Living the Legacy


Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews

Unit 1 , Lesson 3

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews

Lesson plan:
  1. Identity Check

    This part of the lesson is designed for students to think about all the ways in which they self-identify and to consider what influences identity. They will create life-sized drawings of themselves as well as written reflections to explain the variety of ways in which they self-identify.

    Directions to do as an art project:

    1. Have each student choose a large piece of paper (or take a sheet of the smaller paper, if that is what you are using). If using the big paper, students should find a partner and then take turns laying down on the paper (or if wall space permits, hanging the paper on the wall and standing up against it) while their partners trace an outline of their body shape onto the paper. (If using the small paper, have each student draw a simple outline of the shape of their bodies.) Give each student a pencil and make markers available as you move into the next set of directions.
    2. Read the students the following prompts aloud, giving time for students to respond to them in their drawings (the students are silent during this part of the activity). At the same time write the prompts on a sheet of poster paper or project them so the students can refer back to them as they work. You may want to adapt the suggested prompts to suit your students. The prompts below give specific illustrations of Jewish and American identities, for example, but these may not be appropriate for your group. In the first part of the project, be sure the students are making images, rather than writing words, no matter how unsophisticated their art abilities may be. Encourage them to keep drawing. Walk about the room looking at the students’ work, and make positive and affirming comments about what the students draw. You want them to just keep drawing!


      1. What makes you who you are? Where did these things come from? Did you inherit your attitudes, beliefs, and values the same way you inherited the color of your hair and eyes? If not, where did they come from? What influenced the formation of your opinions and values? Begin to think of images that capture this, and draw them wherever they seem to fit inside or outside the outline of your body. Don’t worry if your pictures aren’t realistic or perfect; sometimes just some shapes and shading can get across the feeling or idea. Don’t judge, just draw.
      2. Inside the outline of your body on the paper, continue to draw pictures that represent who you are and the influences that make you who you are. What communities and groups do you belong to that help shape who you are? For example, a kippah on top of your head might symbolize your Judaism, but so might a noodle kugel in your stomach, a picture on your hands of your class doing a service project, or the hills of Jerusalem around your legs. Be creative and don’t censor yourself. Just draw! An American flag or a bald eagle might symbolize your being an American but so might the scales of justice or the Statue of Liberty. What pictures symbolize the other things you identify with, like your friendship groups, your family, your school or town?
      3. What images symbolize your beliefs and values that make you who you are? Maybe you care passionately about human rights or music or vegetarianism. How did you get those passions? Who in your life helped you to come to believe that all people deserve to be treated equally or that music heals the soul or that it’s wrong to eat animals? How can you draw that in your body? Where in your body would you draw your activism, the importance of sports or your passion to become a doctor so you can heal people’s pain, for example? What would it look like?
    3. While some student’s drawings may be completely filled up at this point, others may be quite empty. Now invite students to add words to their pictures. For some students, the bodies may fill up with words and writing, while for others, there may be more drawing to do. Both are fine responses here. Continue to encourage getting images and words onto the paper and keeping judgment out of it.
    4. Invite students to share their work with each other, helping them to find language to explain what influences have shaped who they are as people and how they have come to identify as they do. You may want to have them share their body outlines with the person sitting next to them rather than with the whole group, as they may feel vulnerable about their work. After sharing in pairs, each pair can then share with the whole group one or two things they learned about their partner. You can draw out their responses, without leading, with such phrases as “Did you come up with that idea on your own or did you hear it somewhere else?”, “Did you always think that or did something happen to change your thinking?” etc.
    5. Explain that while we may not always be able to identify how our beliefs and passions are formed, we can explore the people, traditions, and events that have influenced our values in order to reach a deeper understanding of who we are. For example, being raised in a Jewish family might have taught you that eating together as a family at Jewish holidays was an important value. Similarly, newly arrived immigrants to America learned very quickly what was “American” and what they could do to avoid being labeled as a “greenhorn,” (a pejorative term for new immigrants). At this point, you may wish to have students read the background essay for the lesson.

    Directions to do as a writing activity:

    Ask students to take out writing paper and pens. Tell them that they are not handing in this writing, but rather, that it is to get them to think about questions of identity, where our self-identifications come from, and what influences are self-identifying.

    1. Use the drawing prompts above in b, i through iii, as writing prompts. Give regular amounts of time for each prompt, and give students permission to stay on a prompt that is particularly engaging to them instead of necessarily moving onto the next prompt.
    2. Follow up with d and e above and then move to Part II below.
  2. Document Study

    1. Explain that the students will now look at and analyze a set of primary sources from working-class, Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century.
    2. Give each student a set of documents. Have students examine the documents and answer the questions on the documents on their own or in pairs.
    3. Direct a class discussion around the following questions after students have had time to examine the documents:
      • What makes a person independent?
      • What kinds of language do the workers use to describe how they identified as workers?
      • How do the workers in these texts form their American Jewish identities? Point to specific examples.
    4. Explain that young immigrants were often challenged by wanting to live their lives differently from their parents while still being respectful of and connected with their parents, and that the students are going to show that challenge in a piece of artwork or creative writing.
  3. Talking Across Time: Identity Formation Collages

    Directions to do as an art project:

    1. Tell the students that they are going to create “dialogues” across time in the form of collages. One “speaker” will be a young person about their own age in the early part of the 20th century. This “speaker” explains to an older person how they are becoming different due to the work and social experiences they are having in America. They may also tell the older person what values they received from the old country and the older generation they intend to hold onto. The other “speaker” in the dialogue is the older person. This person will explain to the younger person what s/he believes is important to hold onto and what s/he thinks about the changes the younger person is describing.
    2. Have students begin by identifying one to three things each “speaker” will “say” in the collage. These can be quotations from the primary sources that speak to a particular idea, such as peer group identification or clothing, for example. Students may also choose to focus on more general ideas such as the way in which work gave young people time away from the protective eyes of parents in order to experiment with new language and new types of recreation. Students can also include text, such as direct quotations from the primary sources, to develop or make more clear their ideas about identification and generational differences.
    3. Give each student a piece of cardboard on which to make their collages. (See materials required for suggestions of materials for the collages.) Explain that their work should be “mixed media,” including both 3-D objects glued on and writing or images made with the markers or paints. Have students choose objects to create a collage of their dialogue. Whatever items they choose should somehow fit symbolically with their ideas, e.g. different fabrics representing each generation and each idea. Make glue, markers and paints, and all the materials for the collages available to students to either make their collages in class or to take home to make for homework.
    4. When students have completed the collages, hang their pieces around the room for everyone to view and invite discussion about what students see the collages saying about the experience of early 20th century immigrant workers and assimilation into American society. You may choose to organize this as a museum tour, in which some students are tour guides and some are visitors, and then they switch roles.

    Directions to do as a writing activity:

    1. Give the directions in a. Invite students to create a series of letters or two parallel journals of entries for each “speaker” to explain themselves to each other.
    2. Instruct students to use direct quotations or paraphrases from the primary source documents in their writing. Tell them to add texture and depth to their writing by using the quotations to guide some creative writing about the “speakers’” feelings and attitudes.
    3. When the students have written, revised and finalized their writing, invite them to share excerpts from their writing with the class, and encourage discussion about what students see the pieces saying about the experience of early 20th century immigrant workers and assimilation into American society. This stage could also be done online, as a blog.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <>.