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This week, ICJA hosted our second installment of a Spertus professional development initiative focusing on integrating art into Jewish education, Dr. Jeffrey Winters discussed educational theory and pedagogy of teaching through the visual arts and using visual technologies to engage multiple learning styles by creating a multi-modal learning environment to maximize the learner’s “whole-minded” potential. The teachers explored ideas for designing curriculum that integrates the arts through analyzing art, film, photography, poetry, music and music video to explore various usages of bringing the arts into the classroom.

The first of the four-part faculty program opened with Professor Marc Michael Epstein of Vassar College, whose presentation was titled, “History’s (Distorting) Mirror: What we can learn about Jews from Jewish Art (and what we can’t).”

Professor Epstein offered teachers ideas about how to effectively integrate Jewish art into Jewish education. Epstein’s presentation focused on illuminated Jewish manuscripts in the Middle Ages, namely Haggadot. He emphasized moving beyond using art to merely link pictures to the studied text. Instead, he advocated reading a piece of art as the text itself with “a life of its own,” replete with its own narrative, symbolism, and meaning. “Reading” art in this way allows us a glimpse into the worldview of the medieval Jew.

In Epstein’s work on a mid-fourteenth century Barcelona Haggadah, both the Israelites and their Egyptian taskmasters are pictured in contemporary medieval Spanish dress. This, Epstein states, was a deliberate attempt to link the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt to the Jewish suffering in fourteenth-century Barcelona. Reading this symbolism further, the message of the illustrations is clear: Just as the ancient Israelites cast of the yoke of their oppressor, so will one day the Jews of Barcelona.

Epstein pointed out that while art can be read as a mirror of the reality it depicts, it is often a projection of an idealized vision of that reality. This lesson can be taken back to the classroom by teaching our students how to do a close-reading of a piece of art, much like they would any other primary source or piece of text. The faculty also reflected on the ways that art could be used in the classroom to engage more learning styles by resonating with students on a deeper visual and emotional level. Inspired by this first session, the faculty are eagerly looking forward to the next three sessions of this program.

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