Tag Archives: religion

Videos for the Classroom: The Western Tradition

As regular followers of the Neighborhood can tell you, I was a pretty dorky kid.

It wasn’t enough that I sat and read the encyclopedia cover to cover.  Nor was it enough as a precocious 8 year old explaining human reproduction to my mother–on a crowded city bus.

I actually got up early for school…to watch school on TV.

Especially during middle and high school, I would get up at a ridiculously early hour.  Most of the time, it was simply to unwind and have some time to myself before I go off to the drudgery of classes.  Usually I could watch a movie on the VHS, or an old show I taped the night before.

Eventually, I was hooked on the most surprising of programs–a college lecture.

Produced by the Annenberg Foundation and broadcast on PBS, The Western Tradition was a 1989 series of 52 televised lectures given by UCLA history professor Eugen Weber.  It covered the development of Western civilization from the dawn of agriculture to the technological age, and wove many common themes together into a unified theory: trends in technology, social movements, government, economics, religion and art.

For me, it was an early entry into the world of higher education, and I was hooked.

Not only were the lectures rich, informative and compelling, they were delivered by a professor whose cadence even today is the benchmark for a great college history professor.  Dr. Weber was born in Romania and educated at Cambridge, so his Eastern European Oxbridge lilt was both comforting and erudite.  His pronunciation of names was impeccable–I thought all professors should sound like that.

Its not really for kids younger than high school age, but these lectures give a great overview of the main topics of Western civilization.  They also give kids a heads-up on what is expected of college students–it sure isn’t “accountable talk” and Common Core, is it?

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The Story of Papal Names; or, Why is there no pope named Jimbo?

English: PORTRAIT OF JOHN XXIII Español: IMAGE...

John XXIII (1881-1963), A great Pope, a not so original name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the supreme pontiff, the personification of Christ on Earth, was once called Fabian.

Some were even Silverius, Soter, Zachary, Hilarius, Conon, Anacletus, two Pelagiuses, and even a Sylvester—three of them.

When Benedict XVI announced his resignation effective February 28th, the Catholic Church reeled in shock, even though his Holiness had been hinting at retirement for some time now.  However, I’m sure the cardinals started jockeying for position once their pacemakers kicked in.  With the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed and locked, the conclave of the College of Cardinals will be busy in their voting, politicking and burning of paper in the process of selecting a new pope.

Since any one of these red-hatted guys can get the top job, they all probably have one thing in mind—what will be my papal name?

Since the 6th Century, almost all popes of the Roman Catholic Church have used a regnal or papal name during their reign.  The early popes, being usually in hiding, on the run, or martyred in an arena in cruel and entertaining ways, really didn’t have much time for picking new names.  Yet the acceptance of Christianity in 313, followed by its adoption as the state religion of Rome in 395, gave the papacy some long-needed breathing room for pomp, ceremony, and especially the affectations of monarchy—hence the papal name.

The first papal name was chosen by Mercurius in 533.  Once he was elected, Mercurius decided to change a really pagan name (he was named after the Roman god Mercury) to the more Christ-friendly John II.  It made sense: There were no Roman emperors named Yahweh or Osiris, either.  This change became more commonplace after the 10th Century, and would be de rigueur for all popes since the 16th Century.

The papal names followed no particular pattern.  Most popes chose the names of predecessors they admired, though some chose names of family members, members, even fellow clergymen who shared their ideas of politics and dogma.  The names cover an amazing range of styles (Adrian, Eugene, Boniface), languages (Alexander, Celestine, Miltiades) and perceived moral attributes (Innocent, Clement, Pius).

Until 1978, all popes picked one name.   John Paul I decided to honor two of his predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI (which didn’t help him much since he died 33 days later).  John Paul II continued this tradition, yet his successor Joseph Ratzinger went old school with Benedict XVI—a nice touch for a German theologian who tended to always look in the rearview mirror.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Some names just keep coming back: There were 23 Johns, the most of any papal name, with 16 Gregorys, 16 Benedicts, 14 Clements, 13 Innocents (most of whom were probably not true to that namesake), 13 Leos (though not of the zodiac sign of the same name), 12 Piuses (again, you’re just asking for criticism if you choose a name like Pius), 9 Stephens, 9 Bonifaces (an excellent choice of name, in my opinion), 8 Urbans (though none named Rural, oddly), and 8 Alexanders, of which the sixth one you may recognize as Jeremy Irons on Showtime.

