Thursday, February 25, 2010

Elliott Horowitz - "''Most of all you've got to hide it from the kids…' Reading Esther before Bed"

Elliott Horowitz teaches at Bar Ilan University and is co-editor of Jewish Quarterly Review.

This is his fourth contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.

"''Most of all you've got to hide it from the kids…':
Reading Esther before Bed"

Elliott Horowitz

“The problem of selecting Bible stories for the early grades is an especially difficult one,” wrote Emanuel Gamoran in his introduction to the first volume of Lenore Cohen's Bible Tales for Very Young Children (2 vols, 1934-36), of which he was the editor. “Not all stories of the Bible are suited to the needs of little children,” continued Gamoran, who was an American Reform rabbi, and a disciple of the pioneer Jewish educator Samson Benderly,[1] “nor should all those children be told them in their entirety. In some instances certain details should be omitted.” In comes as little surprise, then, that in the second volume of Cohen's Bible Tales the book of Esther contains only a single casualty – the evil Haman, who by the king's order is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. No mention is made of the death by hanging of Haman's ten sons, or of the more than 75,000 non-Jews killed, with the king's permission, by Mordecai's coreligionists. This was clearly one of those instances in which, according to Rabbi Gamoran, “certain details should be omitted.”

The identical omissions had been made three years earlier in a biblical anthology for children (The Children's Bible: Selections from the Old and New Testaments) whose contents were “translated and arranged” by two distinguished non-Jews: Henry Sherman, who headed the “department of religious literature” at Charles Scribner's Sons, which published the book, and Charles Foster Kent, who, as indicated on the frontispiece, was “Woolsey Professor of Biblical Literature in Yale University.”[2] The same editorial policy had earlier been followed by the American children's writer Frances Jenkins Olcott (1873-1967) in her delightful Bible Stories to Read and Tell, published by Blue Ribbon Books in 1916.

Cohen and Gamoran, then, followed a venerable tradition in saving their “very young” readers from any knowledge of the sad fate of Haman's sons. Yet they could arguably have followed the model of their British coreligionist Mrs. Philip Cohen in her two-volume Bible Readings with My Children (2nd ed., 1899). In her retelling of the book of Esther she acknowledged that not only Haman, but also his “ten sons were hanged on the gallows which their father had set up for Mordecai.”[3] Moreover, unlike Frances Olcott, who omitted mention of the permission given the Jews by Ahasuerus to defend themselves, and Messrs. Sherman and Kent, who included “the king's “command that the Jews who were in every city should gather together and protect their lives,” but said nothing about the consequences thereof, Mrs. Cohen felt that it was safe to tell children that “the Jews, in defending themselves, killed numbers of their enemies.”

Mrs. Cohen's justly popular anthology went through several editions, the fourth of which appeared in London in 1923. In that same year the future (but now lamented) Bible scholar Nahum Sarna was born in London. Not surprisingly, it was from that anthology that he acquired his earliest knowledge of Scripture. Reminiscing decades later about how he came to devote his life “to the study and teaching of the Hebrew Bible,” Sarna, then recently retired from Brandeis University, recalled that among his “earliest and most agreeable recollections is my father reading to me every Shabbat, with unfailing regularity from a little two-volumed work entitled Bible Readings with my Children by a Mrs. Philip Cohen. I am not certain, but I believe I was about three years old when the regimen began.”[4]


Bible Readings with my Children was not the first such anthology produced for Jewish children in Victorian England. Already in 1877 Ellis Davidson had published The Bible Reader under the explicit “sanction” of Britain's Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler.[5] It was intended, as its subtitle indicated for the Use of Jewish Schools and Families, With the Addition of Questions on the Text, and Moral Reflections on Each Chapter. Davidson's Bible Reader contained material from the popular book of Esther, but not much from the book's brutal ending. Thus, anticipating Sherman and Kent's Children's Bible of 1930 readers were informed of the permission granted the Jews by Ahasuerus “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force...that might attack them, with their children and their women,” but learned nothing of the consequences of that permission. Davidson did find a way to include the deaths of Haman's sons, which both the Children's Bible and Frances Olcott's earlier Bible Stories later chose to omit, but he did so at the cost of changing the biblical story. They “were slain in battle,” and only afterwards hanged, wrote Davidson, “to show the people how utterly the whole house of Haman was degraded, and in order that future assaults might be prevented."[6]

