Jewish textuality


Here is one astounding constant of Jewish history since (at least) Mishnaic times: every boy was expected to go to school from the age of three to the age of thirteen. This duty was imposed on male children and their parents, administered and often subsidized by the community. At school, often a tiny one-room, one-teacher, multiage affair, the boys studied Hebrew—not their mother tongue, and not a living language even in Talmudic times—at a level sufficient for both reading and writing. This ten-year study was unconditional, independent of class, pedigree, and means. Some boys surely dropped out prior to becoming a Bar Mitzvah, but few remained illiterate. The secret was to teach them a great deal in their earliest years, and wisely pamper them with sweets to munch with their first alphabet. Where other cultures left boys in their mothers’ care till they were old enough to pull a plough or wave a sword, Jews started acculturating their youngsters to the ancient narrative as soon as the tots could understand words, at two years old, and read them, often at the ripe age of three. Schooling, in short, began soon after weaning. The Jewish twist also pertained to the vessel in which the ancient narrative was served up to the scions. Early in our history we began to depend on written texts. On books. The great story and its built-in imperatives passed from generation to generation on tablets, papyri, parchments, and paper. Today, as we write this book, the historian among us checks all our references on her iPad, and she cannot resist the sweet reflection that Jewish textuality, indeed all textuality, has come full circle.

Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger - Jews and Words

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