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Review: Jews and Jewishness in British Children's Literature, Madelyn J. Travis

Felicity Griffiths

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 45, 2013 Review Jews and Jewishness in British Children's Literature, Madelyn J. Travis (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), isbn 978-0-415-63086-3, pp. ix + 199, £80. Madelyn J. Travis's Jews and Jewishness in British Children's Literature is an important and accessible study of representations of Jewish characters and concepts of Jewishness produced expressly for children from the eighteenth century to the present day. It encompasses a cross-section of works from boys' magazines to more serious literature and stories suitable for small chil dren, through to that written for young adults. The informative and useful introduction advises that factors "such as Empire, the Holocaust and 9/11" (p. 1) influenced these writings. As an American, growing up with American Jewish literature, Travis has had her work cut out seeking relevant British material and, for the earlier texts, placing them within an historical context. She was evidently surprised that "the number of contemporary British (as opposed to American) books in which Jews appeared was small" (p. 2) and that the majority were not written by Jewish authors. She comments that "[I]n children's literature in Britain, the majority culture writes about minori ties to a much great extent than minorities write about themselves" (p. 94). Despite these reservations, she has managed to analyse at least 134 works, without calculating the numerous editions of the various magazines. In doing so, Travis has managed to achieve her central aim of "situating] Jews and Jewishness within the context of multiculturalism in British literature for young people" (p. 2). The literature discussed moves between classical, famil iar authors, such as Sir Walter Scott and Kipling to more modern authors whose work may not be known to the reader. Travis, however, explains each book succinctly, but with enough detail to enable the reader to appreciate the points being made. The five chapters of the book follow a loose chronology, with the majority of the texts having been published from i960 onwards and each chapter ends with a useful conclusion. Possibly because of her greater familiarity with the more modern history, she is at her most confident when discussing texts relat ing to this period but points out that authors of some of the early literature such as Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and Maria Edgeworth's Practical Education (1798) are surprisingly progressive and tolerant in their stance on Jews (P- 13) In exploring early children's literature set in London, Travis aruges that 151</page><page sequence="2">Review Jews are frequently depicted as major contributors to the city's criminal economy (p. 15). A 19x0 illustration of Fagin in an abridged version of Oliver Twist (originally published 1838) provides the first of sixteen fascinating images which serve to enhance the text by providing an insight into how the authors viewed the physical features of their Jewish characters. The shriv elled body and hook nose display an unscrupulous character. The majority of the illustrations, however, portray the Jewish child as dark-haired but, despite an often anti-Jewish stance taken by the author of each text, in the rest of the plates, their features are not shown in a way that could be deemed stereotypically Jewish. According to Travis, English-born Jewish boys feature in several school stories prior to and just after the First World War. Generally they are met with derision and are forced to stand up for them selves. They are, however, constructed as "honourable, brave, good sports and good sportsmen" (p. 37). Travis concludes that this necessity to contest the stereotypical views demonstrates that Jews were still viewed predomi nantly as unscrupulous, miserly moneylenders (p. 38). Chapter Two concentrates on the Holocaust. In her introduction Travis underscores "the growing focus on the Holocaust" that "fails to acknowledge that Jews and Jewish culture existed and exists, independent of the events of the Second World War" (p. 6). She notes that "the possibility of remaining Jewish and being English in this [refugee] literature was somewhat more complex, for Englishness was still bound up with Christianity . . . That German Jews are seen as Germans rather than simply 'Jews' demonstrates to child readers the virtue of English tolerance, but the logic dictating that English Jews should therefore be seen as English is almost entirely avoided in this body of literature" (p. 50). Travis compliments Kenneth Ambrose's The Story of Peter Cronheim (1962), which is the earliest example of a Kindertransport narrative for children by a former refugee, lauding the book's authentic descriptions of Jewish practice as educative for Christian readers and depicting Judaism as "normal" for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. Despite this, she correctly draws attention to the fact that the protago nist did not seem to practise Judaism in England and that the author had anglicized his name (p. 66). "The Hyphen Problem: British-Jewish identity", Chapter Three, dis cusses