During the 1890's two graduates of Oxford, each of whom had been at Balliol College when it was headed by the legendary Benjamin Jowett (1817-93), brought out their own biblical anthologies intended - at least in part - for young readers. The first of these to appear was John William Mackail's Biblia Innocentium: Being the Story of God's Chosen People Before the Coming of Our Lord...upon Earth, Written Anew for Children (1892). Mackail (1859-1945), who was born on the Isle of Bute and whose father was a minister of the Scottish Free Church, had overlapped as an undergraduate at Balliol with Claude Montefiore (1858-1938), who was a great nephew of the renowned Sir Moses. It is likely that they knew each other, since neither - unlike the bulk of their classmates - was an Anglican product of a posh “public school.” Both were also among the college's most distinguished students; achieving “firsts” in the demanding course of study known as Greats (Literae Humaniores) in which their classmate George Nathaniel Curzon (a former Etonian and future viceroy of India) received only a “second.”[7]

In 1896 Montefiore, who was presumably familiar with Mackail's Biblia Innocentium (which had appeared in a second edition in 1893) brought his Bible for Home Reading (1896), a two-volume anthology “with comments and reflections for the use of Jewish parents and their children. ” In certain respects Montefiore's anthology followed the limitations that both his coreligionist Davidson and his former classmate Mackail had imposed upon themselves. No mention was made, for example, of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34 or the subsequent massacre perpetrated by her brothers in Shechem. Yet with regard to the book of Esther Montefiore took a diametrically different approach. Whereas both previous Victorian anthologies, the one Jewish and the other Christian, had informed their readers of the permission granted the Jews to defend themselves but not of the bloody consequences thereof, Montefiore decided to include all the chpaters of Esther in their entirety despite what he acknowledged as the “religious and moral deficiencies.” These, he claimed, had been “ignored or explained away” by some, but also “exaggerated and falsely labelled” by others.” The best solution, he believed was to let readers, young and old, judge for themselves.

There were other ways of dealing with the book's “religious and moral deficiencies” when presenting its contents to young readers. In his Story of the Bible: first published in 1904, Jesse Lyman Hurlbut (1843-1930), a Methodist Episcopal clergyman, reported not only that “Haman died upon the gallows that he made for Mordecai, but also that his sons “were put to death for their father's evildoing.” He added, however, that this had been done “according to the cruel usage of those times.”[8] In contrast to Ellis Davidson's clumsy attempt, in 1877, to make the hanging of Haman's sons more palatable to his younger readers, Hurlbut, a native of New York, showed that it was possible to add without detracting.

[1] On both Gamoran and Benderly, see Penny Schine Gold, Making the Bible Modern: Children's Bibles and Jewish Education in Twentieth-Century America (Ithaca, 2004).
[2] H. A. Sherman and and C. F. Kent, The Children's Bible (New York, 1933), 223-25.
[3] Mrs. Philip Cohen, Bible Readings with my Children, two volumes (rev. ed. London, 1899), II, 336.
[4] Nahum Sarna, “Ruminations of a Jewish Bible Scholar,” Bible Review 4:3 (June 1988). See also the obituary by Tom Long in the Boston Globe (25 June 2005).
[5] On Davidson, see Geoffrey Cantor, "‘From nature to nature’s God’: Ellis A. Davidson—mid-Victorian educator, moralist, and consummate Designer," Jewish History 23:4 (December 2009): 263-388.
[6] On Davidson's work and its treatment of the book of Esther, see Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (2nd ed., Princeton, 2008), 24.
[7] On Montefiore at Balliol and the impact on the college of Jowett, see Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 25, and the sources cited there.
[8] Hurlbut, Story of the Bible: For Young and Old (Philadelphia, 1952).


Anonymous said...

a) What does this have to do with sefarim?
b) it is clearly stated in the megilah (book of esther) that haman's sons were killed in battle and later hanged. (See rash"i on 9 13)
c) Rash"i brings from seder olam that hamans ten sons were already well known longstanding enemies of the jews, so what's the moral outrage to killing them?!

Anonymous said...

a) What does this have to do with sefarim?
b) it is clearly stated in the megilah (book of esther) that haman's sons were killed in battle and later hanged. (See rash"i on 9 13)
c) Rash"i brings from seder olam that hamans ten sons were already well known longstanding enemies of the jews, so what's the moral outrage to killing them?!

DF said...

Nachum, how do you know they were definitely not executed by hanging?

Worley's proofs are not convincing at all. He says "etz" doesnt mean a tree, "ilan" does - but "ilan" is mishnaic Hebrew, not Biblical. In Biblical Hebrew etz means tree. And His distinction between "tala" and "talah" makes little sense.

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