Every Child a Reader hosts Children’s Book Week every year. I’ve decided to use this week (as much as I can) to push myself to write pieces of my dissertation by focusing on specific texts. I begin with a book for which I have notes but had not – until now! – written about formally. Hopefully, this week-long exercise will help me write – something I have not done in a long while now… Most of these posts (if I even make it through the week) will be under-developed and messy, random thoughts as I work through each text quickly.
The first text I’m looking at is The Promised Child by Avner Gold, the first book of the Ruach Ami Series.
The Ruach Ami Series follows the Pulichever family, beginning with Mendel Pulichever, in seventeenth-century Poland. The family – and the town of Pulichev – is fictional. But the series traces real historical events, like the pogroms of 1648 and the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.
In the first book of the series, Reb Mendel and his wife are desperate to have a child. They despair of having someone to carry on the distinguished Pulichever dynasty, and they struggle with their motivations for even wanting a child. They admit wanting to “fill a void” (maternal) and to keep the rabbinic dynasty going (paternal). Both of these are confessed to as improper motivations. The correct motivation is the desire to bring more glory to god via a child, another life, another Jew who will serve god and obey his commandments. Eventually, they receive a blessing from the great rabbi in Krakow, who foresees that the child comes with a heavy price.
When their child, Shloimele, is born, everyone loves him. He is smart and bright and happy. Shloimele is a darling of the town and everyone feels entitled to “the extraordinary child” as one of their own – a sense of communal ownership. The conflict comes when the local priest, Zbiegnew Mzlateslavski, also feels entitled to the boy. He plots to kidnap the child when Reb Mendel and his wife are taking Shloimele back to Krakow for his third birthday.
Shloimele is then raised in a monastery, while Reb Mendel and his wife mourn but never give up hope.
When Shloimele – now Gregor Tal – is grown and has become a bishop, Mzlateslavski sets up an evil scheme where Gregor must debate Reb Mendel and if the Jews lose the theological debate, they will be expelled from Poland. Gregor decides to visit Pulichev to scope out his competition – he is an unwilling participant in the debate – and arrives just in time for Kol Nidrei. His soul is awakened, he and Reb Mendel discover that he is in fact Shloimele, and the family is reunited. Shloimele and Reb Mendel plot to expose Mzlateslavski at the debate, and Shloimele comes home to begin learning Torah and resume his life as a Jew.
The first edition of The Promised Child, published in 1983, includes a brief note from the publisher as a preface:
The Promised Child by Avner Gold is the inaugural volume of the Ruach Ami Series published by C.I.S./ Publications Division. This series will feature middle and full length works of fiction and anthologies of short stories whose themes are the unquenchable spirit and heroism of the Jewish people. The Editorial Staff of C.I.S./ Publications Division is carefully selecting material that is not only inspiring but also of high literary quality, both in style and structure. It is our hope that The Promised Child and future volumes will truly portray the ruach ami – “the spirit of my people” – of past and present.Gold, Avner. The Promised Child, 1st edition. CIS: 1983 (p7).
As Malka Schaps points out, CIS was originally a fund-raising mailing service for yeshivas in Lakewood, N.J. (“The One-way Mirror: Israel and the Diaspora in Contemporary Orthodox Literature.” Shofar 16.2 (1998): 36). The Ruach Ami series was their first venture into publishing, and the series met with wild success. In 1985, CIS published a new edition of the book, this time with an introduction by the author.
According to Avner Gold, surreptitiously identified by his non-pseudonymous name in the signature by his initials “Y.Y.R.,” the purpose of historical Jewish fiction is to portray the ordinary man, full of faults. Biographies of great rabbis, the author claims, can’t show faults because that would be leshon hora – spreading gossip. But if all our accounts of the past are full of flawless, godlike men, readers won’t feel that these men have any connection or significance to their own lives. Historical fiction provides the opportunity to portray ordinary people of the past, struggling with their own flaws and temptations, so that readers can learn the lessons of history more easily.
But Shloimele is named an extraordinary child from birth. The reason he is the object of the priest’s “evil” attention is his remarkability. For much of the first few chapters, when Shloimele is a child, he does not seem like an ordinary child at all. He is more accommodating to strangers, he is kind and selfless and understands things like leaving his father alone during Torah study. That’s not normal behavior for a toddler younger than three years old. In fact, the descriptions sound exactly like the hagiographic biographies of gedolim.
One of his few moments of “normal” childlike behavior is when he’s traveling with his parents to Krakow. As any child might be, he is drawn to the brightly-colored packet the priest has given to his parents, and he opens it up. In doing so, he reveals a stack of blank papers. His mother, the Rebetzin, first scolds him and says, “that’s not yours” – a typical statement to children, meant to teach them about ownership and respecting others’ property. Based on the previous descriptions of Shloimele, one would assume that he was already aware of this!
This moment of “normal” childhood is crucial to the plot. If not for Shloimele’s revelation of the packet’s contents, Reb Mendel would not have known with certainty (or perhaps even suspected) the priest’s involvement in the kidnapping. The stack of blank papers puzzles Reb Mendel and his wife, and when Shloimele is snatched during a stop on the road, they conclude (correctly) that the brightly-colored packet was meant to help the kidnappers identify the child they were to snatch.
One of the things I’m interested in is this disconnect between claiming to represent “real” children, “real” people, and the actuality of near-perfect characters in fiction. The children in later books set in contemporary America, like The Baker’s Dozen, The B.Y. Times, and The Cheery Bim Band – contain flawed characters. But historical fiction is not afforded the same leniency. Even when the series author claims flaws as a purpose, it seems the nostalgia of the past is not easy to shrug off – even in fiction.
The other aspect of the series I’m interested in (but won’t write about at length here) is the way Jews are portrayed in relation to their Christian neighbors, and vice versa. The last few pages of The Promised Child are heavy-handed about the boundaries of Jewish identity, not feeling excluded from Christian society, Jewish solidarity, etc. There’s a lot of talk about changing darkness into light, about Gregor leaving the darkness of Christianity to come back to the light of Judaism – with no real explanation for why Christianity is darkness and Judaism is light. It’s assumed that this is accepted by the reader, as it almost certainly was. Christians throughout the book seem sincere in their belief (the text doesn’t imply that they “believe” only to be able to harm the Jews, but that they do deeply and sincerely believe in Christ). But their belief is mocked, even though it pretty much parallels Jewish belief (in divine guidance, etc). At the very end, the Cardinal who oversees the debate is mocked: he is described as a drooling old man, in sharp contrast to the usual portrayals of elderly Jewish rabbonim whose old age is venerated. But to hear what I think about all that, you’ll need to wait for my dissertation (and maybe nudge me to get writing).