Why use Digital Tools in the Jewish Studies Classroom

Teaching with Digital Tools

Thanks to the Association for Jewish Studies for inviting Nathaniel Deutsch and I to share our experience teaching Jewish Studies with digital tools. It was an opportunity to reflect on all we’ve done in building a Digital Jewish Studies initiative and on the ways digital engagement can have particular meaning for Jewish history. The webinar also pushed me to organize some thoughts and best practices about how to approach developing new assignments and syllabi that feature digital tools.


The webinar was meant to explore the possibilities of using digital tools in the Jewish Studies classroom. We introduce the idea of a Digital Jewish Studies and offer practical advice to using digital tools to enhance learning objectives. Of particular interest is our focus on  common pitfalls for integrating new tools into your syllabi.

I’m happy to share the slides here.

Digital Tools in the Classroom

Come for the JDC Archives Blog, stay for Eddie Cantor on Sound Cloud

Eddie Cantor SOS Script, JDC Archives

I’m honored to be featured on the JDC Archives Blog today. I have explored the depths of their collection for many years and am thrilled that they invested so heavily in digitizing the whole of their archival materials. It’s a public assertion of the need for thoughtful engagement with digital objects and I’m thrilled that they see my work as a model for employing digital archives in the classroom and in research.

It’s rewarding for me to think about the many strings of my work – including historical research, Digital Humanities projects, and the daily work of building a DH community and Digital Scholarship center at UCSC – as interconnected. I feel very lucky to build space for Digital Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz – work that is made possible because Jewish communal groups and archives have recognized the value of digitization. Engaging students and the Jewish community at large in the practice of working with primary sources invites them into the process of writing history.

But, mostly, I’m excited to hear the Eddie Cantor ad for SOS from 1948 linked in the article. I vividly remember the day I found a set of ad scripts for SOS in the JDC archive. Before the collection was digitized, I sat for days with a pile of microfilm reels reading reports, memos, and newsletters from the SOS project. Supplies for Overseas Survivors (SOS) collected canned food, clothing, and other goods for three years and sent them directly to Jews in Displaced Persons camps across Europe. The project activated Jews and non-Jews around the country in direct support for the surviving Jews of Europe and the extensive public campaign supported my argument that American Jews learned about the Holocaust through their participation in American Jewish philanthropy. The scripts written for Eddie Cantor, Dick Powell, and Henry Fonda were a particularly rich find as they revealed how JDC transformed the needs of survivors in Europe into appeal narratives for American donors.

Hearing Eddie Cantor, as we can do now, is a thrill. Cantor was a passionate advocate for survivors after the war. He led campaigns for JDC, Hadassah, and UJA. He lent his name and his voice to numerous radio broadcasts and brought his famous friends along.

As I listen to this appeal, I wonder where I can send cans of milk today and how the history of refugee aid – so strongly documented in the JDC archive – should inform our response to today’s refugee crisis.


A Jewish mandate to act: 60 million refugees around the world

World Refugee Day is tomorrow (June 20). In recognition, HIAS has released this video that calls on Jews to remember their history as refugees and to help those still displaced. The video is powerful and compelling.

In particular, I am struck by two connected through lines that position HIAS within a history of Jewish displacement and the contemporary refugee crisis:

(1) The connection between Jewish values and the work of rescuing and resettling refugees around the world today. Their mission is no longer to save Jews, but they are still informed by their roots as a Jewish organization. As they define their goals:

Guided by Jewish values and experience, HIAS is working to address the global refugee crisis.

(2) That the organization chose to tell the history of Jewish displacement as part of a long history of displacement is inspiring. They empower Jews to act today not because Jews are in danger, but because we were once refugees and HIAS was there. In telling this connected history, the video jumps from Nazi concentration camps to the Jewish exile in North Africa to Darfur and Refugee Camps across the world. In each case, HIAS was there:

We were the ones at the docks…and we are still at the docks, in the deserts, and in the cities and camps and lands where people no longer have a home in their homeland.

The argument that Jews should care because it is a Jewish mandate is powerful and speaks beyond World Refugee Day – it speaks to how Jewish values can be part of political concerns that are not just about Israel or just about antisemitism.

This history is at the heart of the Memories/Motifs project and I am proud to be a supporter of HIAS today.


Reposted from Memories/Motifs in honor of World Refugee Day

Digital Humanities & Jewish Studies

I’m thrilled that Memories/Motifs has been featured in the AJS News: Digital Humanities Issue. It’s an honor for the project to be listed as a Resource for Jewish Studies and I hope that scholars explore the site, offer comments, criticism, and suggestions for improvement.

I also hope that Jewish Studies folks will see the project and feel inspired to take up more digitally inflected work – not because it’s the trendy thing to do, but because using digital tools can help us articulate and visualize new forms of connections and arguments which can lead to new questions about the pasts we study.

Of course, I also hope that more attention on Memories/Motifs will help scholars recognize the postwar period as a moment of intense Holocaust memory construction and spark continued conversation about the longer history of Holocaust memory in America.

Originally posted on memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com >

“A Dystopian Document Thriller”

A new video game, Papers, Please, has been released seemingly to test the value of Holocaust and genocide education. The game invites users to the communist state of Arstotzka where they become immigration inspectors, deciding the fate of people trying to enter from neighboring states. According to the game’s website “smugglers, spies, and terrorists” are among those trying to enter and it is your job to weed them out. Players are trained according to the rules of the state to filter through the paperwork and fingerprints to make what are constructed as life or death decisions.

I have to admit that I have not yet played the game, but I’ve been conflicted about wanting to play, about what playing might mean, and about how I might act as an immigration inspector. And, this, to me, seems to be the point. A Tablet Magazine review calls attention to the game’s Arendt-ian construct, asking users to engage in the “banality of evil.” And here is the great ambition of the game: can desk workers, paper pushers, stamp givers, be the perpetrators of evil? Through game play, Papers, Please poses compelling questions about culpability, responsibility, and “following orders.”

Before even playing, I sense that I will want to do a good job at the game. I’ll want to read through the documents presented by each hopeful immigrant and find mistakes or red flags. But, I will also be thinking about Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the students that I have encouraged to think about the consequences of working within an evil system. For nearly a decade, I have taught students about the Holocaust and Genocide and pushed them to evaluate the lived experiences of people in these circumstances. I’ve asked them to think about how simple acts, when performed in the context of mass violence, can have great consequences. And, I’ve read Arendt with them as they grapple with the idea that evil can be ordinary, commonplace, banal.

So, I’m conflicted before even playing the game, because I want to believe that when I play, and when my students play, that we will think about the consequences of stamping or not stamping these documents. And that we will not succumb to the impulse to do better, follow the directions, and advance through the game.