|Cultural historian Dr. Julie Goldstein has just completed post-doctoral fellowships in Israel, where she researched 12th-century Jewish child martyrs.|
“Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago,” read the headline in ads signed by Elie Wiesel and placed in newspapers around the world by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Our World organization. “Now it’s Hamas’ turn.”
But that may be stretching the truth.
In the 12th century – not even a thousand years ago, making it recent by the standards of Jewish history – Jews boasted of making martyrs of their children, deliberately killing them rather than allowing them to be converted to Christianity.
It was an era in which Jews were besieged by Christian mobs demanding their conversion or death, a horror recalled by the radical jihadist army of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its massacres of non-Muslims.
Child martyrdom among Jews in the Middle Ages is the core of the historical research of Dr. Julie Goldstein, who has just returned from nine months in Israel, where she had post-doctoral fellowships at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. She earned her doctorate at New York University.
Dr. Goldstein’s research into medieval history seemed more relevant than ever in the last few weeks of her stay, when bomb alerts had her family huddling in their apartment safe room and her Facebook page was filled with debates over child victims in Gaza.
(Dr. Goldstein went to Israel with four children and returned with five; the oldest is 12 and the youngest is four months old. Her husband, Rabbi Uri Goldstein, has led the Orthodox Congregation Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn since 2006.)
Dr. Goldstein’s focus on child martyrdom came after a doctoral course asked students to look through different theoretical lenses at the historical sources they were researching “and see what we came up with,” she said.
As she worked, she was coping with the death of a nephew. “All over my sources, I just saw dead children,” she said.
Then she noticed that the historical sources with the dead children were from the 12th century. They told the experiences of the Jews during the First Crusades a generation earlier, at the very end of the 11th century in France and Germany. This led her to write about childhood in the 12th century, but the broader topic was set aside as what began as a chapter on child martyrdom ballooned into 400 pages.
Dr. Goldstein considers herself a cultural historian, dealing with what people wrote, rather than a social historian, who would look at the actual treatment of children. She’s interested in exploring what the chronicles from the mid-12th century say about the Jewish community’s understanding of its children. Those accounts’ accuracy is a different question.
“These accounts were written a half a century after the acts that were purported to happen,” she said. “These are probably survivor accounts, which adds other levels of complication. There is survival guilt.
“They might be glorifying the martyrs to build their community.”
Yet with all these caveats, the stories told by these texts are horrifying – and in large measure echoed by the parallel Christian sources, written in Latin, which also tell of Jews martyring themselves and their children, she said.
With mobs of Christians roaming France and Germany threatening Jewish communities with death if they did not submit themselves to baptism – or in some cases, massacring them without even offering that choice – some Jewish communities killed their children and themselves, taking pride that they died as martyrs to “sanctify God’s name.”
“It’s not always clear the mobs are right outside the door when they decide to martyr themselves,” Dr. Goldstein said. “Sometime they hear rumors about another town or another country. They don’t want to let it get to the point of an ultimatum. They say, ‘We will express our loyalty to the one God,’ they say the Shema, and they slaughter themselves and their children.”
One theme that emerged from Dr. Goldstein’s research was the ritual nature of this martyrdom. Jews portray martyring their children “as a kind of ritual. There are blessings that are recited,” based on the blessings on sacrifices offered in the Temple. “They talk about children being taken in front of the synagogue, and their blood sprinkled on the ark. There’s a strong ritualistic component. They talk of bringing the children to the slaughter as if to the bridal canopy,” she said.
With the accounts written by survivors, “sometimes you get sense there’s some ambivalence. Maybe they ran away or didn’t want to martyr themselves. Sometimes, there’s one lone, rebellious voice that very clearly says outrightly, I do not want to martyr myself,” she said.
In one account, “He’s a little boy named Aaron. His mother’s name is Rachel. She hears the Crusaders are coming. Her son Isaac, like all the Isaacs in the accounts, is passive. He submits. He is silent. Maybe because he is very young.”
Or maybe because he has been cast in the role of the Biblical Isaac who acquiesced to his father’s binding him on the altar.
“The older daughters, Bella and Adorna, like other women, are almost fanatically obsessed with the idea of martyring. ‘Please do it,’ they say. ‘Let us sharpen the knife for you.’ They’re singing songs of praise for God.
“Then there’s this boy Aaron who says, ‘Mommy, please no.’ He runs away. He hides in a bureau. He very vehemently does not want to be slaughtered. His mother drags him out and slaughters him anyway,” she said.
These very evocative images opposing this, she suggests, “might be a bit of an inkling of the mentality of the people writing this.”
But if there were reservations about martyring children, beneath the surface of the chronicles, at the forefront was a clear conviction – among both Jews and Christians – “that the side whose child was martyred was the side that was in the right” and which side it was “became a focal point in the discourse between Jews and Christians.
“Jews represented Judaism as the right religion through presenting their children as the ultimate child martyrs,” she said.
With her dissertation looking at the 12th century completed, Dr. Goldstein now is looking at the presentation of child martyrdom throughout Jewish history.
“There were already images of it in the ancient period,” she said, most notably the story in Maccabees of the woman whose seven sons were martyred by Antiochus.
After the 12th century, the theme of child martyrdom receded. Echoes returned in “Holocaust imagery of holy children who have been slaughtered by the Nazis, or at the hands of Jewish adults. And then there’s definitely the Zionist imagery of the akeidot” – the bindings, the term used to refer to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac – “of the soldiers. It’s a national narrative, it’s a religious narrative,” she said.
Yet Dr. Goldstein has also been witness to the new anti-martyrdom movement playing out on her Facebook page. No longer a mark of pride, for today’s Jewish community the willingness of Hamas to martyr children on behalf of jihad is evidence of Palestinian evil.
The war provided her with her own “mind-boggling” moment in which her oldest son “became almost sacrificial.”
The rocket siren had sounded, so “we went into the safe room. It was the first or second time. He and his brother slept in that room. He knew how to close the door, which had a jiggly handle” that had to be manipulated a certain way.
The 12-year-old said he would be in charge of closing the door. The family gathered in the room, all very nervous – and the door would not close.
“We’re Americans. We’re not as nonchalant as the Israelis. We took it very seriously. For us it was life or death. This door had to close. It wasn’t closing.
“Without skipping a beat, he said, ‘I’ll go outside and close it.’
“What he was saying, and he understood it fully, is ‘I’m going to sacrifice myself. I’ll close the door and stand on the outside and you’ll all be safe.’
“That was really poignant to me,” she said.