Even with the free-for-all in nomenclature, there are some unspoken no-nos.  There is no Peter II, for example.  Peter, as in Peter the apostle, was the first pope, and no one could be pretentious enough to claim they are a second Peter (although Jeremy Irons comes close).  That’s almost as snotty as naming yourself Jesus II; and I don’t have to explain why.

Also, names often go out of fashion, sometimes thanks to one bad apple.  For over 500 years, there was no pope named John.  This was because the last John (John XXIII) was not only an antipope (or false pretender), but he was morally corrupt and such a scheming little shit that even the mention of his name would probably have gotten you excommunicated.  When Giuseppe Roncalli  was elected in 1958, they weren’t sure if he was John XXIII or John XXIV, since that other John carried such a stain.  Roncalli, the kind son of Italian sharecroppers, was no such blight on the name, and took on the moniker of John XXIII, as if the other prick never existed.

So what will the new guy choose?  It’s difficult to say, since rules and fashion continue to shift and change.   For the Neighborhood, we feel the next pontiff might do well to give one of the older, more obscure monikers a try.  We’re not ready for another John Paul.  John, Leo,  Pius or even Benedict (at least now) seems a little safe.

Resurrect old standards like Urban, Boniface, Sixtus or Celestine.  He might even choose Gelasius, Theodore, Paschal or even Zephyrinus.

Whatever name is chosen—in the grand scheme of things, a papal name is not necessarily the measure of a papacy.

Then again, would we ever gain spiritual strength today from a pope named Lando (reigned 913-914)?

Probably not…unless there’s a Star Wars convention nearby.

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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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Movies for the Classroom: A Christmas Carol (1971)

The holidays are never complete without Charles Dickens‘ immortal Victorian morality tale–and now you can show among the best versions of the story.

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was not only a wildly popular bestseller.  In so many words, Dickens defined the modern definition of Christmas in Britain and especially in America.   Practically overnight, A Christmas Carol re-introduced the English-speaking world to a holiday that had been largely forgotten for almost two centuries.

Ever since the ban on Christmas during the Cromwellian era, the holiday was looked down upon as an idolatrous Catholic vice.  Even in America, only Anglican Virginia and outlying German Lutheran and Catholic settlements on the frontier really celebrated it.

Dickens’ work practically re-oriented the holiday from its more religious underpinnings to a secular, family-based celebration of comraderie and goodwill.  Even the most dour Calvinist couldn’t argue with those sentiments.  As the novel became popular, the markings of the celebration as noted on the pages–gift-giving, trees, pine wreaths, holly, carols, food, etc.–started to sprout in Britain and the United States (Puritan New England was slower in adopting it: many parts of the region wouldn’t allow Christmas celebrations until the 1870s.)

Thus, the holiday we see today comes almost directly from this 1843 novel.

Like any popular story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.  The version attached today is among the best.  This 1971 animated film won the Academy Award for best animated short film: the only version of the story to be honored with an Oscar.  Directed by Richard Williams and produced by legendary animator Chuck Jones, the film’s style is lifted almost directly from 19th century illustrations, as well as 1930s illustrations of a popular reprint.  The tone is sufficiently dark to suit the somber Dickensian world of mid-19th century London: you can smell the smog and misery.

I think its among the best adaptations of the story around.  The mood of the story is sufficiently dark and upbeat to satisfy all audiences–but particularly older students.  This definitely lends itself to discussions of Victorian society, values, social welfare and government policies to the less fortunate.

Or it just could be a great Christmas yarn (which it is).  You can decide.  Enjoy.

 

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Review of Part 1 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Haiti/Dominican Republic

A Tale of Two Countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic

In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.

