(RNS) – In my free time, I write another episode of “The Cat in the Hat”, called “The Cat in the Hat is Coming Again”.
You can’t say mean things out loud
You can’t say them in a crowd
Do not even think about it! Do not say that!
It was the moral lesson of the cat in the hat.
Few people snickered, or even moaned, upon hearing the announcement that some of Dr. Seuss’ books, such as “And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street”, will no longer be available.
The reason? An example: “Mulberry Street” contained negative and stereotypical representations of Asians.
The Conservatives are taking up arms. Another example of ‘canceling culture’, they shout.
I have often criticized the manifestations of cancellation culture in the United States.
On the left, it can mean job loss, social avoidance, and various types of meanness.
The law, of course, has its own version of the cancellation culture. On January 6, if Nancy Pelosi or Michael Pence had been “canceled” it would have been a permanent and fatal cancellation. As in the gallows that the disbelievers had already erected.
But before we cry out about this latest manifestation of elite culture’s imaginary modesty, let’s stop and breathe for a moment.
No one canceled those Dr. Seuss books. The decision came from his estate. These titles were not selling well. In addition: the domain has every right to protect the “brand” of the beloved author. By deciding that a creative decision he made over 80 years ago was no longer appropriate, the estate determined that heirs can make Teshuvah – long after the original act was done.
Jews should understand this.
More than that: we need to empathize.
Consider some of the classic representations of Jews that are part of the cultural DNA of Western civilization.
Shylock, the lender in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Shylock is one of the greatest roles in theater history and one of the most controversial. In fact, the role is so powerful that the very name of “Shylock” has become a negative term for a lender.
What makes Shylock’s case even more fascinating is that the character appeared at a time when there were, at least officially, no Jews in England. Did Shakespeare model Shylock after Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”? Was the Bard inspired by the case of a Marrano doctor in England accused of conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth?
The jury – er, the Jewish community – is still on those two issues. But quite often when “The Merchant of Venice” is scheduled for a performance, controversy has a way of surfacing.
I will say that the best performance I have ever seen from “The Merchant of Venice” was about ten years ago in Lenox, Massachusetts. The production depicted anti-Semitic graffiti on Shylock’s house, and it ended with the singing of Shylock Kol Nidre, the iconic Yom Kippur declaration of “pre-forgiveness” for not having fulfilled his vows.
Obviously, the director knew the (apocryphal) tradition that Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity would utter this statement as a means of proclaiming to God that their conversion was false. Since Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, putting those words in his mouth – which certainly wasn’t in the original play – was a theatrical stunt.
Fagin, the leader of the pickpocket gang in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”. The reader of this classic novel would have no doubts about Fagin’s ethnicity; history is littered with references to the “Jew” and the “Old Jew”. Obviously, Dickens was relying on anti-Semitic stereotypes that existed in Victorian England. The original illustrations for “Oliver Twist” make it clear: Fagin is pure evil, rarely seen in the light, but only in the shadows, depicted with a long, hooked nose.
Quite revealing and sobering: while Shylock could convert to Christianity as an atonement, by the time Dickens wrote “Oliver Twist,” over 200 years later, no such atonement was available for Fagin. . He must die – symbolic of the growing racial anti-Semitism which would not tolerate conversion to another faith, but which saw the Jew as evil in his very essence.
Also revealing and redeeming: by the time “Oliver Twist” became the ever-popular musical “Oliver !,” Fagin had become de-Judaized. Several generations of spectators and young people who put on “Oliver!” in school performance, would have absolutely no idea that the original Fagin was a Jew.
“The Merchant of Venice” and “Oliver Twist” have been the subject of controversy for years.
But there have been other literary representations of Jews that somehow went unnoticed through the moral metal detector.
For example, the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is described as a player who made amends for the 1919 World Series – a clear allusion to Arnold Rothstein, a New York crime mainstay.
Wolfsheim has appeared in several film versions of “The Gatsby” – most recently, in a film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. In a few of them he exhibits stereotypical Jewish characteristics. His jewelry made of human molars is about as gruesome as you can imagine and only reinforces the demonic portrayal of the Jew.
(Fitzgerald puts horrific racist and nativist words into Tom Buchanan’s mouth – which have both been criticized in recent years and held up as an example of an ideology that hasn’t gone out of style with flappers.)
Do I think we should ban “The Merchant of Venice”, “Oliver Twist” and “The Great Gatsby”?
Barely. They are part of the literary heritage of Western culture.
But I believe that educators can, by teaching these texts, place their sectarianism in a historical context. Teachers should use these texts as a way for the predominantly pagan world to grapple with its all-too-existing legacy of Jewish hatred.
You can do this with older children and with adults.
This is not the case with Dr. Seuss’ audience – the little children.
You might be upset by this kind of self-censorship. It might cause some whining from you. “Even Dr. Seuss! Is nothing and no one forbidden? You might say to yourself and tell yourself.
Yes, a few of his minor titles bit the dust, not the dust jacket. But it’s a small price to pay for our society to realize that we are all in the midst of a racial situation. Teshuvah.
As for me, I have always loved “Green Eggs and Ham”. Sam I Am spends the book trying to persuade the narrator to try green eggs and ham – until he finally surrenders.
I have always thought and taught that the book was an allegory about the forced assimilation of the Jews.
You mean no?