“The Arab conquerors loved beauty and wisdom. And so they were ready to give the people they ruled the freedom to write, to explore, to build. Jews and Arabs now found that they liked and understood one another. The Arabs had taken many ideas from the Jewish religion, and now the Jews learned many things from the Arabs–their language, their poetry, their science.”
No, this isn’t a fairy tale or some dreamed-of utopia. It’s a straight historical statement about the Muslim conquests of the early Middle Ages, taken from volume 2 of a three-volume textbook called The Jewish People, written by Deborah Pessin and published in 1952 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education.
I read Pessin’s textbook–under compulsion, not of my own free will–when I was about 10 years old and enrolled (again, under compulsion) in a Hebrew school of our local Conservative synagogue. I can’t swear that all Conservative synagogues in the 1950s used The Jewish People for their late-elementary-school kids, but I see no reason to doubt that.
I didn’t like Hebrew school. I didn’t like Pessin or her book, and thought of her with the obvious derogatory distortion of her name. I would rather have spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at home playing with my chemistry set. (I wouldn’t discover UFOs for another three years.) It now astonishes me how profoundly I was impacted by The Jewish People, how much of my thinking about the world and world history has been conditioned by it. All my life, along with my deep attachment to Israel and Zionism, I’ve felt an unthinking positive buzz for Islam and things Arabic, which language I studied for three years in college. I never knew why.
Several years ago, I found Pessin’s textbook in a used book store–and I understood.
The book is unabashed in its admiration and enthusiasm for Islam and the Arabs. This is almost beyond belief in our dark new century of hatred and terror, ISIS atrocities and French Muslim schoolgirls arrested for plotting to blow up the synagogue of Lyon, and an innocent Arab teenager burned alive by Israeli thugs. But it’s true.
Here’s Pessin on medieval Islamic Spain. (“Sunny Spain,” she calls it.)
“For five hundred years, the Jews enjoyed the beauty and wisdom of Spain. For the Jews, like the Mohammedans, loved learning. Jews and Mohammedans loved the books that gave them knowledge, and the sciences that explained the dark corners of the earth. So they worked together to create a beautiful Spain.”
Pessin inherited her idealization of Islam from the Jewish historians of the 19th century. Those men were great scholars. Yet they had their blind spots, and one of them was to see medieval Islam in the most glowing colors, perhaps as a rebuke to the bigotry of Christendom. They praised the “tolerance” of the Muslims for their Jewish and Christian minorities. In a more sober view, “toleration” might be a better word for it. The toleration was conditional, and could be revoked when feelings ran high.
The philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) lived all his life in Muslim countries, his first 13 years in “beautiful Spain.” (He had to flee when Spain was overrun by ISIS equivalents called the Almohades.) He wrote all but one of his many books in the Arabic language. Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
“Remember, my coreligionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us. … Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they.” (Epistle to Yemen)
To which a modern Jewish scholar comments: Maimonides must not have known what was going on in Europe in his time, if he could write those words! Or maybe he did, but it didn’t register. When you experience hurt and humiliation as the monotonous diet of your life, you may know rationally that it could be worse–that somewhere else it is worse. The knowledge has no emotional impact.
Pessin may or may not have had some awareness of these party-pooping realities. In her story of the birth of Islam, she admits that Muhammad’s friendliness for the Jews of Arabia “turned to hatred” when they wouldn’t accept him as a prophet. Overall, though, her account is thoroughly sympathetic to Muhammad and his religion. In the activities section at the end of the chapter, she tells the “pupil”: “In the Book of Knowledge, which you will find in any public library, read up on Mohammed and Mohammedanism. If you have difficulty finding these topics, ask the librarian to help you. … Go to the public library and get a translation of the Koran, the Mohammedan Bible. Read some of the stories about the creation of the world. Compare them with the Jewish stories about the creation.”
The message: Muslims are people very much like you. Where they’re different, they’re different in interesting ways that are fun to learn about.
On two facing pages of the same chapter, Pessin–or her illustrator, Ruth Levin–does something I find amazing in a book that was an official part of Jewish religious education. She gives the opening lines of the Qur’an, in Arabic and English. The passage is perfectly suited to give a favorable impression of Islam and the Qur’an. “In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful: Praise be to God, the cherisher and sustainer of the worlds, most gracious, most merciful; master of the Day of Judgment …”
In volume 3 of The Jewish People, when Pessin tells about the founding of the State of Israel (which in 1952 was an event of the very recent past), the Arabs change suddenly from goodies into baddies. I remember, as a child, being mildly perplexed by this transformation. I came away with the sense that it didn’t have to be that way, that Jews and Arabs ought to go on liking and understanding one another.
One of the first things I did, when I came to Cornell University as a freshman in the fall of 1965, was to approach members of the Muslim student association who were holding a tea for the campus community in the student union, and suggest we organize a “Jewish-Muslim dialogue” modeled after the Jewish-Christian dialogues that were then the rage. The reactions were all friendly. I don’t think the “dialogue” ever got off the ground, far less effect the global transformation that at age 17 I believed might be possible. But I made a number of friendships and semi-friendships that I look back on with fondness.
(Would these people and I still be friends if we met today? I don’t want to think about that.)
So what are we to make of Deborah Pessin? (I assume, though I don’t know for sure, that she’s no longer alive.) A naive soul living in a la-la land invented by obsolete scholarship, indoctrinating children with her illusions? Or an enlightened educator preparing her young Jewish readers to live comfortably in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world? Or something of both?
This I know: there are worse things than teaching children that the Other is a human being you can like and understand, who is capable of liking and understanding you. Maybe my parents did the right thing to pry me away from my chemistry set those Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Maybe my Hebrew school education wasn’t so bad after all.
by David Halperin
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