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The Jewish Child in Literature - Dissertation Sample

21 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

It is an interesting predicament how Jewish people in general have been portrayed in literature. Mainly they are known for the horrific treatment they received during the Second World War. Jewish children, immortalized by those such as Anne Frank in her diary, are pitied in literature, are thought of as having suffered continuously, and having lived lives which evoke sentiments of sympathy. Indeed, it is the case that for the most part, Jewish people, and their children have been portrayed in this way – it is perhaps natural that this happened when we follow the events of history, but this is not the only time we meet Jewish children in literature. 

One might even go so far as to say that victimizing Jewish children in the books written about them is understandable – the ones that lived, or died through the war are indeed to be pitied and at the end of the day, an author wishes to sell the books he writes – the stronger emotions he can raise from his readers, the more likely he is to sell more. However, how then have some authors been successful by not victimizing Jewish children? How have some authors exemplified Jewish children being able to fit into society – both here in the West, and into Jewish society, without carrying the stigma of ‘war child’ around with them?

‘…And you have come, our precious enemy, 
Forsaken creature, man ringed by death.
What can you say now, before our assembly?
Will you swear by a god? What god?
Will you leap happily into the grave?
Or will you end, like the industrious man
Whose life was too brief for his long art, 
Lament your sorry work unfinished, 
The thirteen million still alive?’

Let us begin this exploration by looking at one very successful author, and a very well known book, Judy Blume’s Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. The book was first published in 1978 – long after the second world war had finished, and written indeed by an author who has lived her whole life in America, away from any prejudices and society problems that may have arisen, and so able to write freely. What is particularly interesting with this story is that Margaret is so identifiable. Her relationship with God is very personal, it doesn’t throw religion down the reader’s throats, and it approaches the issue very subtly. Margaret faces the challenge of which religion to follow, having a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and her questions and adventures along the way are questions that any young girl may feel.

The novel introduces the subject of religion and fitting into society very cleverly, because Margaret is growing up – this poses enough problems about fitting into society, without even broaching on the topic of fitting in, in a religious sphere. Finally, Margaret does not of course choose one religion or the other, but the book illustrates very successfully what it is to try to fit into a society with no pre-conceived ideas. Blume shows that whilst adults have already made up their minds about most topics, and have set views, children are much more versatile. Margaret is a gentle introduction to Jewish children in literature, not least because she herself doesn’t actually know if she is Jewish or not.

There is no victimization with Margaret, no heavy references to what has passed between Germany and Jews, no mention of anything that may force the reader to consider seriously what Jewish people have had to contend with. It is a modern piece of literature, it has moved on. Blume does not in any instance make Margaret inaccessible to the children that will be reading her book – children who have nothing to do with the war and probably know little about it; it simply presents childhood dilemmas, which any child, of any religion could be facing. It is just that which makes the book so warm and easy, it breaks down religion barriers rather than building them up by constantly referencing subjugation, Margaret can be understood by any pre-pubescent girl of any religion the world over, and has nothing to discriminate against, or be discriminated for. 

‘Are you there, God? It’s me Margaret. I want you to know I’m giving a lot of thought to Christmas and Hanukkah this year. I’m trying to decide if one might be special for me. I’m really thinking hard, God. But so far I haven’t come up with any answers.’  

The quote epitomizes Margaret and the choices she has to face. One of the most charming aspects of her character is that despite all the exploration she undertakes into the two religions, she makes no choice finally. She takes the decision of which holiday – Christmas or Hanukkah – she likes best very seriously, but ultimately is unable to make her mind up, just as ultimately at the end of the novel she is unable to make a final decision about which religion to follow. Throughout the novel she presents facets of each religion clearly and simply, and then attempts to make a decision based on these; however, the very nature of her questioning and doubting is so very symbolic of a child of her age, and perhaps this is the overall point: Margaret is not so much symbolic of a Jewish child of even a Christian child, she is symbolic of all children, no matter what their religion, they all face the same questions. 

