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  • Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature by Madelyn J. Travis
  • Barbara A. Thiede (bio)
Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature. By Madelyn J. Travis. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Madelyn J. Travis surveys a wide array of genres and literature in her monograph, including poetry, picture books, teenage fiction, autobiographical fiction, memoirs, historical fiction, and “realist” fiction. The literature surveyed must fulfill two criteria: authors must be British, and texts must include “deliberately and identifiably constructed” Jewish characters (5). She intends to show that “British children’s literature demonstrates that Jews inhabit a liminal space in British society, neither wholly within nor without that reserved for those who ‘belong’” (3).

Travis begins with a review of the literature from the 1700s through World War II. Subsequent chapters topicalize twentieth-century children’s literature, treating the subject of Jewish refugees to Britain during WWII, surveying literature that makes Jews and Jewishness a foil for exploring the challenges of multiculturalism, demonstrating how postwar literature treats masculinity and femininity in Jewish characters, and exploring ways in which postwar children’s literature has continued to rely on a “master trope” delineating between “good Jews” and “bad Jews.”

The book is a valiant effort to address the intersection of Jewish studies and children’s literature, though it suffers from the author’s reluctance to define her terms. Wholly undefined, ill-defined, or shifting categories appear throughout the work. What constitutes Jews or Jewishness, for example, is a moving target. We never learn why Travis (or the literature) is allowed to describe some Jews as “secular” and others as “religious,” or even what those rubrics mean.

Travis writes that literature around refugees “avoids confronting the issue of anti-Semitism within Christianity itself; readers might therefore believe that the intolerance shown by Christians [End Page 302] towards Jews had its basis in a generalized notion of religious difference rather than specifically in anti-Judaism” (67). Here, Travis presents “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Semitism” as interchangeable terms, despite the fact that they are regarded by many scholars as different constructs. (Some treat the first as the product of Christian theology, and the second as the result of pseudoscientific constructions around race, often concluding that the latter is a more dangerous ideology than the former.) Because Travis does not define either term, we do not know why she thinks they represent the same phenomenon—or, indeed, whether she even does so.

Travis introduces the concept of “allosemitism” in opposition to “philosemitism” and “anti-Semitism,” but again defines none of these terms. Allosemitism gets summed up with descriptive phrases quoted from another scholar: It is “essentially non-committal” and “radically ambivalent” (3).

When an author does not explain to the reader what a given term is supposed to mean, it is hard to know what the example is supposed to demonstrate. For example, Travis asserts that during WWII “the feelings of many towards Jews as a group remained ambivalent.” Her evidence? Fifteen percent of Britons opposed WWII. Some of them, she notes, believed that Jewish financiers were to blame for the war (41). But it is not clear how this belief constitutes “ambivalence.” Perhaps this is supposed to be the “radical ambivalence” of allosemitism? We do not know.

In the very next paragraph, Travis quotes a government publication attempting to combat clichés: Jews are all rich, they are successful in banking, etc. The document, she writes, “sought to convince the general public … that anti-Semitism itself was irrational” (41). In this case, when Britons believe Jews to be powerful and successful they are demonstrating evidence of anti-Semitism, not ambivalence. Why one example illustrates ambivalence and the other anti-Semitism is unclear, since the reader has never been reliably informed as to what constitutes either category.

Different texts are evaluated on different terms. Theoretical concepts are applied in some chapters, but not in others. Julia Kristeva’s “abject,” for example, is applied to works described in chapter 4; but if a scholarly construct has significant value for understanding the role of Jews and Jewishness in British children’s literature, then it should be a critical component of the entire discussion.

Travis also treats authorship...


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pp. 302-304
Launched on MUSE
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