From days in Auschwitz to Night, day-school students learning Jewish values

In his best Yiddish voice, Steve Friedman reads aloud the part of Max, David's dead grandfather in "David and Max."

His fifth-grade class at San Francisco's Brandeis Hillel Day School "gets chills," Friedman says. "And I get tears in my eyes."

"David and Max," he says, is "interesting and engaging without being preachy or didactic."

It's also a very Jewish story.

Friedman, like other Jewish day-school teachers, is always looking for a good Jewish read to offer his classes.

The effort is often a struggle.

Teachers agree that children, especially in the Bay Area, are too sophisticated for a lot of "age-appropriate" books that can be overly simplistic.

And because day-school students spend half of their school days learning about Judaism, the Jewish fiction they read "has to be a really good story," Friedman says.

Holocaust novels are an easy sell to students, the educators say. Among them: "Night" by Elie Wiesel and "Survival in Auschwitz" by Primo Levi.

Brandeis students read "Night" in eighth grade as part of their Jewish education. High schoolers at San Francisco's Hebrew Academy have studied both those books as part of their secular, English teachings.

"As a rule I teach 19th and 20th century classics," says Tim Poirier, Hebrew Academy's high-school English and drama teacher. However, "on occasion I teach Jewish literature –beautiful stories I've encountered — often about the Holocaust."

Some educators question if Wiesel or Levi's autobiographical fiction isn't too intense for such young audiences. But Friedman and Poirier feel teaching these works is a way of answering students' curiosity.

"Actually, they tell me they want even more [Holocaust literature]," Poirier says.

Both teachers agree that because day-school students have a firm grounding in all aspects of Jewish history, they are better able to absorb this horrific period and place it into historical context.

At Brandeis, kids read "The Diary of Anne Frank" in fourth or fifth grade. So by eighth grade, they are intellectually prepared for a book like "Night," Friedman says.

Reading such weighty work at a younger age is emotionally "a crapshoot for teachers, whether or not the kids are ready," Friedman says. "I prefer to err on the side of caution."

So far, he's been successful with "Night." However, "kids like to focus on the morbid and the exotic. So balance is important," he adds.

Books like Gary Provost Levine's "David and Max" provide those "other stories" of Jewish life, Friedman says.

The tale of a young boy and his grandfather, "David and Max" is a flashback to summers at Martha's Vineyard and a secret Holocaust past. It also explores issues of death, first love, growing — or not growing — tall and having a bar mitzvah.

"It's got it all," Friedman says. "It's a great story and it talks about continuity of Judaism, finding out about the Holocaust and seeing oneself as part of a tribe.

"Ultimately though, it's a story about relationships. And it's the perfect springboard for many other discussions."

Poirier also teaches some tangentially Jewish works to start discussions of Jewish issues. One of his favorites is "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," by Hanah Coreen.

Coreen's novel is the story of a young Jewish girl and her journey in and out of madness. She is the only Jew in her neighborhood and at summer camp. To cope, she creates a make-believe world as her retreat. But ultimately, it becomes a place of madness for her.

Poirier and his classes discuss Jewish identity, social isolation, ostracism, psychology and defining oneself through other's definitions in this context.

Both teachers agree, a story doesn't have to include Jewish characters to fit into a day-school curriculum.

"There are many stories for young people that are not Jewish stories but are full of adventures and deal with moral dilemmas and social issues," Friedman explains.

"You can use these stories in a Jewish setting to teach Jewish values."