A Sampling of Possible Lecture Topics
*These topics have evolved from various research projects for articles and books. Like the brand-new Jewish museum in Warsaw, we aim to celebrate Jewish life and achivements through the centuries, rather than Jewish demise.
1. Jewish Wagons West. The Jews were very much among the original settlers who went to the American West. Who were they? What propelled them to make the hazardous journey? What were some of their experiences? Stories of the Wild West, the experimental agricultural communities, the birth of the blue jeans, the key role played by the city of San Francisco, and the formerly hidden contributions of the conversos; among other Westward tales.
2. Jews and the American Civil War. Jews were deeply involved in the Civil War on both sides and at various levels. Why were they eager to participate? Why were both sides so violently against the Jews as the war ground on? What was the real story of Judah P. Benjamin, often described as the "brains behind the Confederacy."
3. Ghetto, emancipation, emigration: the story of the German Jews. It covers the real history of the Jewish ghettos of Western Europe; how they developed and why. What life might have been like behind those gates. How emancipation and full citizenship in the19th century became a double-edged sword. Why many left. And why their earliest experiences in America were so different from that of the later Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
4. Maimonides. Man v. Myth. What do we really know about Maimonides that is not obscured by current veneration? This talk will look at fact vs. mythology - the chaos and upheavals during Maimonides’ early life, events that shaped his works in Jewish thought and medicine, his attitude towards women, a sampling of his remedies, and the controversies that erupted over his ideas after his death.
5. The Ancient Roots of Cultural Judaism. A look at those who cherish the culture, traditions and values of the Jewish world, but see themselves as agnostics or atheists. For them, and others, it often comes as surprise that such views go back a long way; indeed as far as antiquity. Who were these cultural Jews? And how did the Jewish world treat them?
6. How Trade Drove Jewish History. Contrary to popular belief, it was not persecution that drove the narrative of Jewish history. Trade played a major role. Why did Jews become renowned for their long-distance trading skills so early on? An advantage that led in time to their prominence (even today) in commerce and finance; and opened doors when their co-religionists needed an escape hatch and safe haven.
7. On the Fabled Road to Samarkand: Jews have lived in Central Asia for over 2500 years. Many believe they are descended from the Lost Tribes. Why they went there? Who are they now? A look at their lives and culture over the centuries? Talk will be based upon a study tour the lecturer took to Uzbekistan in the fall of 2013.
8. The Jews of India: from Solomon to Sassoon and beyond: Jews have been trading and settling in India since biblical times. We look at the various migrations and how they maintained their communities for almost three thousand years.
9. Food in the History of the Jews: From biblical times to the present day, Jews have always enjoyed their particular cuisine, whether kosher or not. Think rye bread, pastrami, bagels and (in certain Mediterranean countries) a passion for eggplant dishes. It was so distinctive that during the time of the Inquisition a family’s culinary habits became a telltale way to reveal a secret Jew. Why was this so? How did the idea of “Jewish food” develop?
10. From Blood Libel to Balfour Declaration: the remarkable history of the Jews of England. Who financed the building of Westminster Abbey and why? What prompted Cromwell to allow the Jews to return after being expelled hundreds of years earlier? What were the real motives behind the British championing a modern State of Israel?
11. The History and Culture of the Jews of Persia (Iran). Jews have been in Persia/Iran since biblical times. Why were they so prominent in the Persian Empire? What was their changing role in society? How were they treated over the ages? Why did most of them leave when the Shah was deposed in 1979? How have they fared in modern times in the U.S? Offered as a lecture or mini-course.
12. Exploring Cuba: its once and future Jews. A recent visit to Cuba, plus additional research that has built upon Brooks' work with the conversos of Central and South America, finds a community in flux. The relaxation of restrictions both by the Americans and the Cubans themselves, has resulted in more and more people coming forward to reclaim a Jewish heritage, put on ice at the time of the revolution. A growing number of American Jews are now likely to visit. An exploration of the challenges and opportunities that the changes are now raising.
13. Russia, Bolsheviks and the Jews. A contextual background to Brooks' latest book, a romantic thriller called Russian Dance. When and why did the Jews first come to Russia? Why do we hear so little about the Jews outside the Pale? Why some become captivated with the Bolshevik Revolution while others chose Zionism or emigration? And what indeed was the fate of those who stayed. Included is the story of the Jews and the McCarthy era here in the United States.
14. The unlikely tale of Amelia Bassano. All about the alluring and brilliant Conversa woman who became Shakespeare's Dark Lady and probably collaborated on his plays. How this might change our image of Shylock and what "Merchant of Venice" had really intended to tell us, based upon research and concepts she developed recently for a special lecture at Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT.
