“There Is a Certain People” — To Live as a Minority

Life as a minority is challenging in any society. Jews have faced many challenges in the form of anti-semitic worldviews and in light of their unique customs, which make them stand out. In this resource, we will explore different approaches to coping with this challenge.

Resource Ages: 12-14

Source

But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordechai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordechai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.

Megillat Esther, Chapter 2:2

אֵין אֶסְתֵּר מַגֶּדֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת עַמָּהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ מָרְדֳּכָי.

וְאֶת מַאֲמַר מָרְדֳּכַי אֶסְתֵּר עֹשָׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה בְאָמְנָה אִתּוֹ.

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel down or bow low.

Megillat Esther, Chapter 3:2

וְכָל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן, כִּי כֵן צִוָּה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ; וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה.

Then Haman said to King Achashverosh, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.

Megillat Esther, Chapter 3:8

וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ: יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם וְאֶת דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין שֹׁוֶה לְהַנִּיחָם.

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do we form identities that remain authentic and true to ourselves?
  • What makes a strong Jewish community?
  • How am I an important part of my community?
  • What can we learn from different generations?
  • In what ways am I connected to the Jewish People?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What factors influence whether a person will fully reveal or hide their identity? 
  • What are the challenges of living as a minority among another nation? What strengths can be derived from this?

Background for Teacher

In Megillat Esther, it is not very surprising that Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. Jews in the Diaspora knew that preserving their identity would attract hatred. Alongside Esther’s approach, we see a completely opposite approach from Mordechai. This is surprising, because...

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In Megillat Esther, it is not very surprising that Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. Jews in the Diaspora knew that preserving their identity would attract hatred. Alongside Esther’s approach, we see a completely opposite approach from Mordechai. This is surprising, because although he was the one who had asked Esther to hide her own identity, Mordechai exposed his own Jewish identity by not bowing down to Haman. Mordecai knew that he was antagonizing Haman, who was an important minister to the king and that such behavior was dangerous.

Over centuries of exile, Jews have preserved their identity through two opposing processes. Jewish tradition sees it as very important to avoid assimilation. At the same time, anti-semitism and hatred of foreigners has often prevented assimilation even among those who have wanted to blend in with the general population. 

Among Jews, there have been many different approaches to the role of Jewish identity and its relationship with civic identity: open expression or hiding of one’s origins, a desire to integrate into society versus a desire to preserve their unique Jewish identity. We present two approaches that were popular in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, a period during which many Jews considered themselves an inseparable part of general society.

Judah Leib Gordon (1830–1892) was a Jewish poet who lived in the Russian Empire and was a prominent spokesperson for the Enlightenment. In his famous poem “Awake, My People”, which was a sort of political manifesto, he appealed to his fellow European Jews to stop separating themselves from the general society in which they lived and to understand that the time had come for them to integrate and be part of the nations of Europe.

Robert Weltsch (1891–1982) was a Jewish journalist from Prague who served, until World War II, as the editor of a large Zionist newspaper in Germany. When Hitler rose to power, Weltsch expressed an understanding of German nationalism and hoped that it would awaken Jewish nationalism. In 1938, he fled to the land of Israel. 

It is important to note that Weltsch’s article was written well before the German sanctions that made it mandatory for Jews to identify themselves, rules that made it easier for the Germans to capture Jews and send them to death camps. Weltsch later regretted the publication of the article, due to the new light in which it read several years later. Therefore, it is important to present the article in the historical context in which it was written, in which the future use of the yellow badge was still unknown.

The yellow badge used in Nazi Germany was based on a very old way of identifying Jews in Europe that had its roots in the Middle Ages. The discussion of the concept in Weltsch’s article does not refer to how such badges would later be used by the Nazis, but rather to the much older form of identification.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Divide the students into groups of two or three. Ask them to answer the question: What are the characteristics of a minority group in a society? (They can think about a minority group that lives in their country — Jews or others.)

You can help them by writing partial sentences on the blackboard that they can choose and complete. For example:

  • A minority group might suffer more from … because…
  • A minority group might be more successful at … because
  • The treatment of a minority group is usually …
  • It is good to be part of a minority group because …
  • It is not good to be part of a minority group because …
  • A minority group should loudly express how it is different because…
  • A minority group should try to hide how it is different because…

Then, ask each group of students to team up with another group and check whether there are any differences in how they answered the questions. Each group will then choose one pair of conflicting answers to present to the class. 

As we study this unit, we will encounter conflicting approaches: an approach that favors preserving the uniqueness of the minority group and presenting that unique identity prominently and an approach that favors blurring and hiding that identity.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

Questions regarding Megillat Esther

  1. Why do you think that Mordechai instructed Esther to hide that she was Jewish?
  2. Why do you think that Mordechai himself behaved differently and let his Judaism show prominently by not bowing down to Haman?
  3. Why do differences in customs and religion arouse opposition, hatred and sometimes also fear? Are you familiar with similar examples from history?
  4. How would you advise Jews to act: like Esther or like Mordechai? Does your answer depend on any particular conditions?

Questions regarding the poem “Awake, My People” by Judah Leib Gordon

  1. Judah Leib Gordon called on Jews in the Russian Empire to play an active part in the life of the nation and to see themselves as equal citizens. Do you agree with the main point of this appeal? Do you think that that is how a minority group should behave?
  1. With regard to the unique beliefs of the Jews, Judah Leib Gordon explained that he believed that outside they should behave like a person and only at home – as a Jew. What is the source of this distinction between a “person” and a “Jew”? Give an example of what you think he meant.
  2. Do you agree with Judah Leib Gordon that Jewish dress and customs should be kept at home and that, to the outside world, Jews should present themselves and behave like all other citizens? Explain.
  3. What role does this dilemma play in your life? Where does it show itself? How do you behave in practice? Do you behave in the way that you’d like to or are there factors that lead you to behave differently?

Questions regarding the article “Wear the Yellow Badge with Pride”

Note to teacher: It is important to emphasize the context in which this article was written — before the Holocaust — and to explain the roots of the yellow badge in medieval Europe.

  1. What is the meaning behind the title of Weltsch’s article? What was he coming out against?
  2. Do you agree with Weltsch — can the symbol of the Magen David be transformed from a sign of shame to a sign of pride?
  3. Weltsch wrote this article several years before the Nazis ordered all Jews to wear a yellow badge, to make it easy to identify them and destroy them. In fact, he later regretted writing the article. Explain how context can influence the decision to loudly express or hide one’s Jewish identity.
  4. Today, many Jews are hesitant to wear a kippah or a Magen David in the street, out of concern that they might be humiliated or harmed. What do you think about this? Do you think that this behavior is necessarily a denial of Judaism? Explain.
  • To help the students understand the different approaches, you can present a template that presents a summary of the different approaches. Have the students draw a red circle around the approach they most admire and a blue circle around the approach that most closely matches their own. The two circles can be drawn around the same figure! Ask some of the students to explain their different approaches to the class.
  • Interview different figures in the Jewish community. We recommend that students work in pairs that will each interview two children or adults and ask about their approaches regarding the place of Judaism in their lives — regarding the surrounding society and themselves. The students can also choose to interview members of other minority groups in the community. At the conclusion of the activity, examine whether any particular approach is more common than the others: to stand out, to assimilate, to hide or to separate from the surrounding society. Did the students discover any additional approaches that were not discussed in class?