One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition.  All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them.  From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.

Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility.  “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.

(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)

Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America.  Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences.  The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity.  On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.

The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade.  Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching.  On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.

Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices.   Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness.  It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.

This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor.  Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population.  Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior.  When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting.  Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.

Haiti seems almost the exact opposite.  Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black.  Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents.  Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.

Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence.  Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas.   One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.

This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States.  Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans.  Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence.  Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.

The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants.  While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World.  Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.

Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States.  Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors.  Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.

Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized.  As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more.  As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.

There is no shame in being of African descent.

Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.

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Eggs, Bunnies and a Dude on a Cross: The Problem with Easter

The Easter story is the central tenet of Christianity. It also reads like a nightmarish B-grade horror film.

A poor, disheveled mystic–who claims to be descended from the divine–attracts a following with feats of power and thoughtful wisdom. He runs into problems with local authorities that fear his ministry will “rock the boat” with both the local priests and the powers that actually run the joint.

After a meal where he makes his followers consume his “flesh” and “blood”, he is arrested and beaten within an inch of his life. The mystic then carries a wooden beam through town, amongst jeering crowds and impatient soldiers to a hill where his is stripped and nailed to this hunk of wood. Hanging in horrific agony, he calls on everyone but the kitchen sink before he finally tunes out—only to “rise again” like a beatific zombie a few days later.

If the movies are to be believed, his hair is perfect.

In a nice addendum, the same dude rises to heaven, promising to come back and go medieval on all the fools who wronged him: a divine Charles Bronson, if you will.

Of course, this is a crude, even blasphemic retelling of what is considered the “Passion” of Jesus Christ, the story of his torture, death and resurrection as told through the Gospels of the New Testament. It is impossible to understand Christianity without this story—gory and fantastic as it may be.

Yet the Easter story can be very troublesome in a classroom, particularly in the elementary setting. That said, it’s probably best to avoid it altogether.

“Not so fast!”, you say, “What about Christmas? That’s a religious holiday that’s at least given lip service in most American classrooms!”

If you think Easter has been made tame by bunnies, chocolate and hard-boiled eggs with paint on them…you better look again, because Big J’s horror story will always reel its thorn-laden head.

Here are a few reasons to bypass the Easter story in your class:

1. The Religion is still Center Stage. – the bunny just won’t cut it. There’s no Santa Claus, Frosty or tits at Mardi Gras to drown out the Bible here. Jesus really IS the reason for this season, and the minute you talk about him is the moment the First Amendment and the ACLU come to whip you in the ass with an organically-grown hickory switch.

2. There’s too little secular material to tie in. – You can even date when Christmas was stripped of its Christianity: 1843. This was the year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. It became a best-seller, and completely remade Christmas as a secular family gift-giving holiday. To date, no such transformation has occurred with the opposite end of Jesus’ life.

3. The story is gruesome. – There’s no way to candy coat torture and crucifixion. It was a painful, agonizing death that was suffered by thousands during Roman rule. In fact, Jesus had it easy: his loincloth was kept on for modesty, and only his limbs were nailed down. Scholars have discovered remains of naked victims nailed in some bizarre areas: the armpits, the neck, even the genitals. Makes you feel sorry for the Roman legionary who drew the short straw for nail-in-the-junk duty.

4. Competition from another important religious holiday. – As much as it galls the religious right, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover seder, as he was an observant Jew. Passover and Easter are forever tied together, both by Scripture and history. Passover, the celebration of the beginning of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, is not the most important Jewish holiday religiously, yet the most influential historically. The Passover story reverberates throughout Jewish history, as the dispersal of God’s Chosen People harkens back to those first movements from Egypt. Furthermore, in places with large Jewish populations, like New York City, a long spring recess has more to do with Jewish than Christian religious tradition. Easter can’t exist without Passover, and both stories need a lot of context to be explained.

5. No good secular entertainment. – Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown aren’t exactly kosher on Easter (no pun intended). All the movies associated with the season have to do with the season literally. There are plenty of Jesus movies—and Moses movies, for that matter—to fill an afternoon, but they come dangerously close to evangelizing. Even Monty Python’s Life of Brian won’t cut it, although I would love to meet the high school teacher with the balls to show it in class.