Furthermore, mov9ing on to something a little more probing, let us look at Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. Hannah Stern, the protagonist of this novel is again a modern character, easily identifiable to the reader, but she is transported back in time to World War Two. In this aspect we are of course forced to look at some of the horrors that Jewish children faced during the war, and being told the story through the eyes and voice of a mere child does carry great effect. The novel begins with the preface that Hannah resents having to honor old Jewish traditions – perhaps endearing her to many Jewish teenagers the world over. It is at this point she is transported back to see the holocaust through the eyes of Chaya – a Jewish teenager who lived through the concentration camps. In the words of the author herself; 

‘Writers and storytellers are the memory of a civilization and we who are alive now must not forget what happened in that awful time or else we may be doomed to repeat it.’ 

In this way the novel is very much more informative than Blume’s novel. We begin to see the actual historic value of the subjugation of the Jews. We are given an actual timeline of events, and we are taught the about life for Jewish people, in particular children during the 1940’s. The book is informative for those who read it, teaching about the concentration camps, and Hitler’s philosophies on Jewish people; 

    ‘By defending myself against the Jews, I am doing the work of the Lord!’ 

The novel presents an actual timeline of Chaya’s activities during the war, of having to watch the fate of her parents and of how she dealt with living in the conditions she was forced to face. This is not a fluffy novel; it deals accurately with historical events and forces the reader to face up to some of the horrors that Jewish children have had to face. It is here that we can begin to argue whether or not Yolen has victimized Chaya for a good story. The fact is, she has presented the truth, and how can that be perceived as victimization?

Cleverly, by presenting Hannah as uninterested in the religion at the start, and understanding of it by the end, we can see how young Jewish children in our society today still have so much to contend with. As an impartial reader we feel natural horror at what Hannah faces, knowing that so many children faced the same things. However, when we put the book down, we leave the words on the page; young Jewish children in society carry them with them everywhere. Like Hannah, they may consider themselves uninterested in current Jewish traditions, but if the book illustrates anything, it shows how Jewish society will never be able to shake off the history it carries with it. 

This leads us on to discuss for a moment how these representations of Jewish children in novels such as the two above have affected Jewish society, indeed within their own walls, and externally, integrating into Western society also. 

‘The preparations for mass murder were made possible by Germany’s military successes in the months following the invasion of Poland in 1939. But from the moment that Adolf Hitler had come to power in 1933, the devastating process had begun. It was a process which depended upon the rousing of historic hatreds and ancient prejudice.’ 

It is true and often reported in historical contexts that Hitler was only able to gather so much enthusiasm for his cause because anti-Semitism was already so rife within Western civilization. With this in mind, modern day society goes out of its way to avoid any discrimination between themselves and Jewish people. Jewish children must grow up and learn the horrors to which their people were subjected, and yet put it all aside to function normally in modern day society. With Blume’s Margaret we see a successful young family existing in a multi-cultural and racial situation, with a young girl who doesn’t question her past, but does question her future.

This makes a refreshing change from dwelling on past horrors, but if we are to think even momentarily more deeply about the choice Margaret faces we must acknowledge that she is facing a momentous decision. Who could argue that by choosing Christianity she is making life easier for herself? As a Christian she is not forced to understand and learn of the horrors that her predecessors faced, she is not going to subject to sympathy that is given simply because of what her ancestors were forced to live through, she will not be the subject of vehement ANTI- racialism as society goes out of its way to appear anti-Semitic always aware of the past. An interesting contrast to Margaret’s decision is the life of Jessica in Mirjam Pressler’s Shylock’s Daughter.

This story takes place in Venice in 1568, and so we are able to see some of the prejudices faced by Jewish people long before Hitler and his actions came to affect their place in literature. It is fascinating therefore to see such prevalent anti-Semitism so long before we consider it ever having come about. Society in general seems to think that the subjugation of the Jews began when Hitler came to power but the story of Shylock and Jessica suggests otherwise. We see here the horror that Jessica faces simply because she wishes to marry a Christian – this is horror from her own Jewish family as much as from the Venetian Christians who surround them. And perhaps most shockingly of all, we see Shylock being forced to convert to Christianity by the society in which he lives. This suggests that even 400 years before Hitler came to power, the roots of what he implemented were already being sown. 

 Pressler’s novel is of course, based on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which in its turn also exemplifies what Jewish people had to contend with in early western society. Pressler’s novel presents the story in a slightly more child friendly fashion, making it easier to understand the problems which Shylock, and indeed Jessica face as the story moves along, but the net result remains the same; Pressler’s novel is a modern one, set in the past, Shakespeare’s story he wrote nearly 400 years ago, but they both illustrate anti-Semitism long before Hitler was even born.