literature beginning in the 1950s. Travis deduces that the ambivalent portrayal of "Jewish characters began to appear in literature for young people as either potent symbols of the dangers of racism or examples of a positive multiculturalism." She further addresses the difficulty in defining Je wishness by referring again to the construction of Jews as "dark" in works written in the 1990s and 2000s which at the same time attempt "to demonstrate Jewish similarity to the majority culture" (p. 81). One example she gives (Honor Arundel, The Longest Weekend [1969]), is of the Jewish character having the 152</page><page sequence="3">Jews and Jewishness in British Children's Literature (2013) by Madelyn J. Travis surname "Brown" and a "snub nose" but at the same time being "very dark" and studying to be a doctor. In the context of Travis's work, this indeed appears to be stereotypical but, if the novel were read in isolation, it must be considered that these factors may not immediately point to the character's Jewishness. In the conclusion to this chapter the author importantly notes that by the 1960s and 70s Jews were beginning to be portrayed in terms of ethnicity rather than race and Jewishness in terms of culture as well as religion (P- 97) Gender is the theme of Chapter Four, with Travis remarking that Jewish gender roles were constructed "as other to that of normative masculinity and femininity" but without conforming to simple stereotypes (p. 102). Men in books from the 1980s and 90s are frequently feminized, and follow the nineteenth-century literary tradition of a Jewish widower left to raise his children. When a woman does feature she is "mostly silent, silenced or absent" (p. 115) or, alternatively, appears as a "sexual predator" (p. 122). Interestingly, Travis's research has shown that in this literary era, "norma tive" male characters are written by men and the feminized men by women, while what might be deemed to be "monstrous Jewish mothers" are almost always written by non-Jewish authors. The final chapter constructs Jews as "good" or "bad" (victims or villains) and discusses the influence of the historical persecution of Jews, together with the Middle East conflict. Travis successfully brings the texts up to date. While some literature of the late twentieth century confronts theological anti semitism, that of the twenty-first century is influenced by 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She maintains that "the majority of recent his torical fiction advocates tolerance" (p. 146) but also shows that the highly popular Roman Mysteries series of books (published between 2004 and 2009) "has allowed the books' insensitivity to Jews and Judaism" and pronounced Christian fundamentalism "seemingly to go unnoticed"(p. 156). There is a short section in the first chapter which discusses poetry and songs of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which generally condemn Jews. In connection with this, Travis might have considered The Universal Songster (1825) which contained several pieces mockingjews. The inclusion of a date of reference for each of the publications mentioned also would have helped her readers. On several occasions I found myself hunting back through the (excellent) bibliography in order to date the text. Being an English literary scholar, it is to be expected that the author is on firmer ground when discussing literature as opposed to history per se, but there are a few problems with her reading of the historical background. Referring to the eighteenth century, Travis mentions the Jews being granted greater civil and legal liberties (p. 6). It was not, however, until the middle of the nine teenth century that this was to occur. Furthermore, she refers to the ability 153</page><page sequence="4">Review of modern, acculturated Jews to pass unnoticed among "real" Englishmen which was regarded "by some as a threat to English identity" (p. 24). Even in the early to mid-nineteenth century, however, English Jews were still mostly known and identifiable, either by their attitude or indeed by their still strong religious beliefs. Many non-Jews in England's mainstream felt that if Jews were allowed rights and privileges, the vital Christian morals of the country would be undermined. Travis adroitly concludes that while the literature of Britain claims to foster tolerance of difference and encourage coexistence of different religions, "certain 'Jewish' values" were and are perceived as "'other' to those of the nation" (p. 167). Her work concludes with a phoenix from the ashes, recog nizing a tendency that has been reborn: "The message that Jews occupy an ambivalent position in Britain continues to be passed down to young readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as it has been for over two centuries" (p. 170). Madelyn Travis has written a thoroughly researched, highly commendable work. Frequently, I found myself wanting to read the novels she was describ ing. This book provides a solid, informative basis regarding children's liter ature containing Jewish characters from the eighteenth century onwards and should appeal, not just to scholars of literature and Jewish studies, but those of sociology and history, together with the general reader. Felicity Griffiths i54</page></plain_text>