Teacher retells tales of tolerance

by Melanie Evans

In the town of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., on the outskirts of the Bronx, Jack Zipes first experienced the bigotry and intolerance that would later become the focus of his life’s work.
Growing up Jewish in the then-anti-Semitic Westchester County left a deep impression on Zipes, a professor and the chairman of the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch. “I grew up with a very real sense that I didn’t belong.”
The ugly lessons of racism followed Zipes through childhood, as he grappled with questions surrounding his own Jewish identity and what makes people intolerant. Today, he applies these experiences, using folklore to teach children, educators and University students the value of diversity.
While preparing for his doctorate in American Literature at Columbia University in the late 1950s, Zipes began receiving letters from a close friend living in Germany.
He reminded Zipes of their discussions in their undergraduate years together, when they stayed up into the late hours trying to make sense of the racism and hatred they experienced in their youth.
“He kept writing letters saying ‘If you want to find out what it means to be Jewish, you have to come to Germany,'” Zipes said.
Curious and burnt out on school, Zipes left Columbia in 1962 for a year of study in Germany.
He visited memorials and concentration camps. Becoming fluent in German, he spoke with the young and old about the history of their country and their relationship with the Jews.
He returned to the United States two and a half years later, with a new passion — German culture and literature.
“I realized a lot of things said about the Germans were stereotyped and bigoted … I had a greater sensitivity,” he said.
Zipes has a reputation among students and faculty for his genuine commitment to teaching and his extensive contributions to the field.
He has added French and Italian to his list of languages. He has published over 34 books and founded the New German Critique, the first interdisciplinary journal for German studies in America. He is known by scholars around the world as an expert in the field.
The children of Pillsbury Elementary know Zipes too. He is the man who visits their class every Monday to tell them fairy tales, though his are always different than the Disney version.
In his versions, Little Red Riding Hood lives in London and outwits the wolf, not once, but every Sunday, as she crosses town to visit Granny for afternoon tea.
Although the stories Zipes tells are not his own, they have a similar theme. He tells stories that challenge racism and stereotypes and suggest seeing the world in a different light.
Zipes’ specialty is fairy tales and folklore. With a personal collection of over 500 copies of Little Red Riding Hood from different centuries and countries, Zipes has translated and written several books on fairy tales.
For Zipes and those who follow his work, the children’s stories are much more than entertainment, they are keys to understanding another time and place, and a way of shedding new light on our own.
Glorie Oljace, a fifth- and sixth- grade science and math teacher at Pillsbury, has worked with Zipes for two years. His lessons in her classroom consist of storytelling, role playing and getting the students to adapt traditional fairy tales to fit their own stories.
She said she believes that the time spent with Zipes is extremely valuable to her students’ education. Her students have gained lifelong skills, such as the ability to express what they are feeling, she said.
She too has learned a lot from Zipes. “I never knew the original Little Red Riding Hood. It has taught me to look at things in a different light,” Oljace said.
From his numerous guest teaching positions, Zipes has benefited educators around the state with his unique subject and constant involvement in elementary classrooms.
Daniel del Castillo worked with Zipes at the Minnesota Humanities Commission in the Teacher’s Institute.
As the commission’s program manager, del Castillo said Zipes’ expertise with children and his diverse academic background interested members of the institute.
Designed for teachers, the commission is not intended to create curriculum, but rather to intellectually stimulate teachers and offer new information as it relates to their roles as educators.
After spending a week with him, del Castillo said he was impressed with Zipes. “This is his passion, it really shows. He really believes in and is dedicated to teaching.”
Jochen Schulte-Sasse, a friend and colleague of Zipes, receives letters from teachers and storytellers around the state who value his work.
“We call him our own book-of-the-month-club,” said Gerhard Weiss, a professor and former department chair, “because it seems he publishes a book every month.”
As department chair, Zipes has brought a new focus to the department as well, says Schulte-Sasse.
Schulte-Sasse describes him as instrumental in the University’s chance to become a German Academic Exchange Service Center for Excellence. Only three schools in the United States receive the title every 10 years, Schulte-Sasse said.
Sponsored by a joint organization of the institutions of higher education in Germany, the award would be a great honor for the University. Schulte-Sasse said he believes that without Zipes’ commitment and diligent work during the application process, the University would not be one of the remaining finalists.
For Zipes, his involvement in the department, schools and students’ lives is necessary. Experience and history have taught him valuable lessons.
“You have to try to understand, and grapple with, any form of intolerance, and also be an active member of the community,” he said. “That has become part and parcel of what I do.”