The construction of identity through text: Sixth- and seventh-grade girls in an ultra -Orthodox Jewish day school

Lois Ballen Safer, University of Pennsylvania


The American Jewish community has pinned much of its hopes for continuity on Jewish education (Wertheimer, 1999b). The importance of literacy and identity in the Jewish community makes it worthwhile to investigate their relationship in a critical setting for the transmission of identity, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish day school. This study is an ethnographically-oriented, feminist inquiry into the ways girls' engagement with text and its accompanying discourse function to construct their identities as Jews, Jewish women, readers, and learners. I explored the question over a period of eight months with a group of eight girls in their combined sixth and seventh grade Religious Studies class. The data I collected included: copies of texts; samples of students' assignments; observational fieldnotes and reflective notes of classroom and schoolwide activities; audiotapes and transcripts of classroom lessons, interviews with students, teachers, administrators, graduates, and a parent of a graduate. I used perspectives from literacy studies, literary theory, as well as research on identity and gender to analyze the data for critical features of this particular discourse. I found that in order to impart the religious and cultural ideologies that framed educational practices, teachers and administrators acted as inspirational role models; that students constructed identities by becoming socialized to a particular way of reading and responding to religious texts; and that differential access to religious study appeared not to lessen their acceptance or understanding of the curricula. While membership in denominations of Judaism other than ultra-Orthodoxy created a range of individual differences, I found that the girls' participation in the language, activities, and culture of the institution promoted a feeling of belonging to the community of learners and believers. Implications for pedagogy included attention to: religious diversity; storying as pedagogy; the rebbe role model system; the language of the text; and integration of religious and secular studies. This study contributes to educational literacy research conversations that investigate the social and cultural natures of reading as they relate to literacy, identity, and learning.

Subject Area

Literacy|Reading instruction|Religious education

Recommended Citation

Safer, Lois Ballen, "The construction of identity through text: Sixth- and seventh-grade girls in an ultra -Orthodox Jewish day school" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3112559.