Literature-based curriculum for Jewish studies
“Come! It’s history time!” Daniel, age 10, calls Sarah, age 8, as he speeds through the living room and flops on the couch.
“History! Yay!” Sarah joins Daniel on the couch, laying herself out so that her toes are just under her mother’s lap, the way she likes them.
Mother had just cleared the laundry and library books off the couch. She smiles as she opens the book, relishing her role as the home base of this family.
“Who can remind me where we left off yesterday?” she asks.
“Me!” Daniel and Sarah reply in unison.
Mother chuckles. “Let’s take turns. Youngest first.”
Sarah launches into a detailed narrative of the historical events they had read about the day before. Then Daniel fills in the gaps, connecting this lesson with a documentary he’d watched three weeks earlier.
“Great!” Mother says. “Let’s continue then.”
She begins reading as Daniel and Sarah listen attentively, while also digging into the couch for spare Legos.
Sounds idyllic? Unrealistic? Welcome to the world of literature-based homeschooling!
As a disclaimer, I should add that homeschooled children throw tantrums, bicker, and annoy their siblings just like school children do.
Homeschooling does not guarantee constant bliss. Yet, homeschooled children, on average, tend to enjoy learning more than children who attend school, due in part to closer relationships among the family members and in part to the engaging literature-based curricula on just about any subject available to homeschooling families.
Ani VeAmi is the first literature-based Jewish homeschooling curriculum that invites your family into the exciting world of homeschooling from a Jewish perspective.
What is literature-based curriculum
Literature-based curriculum is structured around “living books” – both fictional and non-fictional literary works that bring the subject matter to life. In contrast to traditional textbooks, living books are engaging, entertaining, and educational at the same time. They are written by authors who are passionate about the subject matter and able to convey their passion to the readers. They are respectful of the readers’ innate intelligence and do not talk down to them. Rather, even the younger readers are expected to put in the necessary effort to understand and absorb the information in the book.
The concept of “living books” was introduced by the British educator, Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923), in a classroom setting. Miss Mason believed in children’s innate desire to learn and in the importance of providing them with quality literature that would satisfy that desire. She wrote , “[T]he selection of their first lesson-books is a matter of grave importance, because it rests with these to give children the idea that knowledge is supremely attractive and that reading is delightful.” Miss Mason’s ideas were implemented in many British schools in her lifetime.
Several decades later, homeschooling families in the U.S. discovered her teachings and applied them to educating their children at home. To this day, “Charlotte Mason homeschooling” is a popular homeschooling approach. Ani VeAmi applies this approach to both Jewish and secular learning.
Both in school and at home, the parent or teacher often reads the book aloud to the children, even if they are old enough to read it themselves. Reading aloud encourages questions, conversations, and discussions, which can take place spontaneously throughout the day, or even weeks later, as the students think of something related to the book.
Living books can be used to study various subjects. For history, the curriculum consists of well written biographies and historical fiction that accurately portray the everyday life and the historical events of a given time period. Along the way, the students might also learn about geography, art, music, and other disciplines relevant to the plot of the book.
For example, A Single Shard by Linda Sue Parks is a Newberry medal winning book set in twelfth century Korea. Well written and engaging, it holds the children in suspense as they follow the travails of a thirteen year old orphan, while at the same time learning about Korean history, geography, and the art of Korean pottery. Numerous other historical fiction novels are used by homeschooling families, set in just about any location and time period imaginable.
Even such technical subjects as math and science can be taught using living books. For math, many homeschooling families use the Life of Fred series by Stanley Schmidt. The readers follow the mishaps of a five year old math professor while covering a complete math curriculum. For science, The Sassafras Science Adventures by Johnny Congo and Paige Hudson offer a complete science curriculum with adventure novels at its center.
Why teach and learn Torah through literature
At Ani VeAmi, we use living books to teach Torah and Jewish studies.
One of the challenges in Jewish education today is that students tend to perceive their Torah studies as dry and lacking excitement. Many children graduate from Jewish schools without developing a personal connection to Torah. The literature-based approach offers an opportunity to involve the students on an emotional level, making an impression not only on their minds but on their hearts as well.
