- A Century of Childhood
"I saw a jewish lady only yesterday with a child at her knee and from whose face towards the child there shone a sweetness so angelical that it seemed to form a sort of glory round both." With these words quoted from W. M. Thackeray's Pendennis, Solomon Schechter began his essay "The Child in Jewish Literature," printed in the second volume of the old series of JQR in 1889. Schechter used this opening to underscore the idea that "sainted" mothers' attitudes toward Jewish children was proof of the exceptional treatment of children by Jews of eras past. He seems to be suggesting that this uniqueness was so evident as to be discernible by "even" a non-Jew. Rereading Schechter's essay, one is struck by its originality. Schechter was studying premodern childhood long before it became a popular topic of historical inquiry. It is also interesting to note how research methods and perspectives have changed over the course of the intervening years. Where and how does he differ from current scholarship and what can be gained by rereading his essay more than 130 years after its publication?
A first observation relates to the sources he quotes throughout the article. Many of them have remained central in the scholarly publications of the last centuries. To provide a few examples: his discussion of children's initiation to Torah was based on the same central sources used by Ivan Marcus in his seminal 1996 study that opened up new directions for examining what Marcus called "inward acculturation."1 Schechter discusses customs concerning the sandek, a medieval feature that has been at the center of [End Page 606] multiple studies, especially from the mid-1990s onward,2 and comments on unique medieval practices concerning childhood and education that were later featured in Ephraim Kanarfogel's 1992 study on medieval education.3 His essay, ranging from comments on rituals to such matters as lullabies, contains the stuff studied by modern social historians interested in childhood in past eras.4 In short, Schechter's essay touches on many topics and sources that have become cornerstones of recent research.
His particularistic approach, evident in the opening lines quoted above, is perhaps the most important difference. His assumption throughout the essay—one that has yet to be radically altered—is that Jews, whether late antique, medieval, or premodern, were a defined group, clearly distinguishable from their neighbors. Yet unlike the scholarship of the past decades that has sought to define the ways Jews were both part of their surroundings and a distinct minority, he rejects any blurring of boundaries between Jews and those who were not Jews. Interestingly, the result of this rejection is not expressed by ignoring customs that were not "wholly" Jewish. Schechter knew that many of the customs the essay explores, as well as those outlined by Güdemann, Löw, and others whose work he references and praises, had parallels in contemporary non-Jewish culture.5 In these cases, he has a quick solution in the form of derogatory comments concerning the practices he is describing. Such customs are either "superstitious" or those of the gentiles. For example, when describing customs related to warding off Lilith, "the devil's mother suspected of stealing children and killing them," he declares: "Now I do not intend to enumerate here all these various precautions [against Lilith] […] But of whatever origin they may be, Judaism could do better without them" (p. 5). In contrast to Schechter's dismissiveness, later scholars have explored such customs and their parallels, often eager to understand how premodern Jews fit in among the nations, [End Page 607] and seeking ways to redefine what Judaism was.6 Schechter, on the other hand, is only willing to admit that Jews were like their neighbors when it came to pastimes (p. 18).
Schechter is also explicitly judgmental of some of his sources, even while acknowledging the importance of the evidence they contain. For example, when discussing the story of a Jew serving as a Christian's godparent that is found in Schudt's Jüdische Merkwürdigkeiten, he refers to the text as a "very learned and very...