Jewish history can be viewed as a string of miracles, massacres and movements, or it can be seen as a meaningful and significant story, in which each of us plays an important, ongoing role. But finding the meaningful threads and sewing them together into a single tapestry is the art of the greatest historians. And presenting that tapestry in words and images that can be understood by and that can interest the layman is the work of a once-in-a-lifetime teacher.

Michael Chighel, Ph.D., has done just that. In a four-part video series billed as “Your Backstory,” he marshals an impressive array of historical facts, sweeping perspectives and charming anecdotes to provide an enlightening bird’s-eye view of Jewish history and the meaning behind it.

The furthest thing from a dry lecture series, these video sessions are studded with unexpected video effects and delightful flashes of humor. Throughout the series, an endless array of alter-egos in costume argue with, question and interrupt Chighel, providing comic relief and alternative views with which the viewers can readily identify.

Yet despite the lighthearted packaging, the courses present heavyweight ideas that will enlighten and engage advanced scholars, as well as those just dipping their toes into Jewish learning.

“When I started teaching Torah and Jewish studies in Vienna at the Lauder Business School in 2008,” says Chighel, “I realized very quickly that my Jewish students, whose Jewish education was not robust, wanted to know, before anything else, where they stood. Where they stood in time. They, too, had grown up with the kinds of stories my Baba told me. But they didn’t know how these stories, their stories, fit into the big picture. So I put together a Jewish history course with this precise target in mind: to offer a unified picture of the whole thing, from A to Z. Abraham to Zionism. That classroom course is the basis of these four video lessons.”

Jewish Tick, Jewish Tock on the Great Jewish Clock

What is Jewish history? Is it a history like any other except that it happens to be about the Jews? Or is there such a thing as a proper Jewish “historiography,” which is to say, a properly Jewish way of telling the story? And what about the history of the rest of humanity? Is Jewish history the story of a small tribe that fancies itself “chosen” by G‑d? In order to approach these questions, we have to look at the structure of the narrative of Redemption as laid out in the Torah. It’s in the story of the Exodus from Egypt in particular that we find the paradigm for the whole of Jewish history—and all of human history as seen from a Jewish perspective

Paradise Lost, Paradise Found

When does Jewish history start? On what date? Well, everyone knows it begins with Abraham and Sarah. But when Abraham and Sarah entered into human history they make a huge splash because of the amount of “water” that had built up since Adam and Eve. In order to understand the first 2448 years of human history, we turn to the Midrash. It breaks history down into seven great crises that took place in the days of Adam, Cain, Enosh, Noah, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt—and seven great revolutionary acts by which the negative effects of those crises were turned to the good by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kehot, Amram and Moses.

The Original PTA

In order to get a grip on big chunks of time that define Jewish history, we can break it down into basic epochs, where each epoch is represented by a Jewish man or woman who acts as an “interface” between heaven and earth. In this video lesson, we consider the epoch of the innocent Child that begins with Adam and Eve; the epoch of the troublemaking Adolescent kicked off by Cain; the epoch of the responsible Adult initiated by Noah; the epoch of the Parent inaugurated by Sarah and Abraham; and the epoch of the spiritual Teacher represented by Moses.

Supreme Judge, Big Kehuna

Continuing the breakdown of history into basic epochs, we examine two more human “interfaces” between heaven and earth that represent these epochs. First, the epoch of the Judge, which begins with the 70 elders assembled by Moses and ends with the final days of the Sanhedrin during the Byzantine period. Second, the epoch of the Kohen or Priest, which begins with Moses’s brother Aaron and ends with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. What has Jewish history lost with the destruction of the Temple and the obsolescence of active Kohanim and active Jewish legislation?

The classes will be released on a weekly basis beginning on Monday, June 11, and will remain available for viewing from then on, allowing the students to view and process at their own pace. Like all Chabad.org learning, “Your Backstory” is free of charge but registration is required.

Sign up here and get ready for a mind-bending tour de force of Jewish history.