Jewish Identity Amid Anti-Semitic Tropes in Literature
Torah High’s English Course Takes It On
At Torah High, we pride ourselves on being able to fuse Jewish education with secular education to create a curriculum that is dynamic, challenging, and applicable to modern life. This is no more apparent than in our English courses, for students in Grades 11 and 12.
Read on to discover why studying the great works of literature in a Jewish setting is vastly more rewarding and informative than their study in public school.
English literature & anti-semitism
While for many years the threat of anti-Semitism, post Holocaust, seemed to diminish as Jews achieved status and success in mainstream society, more recent spates of anti-Semitism help us remember that this age-old scourge has not gone away.
Torah High’s English courses help students evaluate the trajectory of anti-Semitism over time–from 16th century Elizabethan times to the Holocaust and beyond.
In particular, the courses place special emphasis on the three works: Wiesel’s Night, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, all of which help students consider how anti-Semitism informs society, Jewish identity, and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Night by Elie Wiesel
One of the most poignant stories of our time is Elie Wiesel’s tragic but beautifully written memoir, Night, which recounts Wiesel’s years as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner and survivor. The memoir follows Wiesel through his early years in a thriving Jewish community in northern Transylvania to his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp at the age of 16. Wiesel’s story is one of survival, in which he grapples with the atrocities that he has seen and how his experiences have shaken his faith. In the course, students examine the question of maintaining faith amid challenges and trauma and are encouraged to think about how they view their own Jewish identity.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice is a glaring example of blatant anti-Semitism during Shakesperean times. Stereotypes that have followed Jews are glaring in this 16th-century work that reveal how Jewish people of that time were depicted in Italy. In studying this work, students are invited to examine the ways in which Jewish people are portrayed in history and how historical anti-Semitism shares or differs with the anti-Semitism of our own day.
The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe
The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe, is a lesser known work that highlights anti-Semitism in Elizabethan times through the depiction of a Maltese Jewish merchant named Barabas. This more obscure text doesn’t get the attention that it deserves considering that Jews were banished from England in the 13th century for almost 300 years. The play, which many say influenced William Shakespeare’s writing of The Merchant of Venice, reveals the prevailing anti-Semitic tropes of the day, which became more dangerous and vitriolic as they matured in mainland Europe.
Students who take Torah High’s English courses are afforded a unique opportunity. While these texts may be studied in public school, their study in a Jewish school allows our students to appreciate the literary genius of its authors, while considering how historical and modern anti-Semitism often play an important part in how Jews form their personal identities.
Learn more about our Grade 11 & 12 English courses by clicking here.