Who The Folk?! Arie Zmora

Arie Zmora didn’t start teaching all things Jewish history, but an unfortunate fork in the road led him down that path. Now teaching at his home and at synagogues all over the Twin Cities, Zmora talks about the importance of learning about Jewish roots, his work bringing together Jews and Palestinians, and more in this week’s Who The Folk?!

You’re a one-man adult education program?

For the last two and a half years, yes. We have a problem in the Jewish community knowing our own history. In a way, we are running away from it. What do we know about our own history? Holidays. That’s it. We are so proud of being people of the book. We read the book at bar mitzvah and that’s it.

What’s your area of expertise?

Everything. I have a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance.

You have a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance and you’re teaching Jewish everything?

I had a position at SCSU as a European historian and I gave a talk on how my mother survived the Holocaust. Immediately I was encountered by the chair, who asked why I couldn’t find a nicer chapter on German history. Then she said the SS did not participate in the Holocaust. After that, I was basically an outcast. I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t think much about it. For 14 years, I did activities, with State Department funding, to bring reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians through Hamline University. We brought teachers from the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Jordan. The State Department then funded bringing students over. We took them to a Saints game to see baseball. We showed them informal cultural activities to bring them together. We had meetings and seminars in Israel with a joint curriculum. Then, we decided with the Obama administration, to promote the activities of business people. We brought people from the same places and they developed programs with the sponsorship of corporations like 3M, Cargill, and Carlson. We had an anchor from Al-Jazeera with us. She couldn’t believe that she saw journalists be independent. As a result, she developed her own program about “East Meets West.” A weekly TV show to bridge the gap and overcome stereotypes in the west and the Middle East.

But, I’m a Jewish person. I was born and grew up in Israel. I went through wars. It’s like a tree – we have Tu B’Shevat now – you have to start at the roots.

Where are you teaching?

At home. It’s like a graduate seminar. I prepare folders, there are weekly readings. Now I’m developing a class on Jewish biblical history: The Bible in the Context of the Near East. There are eight meetings, each 90 minutes. Then I do the same at Beth Jacob. Now I’m doing at Mount Zion and Beth El. I do different topics: The Arab-Israeli conflict, Early-Modern Jewish History from the expulsion from Spain to the French Revolution. Then the French Revolution to World War I, and Jews in the land of Islam, From the Cross to the Crescent.

My last class, I had between 50 and 60 people. We’re talking lawyers, doctors, social workers, teachers. Everyone from the community.

As you’ve talked to the people taking your classes, why are they interested?

You need to know who you are. You cannot blend from nothing. You need to have a sense of who you are, what is your identity. How it integrates with the larger picture where you live. We have an idiom that we are repairing the world; how can you repair if you aren’t familiar with your own history? You need to have access to your own roots, not running away from it. Or being in the synagogue from time to time, and Passover, and that’s it.

Would you want to go back to teaching at a University?

Permanency is always good. But I don’t think at this time I’m getting anything.

What surprises the people the most about what you teach?

I give them a sense of pride that living in the diaspora is not a miserable existence. Standing for our identity and being pushed around all the time, we’ve always found a way to reinvent ourselves and take charge and preserve our identity. This is something to be admired. And to keep the identity and be proud of the heritage. We are losing it. I have a vested interest in a rekindled notion of our pride.

Where are your upcoming classes?

At Mount Zion, I’m teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict. In March I’ll be teaching at Beth El on the Early-Modern Jewish History.

It’s great to see more synagogues doing Jewish learning programming.

Yes, but I’m a lonely voice. We need to teach ourselves and our kids. And I’m the guy to do it. Everyone needs their roots. We have this great well of history and we are running away from it.

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