past and present. Guided by our experienced museum educators , this is a creative opportunity to participate in the unique and ongoing story of the Jewish People.

The virtual tour also comes with optional pre- and post-tour class lessons to enhance the museum experience, all focusing on how we tell the story of the Jewish People within our own communities. 


Assignments #2 & #3: Next Steps: Mapping our Origins, Starting our Story

Assignment #2: Family Tree (link to the Family tree page)

Assignment #3: Maps (link to Family maps page)

Items teachers need for the next unit: A world map and 2 small stickers for each student. If using a smart board, have a world map ready with a way to represent each student.

If time allows, have students represent their family trees in any creative way they want. Have them bring in the trees to decorate the class as a reminder of the project they are working on together. Advise students that the Family Tree will be put into their binders and will eventually become part of their Roots Portfolio or presentation. They should make sure that if they decide to decorate it or create a new one that it can eventually fit or be replaced by a photograph of their creation.

After introducing the Family Tree and Maps assignments, we recommend sending the following letter to parents. It outlines the assignments and brings their attention to the upcoming family tasks of filling out the tree and map together. You will introduce the family tree in the next lesson, and the at-home assignment after that lesson is filling out a family tree with the help of parents. We recommend sending this letter home to parents when the family tree and world map assignments are given, to remind parents of their role in these assignments and also to further explain the assignments themselves. 

Click here for Parent Letter #2”