6. The whole story is such a downer. – When Christians celebrate Easter, they rejoice in the very end of the story. Most of the narrative of Jesus’ last days on Earth is tragic, violent, gruesome, blood-curdling and altogether depressing. It only gets good at the very end (the “zombie” phase). Hence the pastel suits and chiffon dresses: wearing that on Good Friday is akin to showing up at the funeral in a red dress.

I’ve seen decent, God-fearing teachers make a point to sneak in Easter activities like egg-dying, Easter bunny-coloring and the like. It’s cute, I know, but the minute one kid asks why they are doing this, the teacher plays with fire.

That fire—from constitutional law and the courtroom—is far more painful than any conjectured netherworld. You can avoid Hell. You can’t get out of a subpoena.

In high school classes, this shouldn’t be an issue. Jesus is a historical figure, and his death should be treated as such—you can even go nuts on the crucifixion thing. The scripture complicates things, but teenagers should figure out what is history and what isn’t.

With little kids, however, the scripture is the history. It’s the only narrative that a kid will understand at that level, and in a public school that’s construed as religious instruction. Avoid Easter, avoid Jesus, heck avoid the bunnies and eggs (they bring about too many questions).

Leave that for a later time when the gruesomeness of the Passion has a slightly cool quality. You gotta love teenagers.

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This Day in History 3/31: Ferdinand and Isabella issue the Edict of Expulsion

Copy of the Spanish edict of expulsion

The 1492 Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion. Image via Wikipedia

The last thing I would want is to live in a place where everyone was exactly like me.

So it seems both funny and tragic that two industrious European monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had no problem with this.

The push for homogeneity, for sameness, does often lead to traquility and a life of familiarity.   However, the overzealous iron fist of sameness can cause irreparable damage, both for the majority and for the minority that is now outcast.

This was the case on March 31, 1492, when the Catholic monarchs of Spain issued a decree that would reverberate over three continents.  Less than three months after vanquishing the last vestiges of Islamic Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella issued what was called the Alhambra Decree, later called the Edict of Expulsion.  It declared that the Jews of Spain, a community that thrived on the Iberian peninsula since Roman times, had four months to liquidate their belongings and leave the country.  Those who did not would face death.

For centuries, Jews had lived in communities in present-day Spain, first under the Romans after the Third Jewish Revolt of the 2nd century, and subsequently under the Visigoths and Islamic Moors.  Jewish Spain flourished most under Muslim rule: the caliphs of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) saw the Jews as fellow “People of the Book.”  They were given special status, allowed to operate businesses and own land, and especially to worship with little interference from Muslim authorities.  Since the Jews were an ethnic as well as religious group, there was little fear of the conversions and evangelization with Christian communities.

Even as the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula gained prominence, Jews continued to live their life and worship, providing massive contributions to Iberian culture.  Often, Jewish communities were the most literate, and local princes and sultans employed Jewish scribes that produced reams of edicts, writs and decrees–often in Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew.  Jewish bankers and merchants helped keep the warring kingdoms solvent with trade and loans (often to the irritation of local religious zealots who saw Jews as mere usurers).  Spanish Jews excelled in diplomacy, art, literature, science and philosophy through luminaries such as Maimonides, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi.

However, little by little, attitudes towards Jews in Spain began to change.

Once in a while, even during the Muslim period, occasional massacres and banishments of Jews occurred, as rulers (who often could not–or would not–repay their loans to their Jewish creditors) placed Jews under more intense scrutiny.  Land would eventually be taken away.  Jews would be restricted to certain neighborhoods in certain cities.  Jewish businesses were ransacked, synagogues were defiled, and pressure to convert or emigrate became ever greater.

Then came Ferdinand and Isabella.