15. The Incredible story of Dona Gracia Nasi. This lecture will use new findings to tell the life story of Dona Gracia Nasi, a 16th century woman banker who developed an escape network that saved thousands of her fellow conversos (forcibly-converted Jews) from the terrors of the Inquisition. It will be based upon Brooks' award-winning biography of Nasi called The Woman Who Defied Kings. The lecture will also tell how the material was discovered. A standing (portable) exhibit is newly available to accompany the talk at no extra charge. Dona Gracia's story is now in pre-production for an eight-part TV mini series.
16. The Cradle of Jewish Life in Europe and the Birth of Ashkenaz. Jews first came to Europe in late antiquity. Where were the first places they settled? How and why did some of them originally drift north and when did this happen? What are the true origins of some common Ashkenazi customs? Can also be given as a two-part mini course.
17. The Jews in the Renaissance. Contrary to popular perception, the Jews were extremely active as musicians, artists and scientists during the Renaissance. Their involvement, however, is too often overlooked. This lecture will look at their contributions and daily life during those times. A possible mini course too.
18. The (real) history of the Jewish Doctor. Why Jewish doctors became so sought-after among the monarchs of Europe and the Vatican from as early as the Middle Ages.
19. Five Hundred Years of Keeping a Secret: the Strange Story of the Conversos: What do we know about the Jews who ostensibly converted, staying on and taking their Judaism underground in Spain and Portugal after the expulsions and mass conversions of1492/6? Many kept their traditions over centuries. How their plight resonates today. A possible mini-course, too.
20. Jewish pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, the Jews were heavily involved in the pirate trade off Port Royal in the 17th century, too. What were their motives? What were their goals? A little-known but fascinating tale.
21. Jewish Women Challenging the World. Jewish women have been the innovators behind countless social, political and artistic endeavors throughout the 2,000 years since biblical times. We will explore a sampling from different fields of endeavor: from the Jewish women philosophers of ancient Alexandria, the conversa women of the Renaissance period, to the fiery revolutionaries whose voices affected hearts and minds during the chaotic politics of the early 20th century. A mini-course of 3-5 sessions.
22. Our DNA, our history. How DNA Studies and genealogical research is expanding our understanding of Jewish history and our own backgrounds. A talk based upon the most recent scientific studies and Brooks' work in professional genealogy.
23. Magic, merchants and miracles. The 2,000 year-old history of the Moroccan Jews is filled with interesting tales; how they lived, their unique customs, such as pilgrimages to the tombs of their "saints" and their unique language and beliefs. This illustrated lecture will revisit their long journey from ancient to modern times.
24. Baruch Spinoza: bad boy of the Jewish world. The talk will offer an in-depth look at the family heritage, upbringing, life and ideas of the much reviled, yet brilliant, Dutch philosopher. What was the real story?
25. The unusual history of the Jews of China. Jews have been traveling to China and settling there since ancient times. Why did they go? Where did they settle? Why do we hear so little about them? A look at the story of four of these Chinese communities, all of which were developed for different reasons at different times in history.
26. The French Connection: Jewish Life in France Through the Ages
The Jews of France have played an important role in both world and Jewish history throughout the ages, from their important role in turning back the Muslim armies invading Europe at Narbonne in the 8th century to their crucial role in providing modern-day skills to downtrodden Jewish communities in the 19th century. Why are their contributions so often overlooked? We take a close look at the lives of French Jews through the centuries.
27. The centuries-old story of the synagogue. its origins; how its function changed over time; how its architecture evolved; hidden synagogues; synagogue legends and mysteries and the meaning behind various features that we look at so often, but rarely understand. Where is it headed?
28. Our Past: Ourselves. What was really behind the mass migrations of Jews to America at the turn of the 20th century? How have their experiences lingered in the attitudes of many American Jews today? This lecture will be based upon recent research that Brooks undertook for a noted American Jewish family. A possible mini-course, too.
29. Raising the Privileged Child.... and for teachers, school counselors, parents and grandparents: a talk based upon her award-winning book/workbooks originally seen on Oprah, "Children of Fast Track Parents." This book was also made into a PBS documentary that was nominated for an Emmy Award. That documentary is now newly-available for showing or sale.
30. Workshop for teachers in Hebrew/Jewish Day Schools. Not to be overlooked: our multi-media curriculum for children called "Out of Spain" which traces the history, culture, music, festivals and food of the Jews who lived in Spain for 1500 years and more; including where they went after the expulsion and why. This workshop helps familiarize teachers with the materials and how to use them.
*Topics can be customized for a particular audience. As mentioned, Brooks leads book group discussions and teaches mini-courses too.