Sea of material on DVD-ROM goes into Lehrhaus class

Thanks to modern technology, the People of the Book may soon become the People of the Disk. That’s one possible outcome of “Heritage: The History of Jewish Civilization,” a new adult education course offered through Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica.

The course features a three-disc DVD-ROM package containing enough multimedia goodies to keep scholars and students mouse-clicking for years.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours with it,” says Ken Cohen, the Lehrhaus Judaic studies instructor who teaches the course. “Now I want to get others into this sea of material.”

At the heart of the DVD-ROM is the 1984 PBS documentary series “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews,” hosted by the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban, who died last year at age 87. It covers the entire span of Jewish history, beginning in 3800 BCE. Also included is a postscript episode filmed about a decade later, around the time of the Oslo accords.

The Charles H. Revson Foundation had partially underwritten the award-winning series and, rather than allow it to collect dust on public library video shelves, decided to do something extraordinary: remake the series as a cutting-edge learning tool.

Bringing together a team of techies and Judaic scholars, including Cohen and Lehrhaus founding director Fred Rosenbaum, the multimillion dollar project took five years to complete.

So, exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pixel? Judging by the “Heritage” DVD-ROM, plenty.

The collection includes all nine episodes of the Eban documentary, 540 annotated maps, a comprehensive timeline of Jewish and world history, thousands of photographs and articles, an anthology of more than 650 annotated historical documents and more than 100 multimedia presentations on selected topics — from Abraham to Zohar.

Cohen gets as excited as a kid in a video arcade when he starts navigating the “Heritage” disks, and he’s always ready to put them through their paces.

Illustrative of the product’s features is a depiction of Bet She’an (also known as Scythopolis), an important Israelite city located south of Lake Kinneret. On the “Heritage” disc, it’s possible to toggle between aerial views of the present-day excavated ruins and a realistic replica of the town as it appeared in all its ancient glory.

The atlas feature shows a lot more than north, south, east and west. While zeroing in on a map of, say, the Middle East, one can scan across the centuries and see empires come and go, cities rise and fall, from antiquity through the present.

The index includes seemingly infinite topics. Want a Yiddish language lesson or a view of the architectural plans of Auschwitz? Would you like to read sample of modern Israeli poetry? How about a line-by-line explanation of a page from Talmud? Just point and click.

In a test run of the course last spring, Cohen found students dazzled by the technology. “This lends itself very nicely to classroom use,” he says. “Students got so into it, they were doing individual presentations with 20-page handouts.”

Charna Schakow, a fifth-grade history teacher at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, took the class earlier this year and became an instant convert to the new technology.

“It’s incredible,” she says. “When teaching history, visualizing it, making it real, is the hardest part. But this is what the multimedia approach does. The program does a great job of conveying the flow of Jewish history.”

If Cohen seems like a happy educator, he is. Teaching comes naturally to Cohen, who turned to the profession in a midlife career change.

A former marketing head at Oracle and systems engineer at IBM, Cohen is an electrical engineer by training. But over the years, his love for teaching and Judaism won out. He’s been teaching Jewish studies for a while, including a Bible study class now in its 10th year (he and his students are up to the Book of Daniel).

Being the Torah scholar that he is, Cohen has also traveled extensively throughout Israel, working on archaeological digs.

But he seems happiest in the classroom, which is good because he’ll be spending a lot of time there in the months ahead. Under the aegis of Lehrhaus Judaica, Cohen and other instructors will take the “Heritage” DVD-ROM into adult education classrooms all over the Bay Area, with most sections beginning next month.

“This is like a good version of Web surfing,” he notes. “It’s so well done, so riveting, once you start going through it, next thing you know, it’s midnight.” n

Information on upcoming Lehrhaus Judaica classes: (510) 845-6420; or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.