Many Jewish homeschoolers have benefited from the literature-based approach to learning in secular subjects. Their children are excited about learning and pay close attention to the material, absorbing much information along the way. Jewish homeschoolers would like to see the same level of excitement and engagement with the material when it comes to Torah subjects.
Another advantage of a literature-based curriculum is that it is equally appealing and equally beneficial for both strong and weak students. As Miss Mason wrote , “[C]hildren who have little vocabulary to begin with, no trace of literary background, show themselves able to hear or read a work of literary value and after a single reading to narrate pages with spirit and accuracy, not hedging at the longest names nor muddling complicated statements… [A] literary education is open to all, not after tedious and laborious preparation, but immediately.”
Moreover, students with ADHD or learning disabilities tend to do very well when taught through living books. And adults who missed out on some of their learning due to ADHD and learning disabilities can use living books to catch up. For more information, see our post on Special Needs.
Thus, a literature-based curriculum for Torah studies makes Torah learning come alive for students of all ages and abilities.
Has this been done before?
While no complete curriculum currently exists for teaching Torah through literature, a number of Torah scholars have advocated the use of Jewish literature to convey Torah concepts to the readers, especially to children. These learned Jews invested many hours into producing quality Jewish literature that educate and inspire, as well as entertain.
For example, Rabbi Meir (Marcus) Lehmann, a Torah scholar and a busy community rabbi, wrote many historical novels and short stories, carefully researched and based on traditional Jewish sources. He also became the publisher and editor of Der Israelit, the first weekly Jewish newspaper in Germany which was instrumental in the battle against assimilation. His son Yonah wrote about his father , “His art of storytelling had only one professed purpose, namely, to show how a life in accordance with the Torah brings happiness in this world and hope in the World of Souls.” Rabbi Lehmann’s granddaughter, Selina Sassoon, wrote , “The power to tell a gripping story and at the same time to communicate to the young reader a keen appreciation of the essentially Jewish moral issues with which, in so many different forms, the heroes of those stories grapple – this was the rare gift which endeared my grandfather as a writer to old and young alike and gave his work its unique quality.”
Rabbi Zelig Schachnowitz continued Rabbi Lehmann’s work, taking over as the editor of Der Israelit. He also wrote historical novels infused with Torah concepts and values. A. Chachamovitz, the translator of his books, wrote , “Interspersed throughout this book are the basic tenets of Judaism, the Torah outlook on life, ideas related to basic matters of faith, and other complex concepts which are to be found in our Holy Writings.”
A British author, Rabbi Solomon Asher Halpern, wrote stories for children, both true and fictional. In the introduction to one of his books, he wrote , “[P]sychology shows that childhood impressions and ideas infiltrated during the uncritical receptive state of mind induced by a gripping story have a profound and lasting influence… Let that be my apology for syphoning off some hundreds of perfectly good hours of a talmudist’s time for writing these stories.”
Clearly, these rabbis, and other Jewish authors, have invested much time and effort into producing quality Jewish literature because they understood the educational power of well written, engaging books. It is only a logical next step to use these “living books” within a Torah studies curriculum.
If you are ready to invite Ani VeAmi into your home, please go to our How It Works page.
For further reading on the Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling, please see our Imma Culture page.
 Charlotte Mason. Home Education. Volume 1, part 5, chapter 8.
 Towards a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason.
 Meir (Marcus) Lehmann. Rabbi Yoselman of Rosheim. Feldheim, 2002. A Tribute to the Author by Osher Lehmann.
 Ibid., Prefatory Note by Selina Sassoon.
 Rabbi Zelig Schachnowitz. The Jewish Kingdom of Kuzar. Feldheim, 2007. Preface to 2005 Hebrew Edition by A. Chachamovitz.
 Solomon A. Halpern. Prisoner and Other Tales of Faith. Feldheim, 1968. On Jewish Stories.