Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe, Ivan Marcus

2519416Through “historical anthropology” Rituals of Childhood traces the development of a rite of passage for Jewish boys, the school initiation ceremony, from its origins in premedieval mnemonic memory practices to its gradual replacement in the late Middle Ages and early modern period by the Bar Mitzvah. The school initiation ceremony runs as follows: at age five or six, either on his birthday or on the day of Sahvuot (which commemorates the bestowal of the Torah), the child is wrapped in a cloak (so that he might not see a dog, pig, or Christian, or be seen in turn by them, and also perhaps [as is hinted at in Gregory of Tours’ anecdote about Nicetus of Lyon:] so that he might not sexually excite his father) and taken to a Rabbi; the Rabbi produces an alphabet tablet and begins preliminary literacy training; then the Rabbi covers the tablet with honey, which the boy licks off; then the boy eats a hard-boiled egg and a pie, each of which is inscribed with verses pertaining to Sahvuot and to warding off POTAH, the prince of forgetfulness; then the boy is taken to a river and then back home. The constituent portions of this ceremony are not autochthonic ally Jewish. Rather, as Marcus argues, they developed in conversation with Christianity. Sahvuot is an analog of Pentecost, for example, and the gradual disappearance of the school initiation ceremony corresponds to the gradual disappearance of monastic oblation among the Christians.

I would have liked to have seen more attention to the modus vivens of the Ashekenaz, as otherwise Marcus’s “historical anthropology” remains too textual. He especially needed, however, to examine gender more closely: the ceremony sees the boy taken from its mother and given over to a community of men. What is the significance of gender in twelfth-century Ashkenaz? What is the shared significance of gender among the Christians and Jews? Marcus speaks (briefly) about “Moses as Madonna” and the Torah’s substitution for the mother’s lactating breast, both of which could be contextualized through the piety of “Jesus as Mother,” which emerged at the same time as the school initiation ceremony. Furthermore, certain historical claims about the antiquity of Jewish practices (see 83 for example) need revision in light of Daniel Boyarin’s work on the muddled distinctions of early Christians and Jews from the first to fourth centuries: what appears to be an early polemic might, rather, be a shared ceremony.