Seth Fleishman didn’t set out to teach a lecture series when he was giving history lessons to his two oldest children in place of lullabies or bedtime stories.
“I’ve been telling them about different stories from throughout history of real people and real events,” he said. “I never really connected it to Judaism, but a friend, Alex Vayner, heard me, and he kept nudging me to speak in front of adults.”
Rabbi Yale New of Chabad of Toco Hills encouraged Fleishman to share his Jewish knowledge, and the rest is history. Now in its second season, the “World History by a Jew” lecture series takes place at CTH, which is housed in Torah Day School.
Oscillating between a lecture on world history and Jewish history, Fleishman opted to merge the two, discussing any and all periods of world history, but through a Jewish lens.
While it might seem on its face that a Jewish connection might limit the subject matter he could choose, Fleishman explains that there are a surprising number of topics that one might never expect have a Jewish connection.
“Jews were involved in the founding of Mexico, for example,” he said. “I can take a slice of history from pretty much anywhere in the world, and sometimes it’s 50 percent Jewish, but other times it’s 10 percent Jewish, but it’s definitely there.”
Topics are suggested by attendees to the classes, and tend to take place in three parts, though each stands alone, so a newcomer won’t be lost jumping in after the first lecture. Currently, the focus is ancient Egypt, and for such a large discussion Fleishman expects four or five parts.
“It’s such a broad topic with 3,000 years of history,” he said. “This was the most requested last year, but I wanted to wait until we got near Pesach. I want to discuss the historical accuracy of Exodus the Shabbos before Passover, so everything is building up to that.”
In the past, in addition to Jews’ roles in the founding of Mexico and Cinco de Mayo, previous series have focused on France, Germany and the Ottoman Empire and how Jewish history is intertwined.
“I think I’ve gotten a little bit better since the first few, if I do say so myself,” Fleishman said. “It took me a little while to figure out the best way to tell the story. At first I was more chronological, but I’ve found that adding a framework of storytelling helps a lot.”
In addition to the lessons at his shul, he’s lectured at two out-of-state Shabbatons, the largest in Birmingham for a crowd of more than 100. His love of history also led him to be a participant in a YouTube channel, “Digital Hammurabi,” which focuses on ancient Mesopotamian history.
“I’m the only contributor to that channel that is not a college professor. I am also the only contributor to the channel that does not have my bio because I’m sure the academic audience they have would not be too impressed with my business degree,” Fleishman joked.
While his lectures take place on Shabbat at an Orthodox Chabad, the history lessons are open to anyone, and free to attend.
“Some of the attendees are not Orthodox, they’re just friends of friends who like to hear about it. I don’t use a bunch of Jewish terms, and when I do, I try to explain them.”
New said that he appreciates that it is bringing people to CTH, including new faces.
“This is an original idea as far as I know,” he said. “What I appreciate most about the program is the outreach aspect, … and it’s attracting Jews of all different backgrounds.”
Fleishman explains that he enjoys giving the lectures, and also does it to challenge himself.
“The biggest test for myself is when I’m asked questions,” he said. “If I’m just delivering a lecture from my notes, that’s no big deal, but the real challenge is when someone raises their hand and asks a question. I expect myself to know the answer.”
While Fleishman leads the lectures, his daughter Shira, 12, leads a camp full of fun activities for children.
“A parent can come to the lecture and their kids have something to do at the same time,” he said proudly. “She’s not your average 12-year-old.”
As for future lecture plans, Fleishman says that a small man is next on the docket.
“Napoleon is the most requested besides Egypt,” Fleishman said, “so he is next on the list.” The next lecture takes place Saturday, March 16, from 6 to 6:45 p.m., hosted by CTH.