 Returning then, to the choice that Margaret faces as she deliberates over the two religions; it may indeed be true that choosing the route of Christianity is easier for modern living, but what history Judaism brings with it for her to be proud of. A religion that is nearly 6000 years old and overcoming such suppression is no mean feat. Undeniably Yolen’s novel teaches us of heroism in the purest form. Chaya and her family survive conditions most of us cannot even envisage, and they don’t just survive, they take their dignity with them when the war is over, when everything else they have has been taken from them. Perhaps this then, is the crux of the matter; 

‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.’ 

Roosevelt sums up all that needs to be said about choosing one religion over another. It seems, through literature and the novels we have looked at, that Jews have been the subject of discrimination for centuries, and it is the Jewish children of today which grow up to bear on their shoulders all the horror of the history they have endured. Hitler alone did not take the individual rights of Jewish men, women and children away; it seems that society has been doing it for hundreds of years. 

‘Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. Life is getting worse every day. I’m going to be the only one who doesn’t get it. I know it, God. Just like I’m the only one without a religion. Why can’t you help me? Haven’t I always done what you wanted? Please….let me be like everybody else.’ 

Margaret’s childlike implorations to be ‘just like everybody else’ are comical in this sense, as she is begging for her period. However, her words are heavy with decision; she feels the only one without a religion, the only one without her period, but mainly she just wants to fit in. This is a sentiment echoed by children the world over, no matter what their background or their religion; children mainly just want to fit in and make friends. However, can Jewish children really ever fit in without their history playing a part in their actions? Literature will always refuse to forget what the Jewish race went though, books will continue to be written about the holocaust, societies everywhere will continue to read of the horrors they suffered and be influenced by the words they read, perhaps altering their reactions as a cause of this. Can our Western society ever really just allow a race which has suffered so much in part at our hands to just ‘fit’ in?

Indeed, will Jewish society in its turn ever forget the suffering their ancestor’s went through and forgive? Immortalization through literature is an essential part of knowledge and learning, but it means that no matter which generation of Jewish children come along, they will never fully be allowed to put the past behind them. They will always be forced to read of the horrors that once faced them, consider what their relatives experienced, wonder if it could happen again, feel the pity of others, deal with the discrimination – be it positive or negative – that the portraits of children just like them in literature have built. 

    ‘The hundreds at the rail
    Lapped in the blue blaze of this sea
    Who stare till their looks fail
    At the earth that they are promised; silently
    See the sand-bagged machine-guns, 
    The red-kneed soldiers blinking in the sun.’ 

Rather perversely the Jewish plight during the war has resulted in some of the strongest, most memorable literature – novels and poetry – that the world has ever known. The horrors that befell them do indeed make compulsive reading and the fact that nearly ever reader is touched by the words makes society feel as though it cares. Caring now makes it seem a little better, that society is doing something now by caring, even if it still happened in the 1940’s – and before. The plight of a child is even more effecting that the plight of an adult, so have Jewish children been victimized in literature? In some, undoubtedly, but in most they have simply been portrayed in an open and honest way – Margaret in an easy way, Hannah in a more shocking way, but always truthful.

Rather than victimizing the children to sell stories, perhaps the authors have raised enough awareness about this religion – certainly one of the most analyzed – to begin to break down the walls of prejudice? The novels certainly show us the problems that Jewish children face when trying to fit into society today – be it Western society of Jewish society, every novel we have mentioned, from the more blatant The Devil’s Arithmetic to the softer Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret illustrate the great burden that these children must carry with them, the difficult choices they face, and the question of whether or not they can ever really leave the past behind them and grow into untroubled and accepted adults. 

The ‘war child’ stigma fades, indeed, society does not want to remember it anymore that the children facing it, however, literature faces a symbiotic relationship with the Jewish plight; it needs to be written about in order for various societies and indeed young Jewish Children to understand what the race has overcome to get to where it is today – in it’s turn this results in some victimization of the race, in particular the children because their plight makes people sit up and take notice, this in turn results in the historical events never being forgotten. Should they be forgotten though? Great courage was needed to come back from the years of anti-Semitism that the Jews faced, and other than Christianity, no other religion has been so widely written about, has obtained such a high profile – there are, as always, two sides to every story. 

‘Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.’

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