- Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature by Jodi Eichler-Levine
Biblical tropes in American literature are so frequent and well established that they may fade into the critical background. Jodi Eichler-Levine’s book reevaluates the persistence and implications of biblical narratives, particularly stories of chosenness and redemptive sacrifice, in stories told to children. Suffer the Little Children emerges from a question posed by Jewish American author Maurice Sendak: “We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?” (qtd. in xiii). Narratives of chosenness give suffering a telos; they turn senseless killings into redemptive sacrifice. Since children are the telos of a community, stories for [End Page 286] children play a key role in narrating violence as chosenness—even as those stories turn the children lost along the way into sacrificial offerings in an Abrahamic mode. Eichler-Levine’s book locates this dynamic in best-selling and prize-winning contemporary children’s books, along with a few influential and still popular postwar texts; while occasionally touching on illustrations, her analysis focuses on written evidence. She argues that “Jewish Americans, African Americans, and black Jews all claim American chosenness by structuring their children’s literature into redemptive, sacrificially driven narratives” (xiii) that conform to “white Protestant mythologies of pilgrim voyages, pioneer crossings, and pseudo-Abrahamic sacrifices of children” (xvi). Explicitly and implicitly religious framings of violence use children, dead and alive, to reconcile racial or ethnic strangeness with US civic belonging, presenting identities “that can be understood according to overarching white Protestant notions of properly contained religiosity and domestic respectability” (xiii).
Comparing and connecting Jewish American, African American, and black Jewish texts—these intentionally loose labels referring to the identities of authors or characters—Eichler-Levine applies existing literary and historical scholarship on black-Jewish relations and comparisons to the field of children’s literature. This study builds on work on the racial politics of childhood innocence, seeing the “discourse around young people and their literatures” as “full of attempted harmony” and suppressed differences (xix). Eichler-Levine also asserts the importance of a biblical perspective on American children’s texts and the inherent religiosity of a genre that represents children to remember the past as it speaks to child readers to build the future.
The first chapter, “Remembering the Way into Membership,” opens with stories of the American Revolution to establish that “a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for others’ becomes a way for minorities to remember their way into civic membership” (1). The pairing of Crispus Attucks biographies from 1965 and 2003, both focusing on Attucks’s childhood and celebrating the equating of his childhood enslavement with “taxation without representation,” drives home not only the persistence of figuring citizenship through sacrifice but also the retrenching of that idea through post-9/11 military patriotism. Similarly, both 1950s and contemporary Hanukkah stories present the Maccabees as the ultimate freedom fighters and thus ideal citizens, even proto-Americans. Stephen Krensky’s Hanukkah at Valley Forge (2006), in which George Washington encounters a Jewish soldier lighting candles, learns [End Page 287] about Hanukkah, and deems it suitably Revolutionary, exemplifies the American children’s book as “literary loyalty test” (10). This pattern extends to stories of African American and Jewish American sacrifices in the two world wars. Sacrifice and suffering can also tie communities to each other, as in Jewish American participation in black civil rights struggles. As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, by Richard Michelson (2008), roots the two leaders’ activism and cross-racial understanding in their parallel experiences of childhood suffering. At the same time, As Good as Anybody, which “is written by a Jewish author and has garnered its greatest attention from the Jewish community” (17), exemplifies for Eichler-Levine the tendency of Jews, more than African Americans, to show nostalgia for past black-Jewish friendships and longing to, in Michelson’s words, “heal the rift...