The dynamic duo of medieval Iberia came with an agenda: unite the peninsula under one crown, one language, and especially one “true” Catholic faith.  As the military might of Castile and Aragon brought the neighboring states to heel (a movement known as the Reconquista), the Catholic Monarchs had to contend with large populations of minorities, especially Jews.  There is no exact number of Jews that came under Spanish rule: estimates range from 250,000 to almost 900,000.  The Christian Spaniards viewed these people with suspicion and contempt, especially since they were portrayed as collaborators to the Muslim caliphs–a gross misinterpretation since the caliphs also engaged in occasional anti-Semitic abuse.

Thousands of Jews sought to escape persecution through conversion to Christianity.  These conversos often resumed their original status with the veneer of Catholic baptism, which infuriated local Christians.  Also, many conversos were suspected of not being genuinely loyal to the church, but rather of keeping their Judaic religious practices in secret.  These crypto-Jews, known as marranos, were seen as an even bigger threat, a Fifth Column that undermined the unity of the new Catholic Spain.

Starting in 1480, the Spanish Inquisition was instituted to solve the problem of the conversos.  Headed by Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition’s mission was to root out heresy, including any suspected secret Jewish activity on the part of the newly converted.  Reams have been written about the horrors and abuses of the Inquisition, yet it needs to be said that not a single out-and-out practicing Jew was targeted.  The Inquisition was not concerned with Jews who stayed true to Judaism, but rather those who wanted to be Catholic out of “convenience.”

Ferdinand and Isabella would take care of the observant Jews personally.  For lack of a better pun, the Edict of Expulsion was their “final solution” to their Jewish problem.

The edict gave Jews about four months to sell all their belongings and leave Spain.  Any non-Jew who aided in hiding a Jewish person was punished by confiscation of property and rescinding of privileges.  Jews who did not leave were put to death.  During the four-month preparation period, Jews were under royal protection and could take their belongings except “”gold or silver or minted money.”

Expulsion of Jews in Europe 1100-1600. Image via Wikipedia

Of the 200,000 to 800,000 Jews who left in 1492, many settled in North Africa.  Some went to neighboring Portugal, only to be expelled five years later.  The Spanish Jews would then find refuge in Italy, in the Balkans, in Greece, and eventually in England, the Netherlands and the New World of the Americas.  In the case of the Americas, the Inquisition often followed the Jews into Latin America, thus further forcing other migrations into North America and Canada.

So what did Ferdinand and Isabella gain in this act?  Though Spain would remain a predominantly Catholic country for the rest of its history, it is a homogeneity fed by theft, torture and murder–and the loss of two rich, sophisticated cultures in the process.

There were still conversos to consider, and their allegiance would remain suspect for centuries.  The missionary zeal of Torquemada would stretch into Spain’s new colonies in America; leaving men such as Bartholome de las Casas to document the tragic results.  The property, businesses and riches of the expelled Jews mingled with new gold and silver from Mexico and Peru in the royal coffers.  Synagogues were transformed into churches.  Hebrew texts were destroyed.  In the early 1600s, it was the Muslims’ turn, as thousands of moriscos, or Islamic converts to Christianity, would go down the same dark path as the Jews.

So what happened to the expelled Jews?

Like their kindred spread across numerous continents, the Jews of Spain provided far more than they received from the countries that hosted them.  In England, Jews welcomed under Oliver Cromwell would help cement England’s maritime power.  In the Netherlands, Spanish Jews would rise in the tolerant society of the Dutch Republic, and help spread trade and ideas to Asia and the New World.  In the Americas, Jews would gain a foothold and create among the most free societies on the planet.

Baruch Spinoza, Benjamin Cardozo, Benjamin Disraeli, and many others made great advances in philosophy, in law, in politics and government.

Yet the great lesson of the Expulsion is not what was lost or gained, but what survived.  In the end, Ferdinand and Isabella failed in their xenophobic quest to rid Christendom of “heretical” influences.  They failed because the heresies–namely Judaism and Islam–are still alive and well.

The Jews were not crushed, they were not annihilated–and not for lack of trying.  They survived, and their culture survived to enrich and progress humankind even today.  None other than the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote the following:

“What is the Jew?…What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!

The Jew – is the symbol of eternity. … He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”

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