To Read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Jew

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To Read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Jew

Alison Reingold

I have only recently become interested in my religion, because for many years, I had two. My mother is a nonpracticing Catholic and my father is a secular Jew. I was able to grow up with two conflicting faiths because I did not truly believe in either of them. As a kid, I went to my weekly Sunday school at the Jewish Community Center and loathed it like every other student I knew. From my teachers, I learned elementary Hebrew, Israeli history, the stories from the Bible with holidays to match and most seriously, the Holocaust. Although my teachers never emphasized the differences between Jewish history and faith and Christian history and faith in my other subjects, I sensed the strongest divide when we talked about the Holocaust. In bible stories, we separated ourselves from the idol worshippers but in modern history, we were murdered by cruel Christians. We formally studied the Holocaust in our fourth grade of Sunday school, meaning the supervisors believed we were mature enough as ten and eleven year olds to hear the horrible truth. The teachers rarely spared details, so much that I cannot imagine how easily my young mind took in this information without more trauma. My class learned about how Hitler twisted stereotypes to vilify innocent Jews, the ghettos, the horrors of the concentration camps and the gas chambers. While we focused on Hitler as the source of the evil perpetrated against the Jews, there were constant dark questions that surrounded him. We understood he was an evil and terrible person, but why did so many people follow him? Why did Germans and Poles and Austrians eagerly turn on their innocent Jewish neighbors? Why did so many people delight in horrible misery or simply look away, deciding that helping a Jew was too much trouble? Hitler killed few people personally, his followers created the gut sickening methods to follow out his plans. I think our lessons on the Holocaust filled the air with a sense that all non-Jews look down on us, letting us have our religion and our lives, waiting for someone powerful to release their hatred against us and they can finally torture us for every inconvenience in our lives, like they have always wanted to do. I do not know if this was the message the teachers wanted to give us, either consciously on unconsciously, but its one I can recognize within myself. I found this same lesson when learning about Israeli history; the Arab world hates us with a passion and will work tirelessly to murder Israelis on buses. As I moved outside of the world of Sunday school, I learned about Neo-Nazis, who proudly hate us and will kill you if they have the chance, and the people who delight in painting swastikas over any flier advertising Jewish events, the Holocaust deniers, the messianic Jews, so called "Jews for Jesus," that is really a group of Christians working to convert secular Jews to Christianity. I could not decide if the most disturbing aspect of the world is the people who openly hate us or the people who may hate us. My lessons from Sunday school taught me to look at any person with an eye for their hidden Anti-Semitism, because I believed that it was always there. With this attitude, I was able to distrust the whole of Christianity, patiently listening Jesus's parables and teachings, waiting for the part that preaches hate against Jews, the part that describes how we drink Christian blood and have curly hair so to cover our horns. I have not read the New Testament (because doing so seems like giving in to the enemy) but my friends who have read it acknowledge, yes, the Anti-Semitism is there and it abounds. They say that if you accept the bible as true and the heros in it as models for your life, you must take in the anti-Semitism that goes with it. Therefore, I looked at every Christian and especially enthusiastic Christian with a mistrustful eye, listening to their joy from Jesus, feeling their hidden designs against me.

To live such a paranoid existence is not pleasant but it is hard wired into my survival instincts to mistrust those outside of the circle of Judaism. Until now, I did not know much about the specifics of my faith, only that I must keep it lest I be a coward like those who converted during World War II to save themselves. I did not know exactly what I was defending but defend it I must. I feel stronger in my defense now because I am more secure in my faith and because I am old enough to fight anti-Semitism on my own, so I don't live in fear of being overwhelmed by the masses. Now, at Bryn Mawr, I have learned more about Judaism and it is settling something inside of me, just beginning to give my experiences a new cast.

Because I am new to rigorous Jewish life, I cannot begin to presume to speak for all Jews or even many Jews. That lesson is one that abounds in Jewish history. Studying the five books of the Torah is a noble and necessary commandment but the beauty of Judaism lies in discussing those stories. After one reads, one must pick at the text with questions like, What did G-d intend for us to learn from this passage? What has been left out? What has been included and why? Why did the writer choose this specific diction and these specific words? Is there a parallel example in our own lives? How does this story match the other stories in the Bible? Are there inconsistencies? How do we reconcile them? The discussion is endless. The joke "Two Jews, three opinions" is a matter of pride that we will not settle for less than an exhaustive search for the truth.

Although my spiritual life is a fascinating subject on its own, I mention my religious past because reading Uncle Tom's Cabin brought back a lot of the old conflicts I had with religion as well as new questions including suspicions against Christianity. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a hugely Christian book but I felt a lack of urgency that surprised me. I believed the novel would be propaganda using the power of Jesus's suffering and sacrifice to move the audience to action. However, time after time, characters find themselves in moral quandaries and defer to old habits instead of making strides to a resolution. St. Clare constantly discusses the morality of owning slaves, railing passionately against the hypocrisy that maintains his lifestyle. However, he always seems to exhaust himself and accept an inevitability of his surrender to habit that is not necessary. When pressed by Miss Ophelia for a decision regarding freeing his slaves after Little Eva's death, he cannot be persuaded of the urgency of action against a system he knows is incorrect. Even Little Eva, the figure of Christ, is not forceful in her beliefs, preferring to suffer pangs of conscience and emotion, sighing and rattling the prisoners' chains instead of moving to free them. She dies requesting no changes or action. Uncle Tom, upon hearing he is to be sold, weeps but will not free himself like Eva. He defers to tradition and allows a painful process to occur.

The characters' actions bothered me greatly because I thought that as a Christian book, paralleling the sacrifices Christ made for humanity, Harriet Beecher Stowe would include liberation of the oppressed as part of the actions necessary to move towards Providence. Drawing on the tradition of Torah text study, the case for the powerful to liberate the enslaved is made in Exodus, chapter 22, verse 20 telling us "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" and Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 33 and 34 saying "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself." The Bible warns against dealing in slavery, "You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on the innocent and the righteous, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer" (Exodus, Chapter 23, verses 6-7). Deuteronomy warns us against ignoring the plight of others, "Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe" (Chapter 10 verses 14-17) because the Lord "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Chaptet 10, verses 18-19). Finally, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a non-citizen in your communities. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt." (Deuteronomy, Chapter 24, verses 14-15). Reviewing these commandments, they all endow the powerful to recognize the universal brotherhood of people beneath G-d, so that none may oppress another. The Bible constantly reminds us of the pain believers suffered in Egypt and warns us not to forget the horrors of slavery in a foreign land.

Seeing so many verses against the enslavement of others, I can understand how the powerful characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin find themselves in moral quandaries, trying to reconcile their faith with their reality. The consistent failure to be moved to action baffles me. If I approach this book on a human level, I can understand the fear of revolution and of change enough to empathize with characters who act against their morals. However, Uncle Tom's Cabin was created to break the bonds of tradition and move audiences to action. We are not supposed to approach the characters from a stand point of human reality. They are created as archetypes that serve as a battle between good and evil, right and wrong and should become stymied by realistic problems. If the characters are supposed to move us toward a Divine Good, they should be expected to make decisions according to the Bible.

Every year, Jews celebrate Passover as the time to remember the painful oppression of slavery and the glory of freedom. At dinner, people read verses that begin, "When I was a slave in Egypt..." to bring us to the past. Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin as a version of the Exodus reminds us of the shared slavery between Jews and Africans. Seeing the stagnation of action from white characters in the novel brings about the same distrust and suspicion I felt in Sunday school. To read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Jew is to be reminded of the pain of ordinary people unable to make decisions for the good when the society permits evil to run rampant.

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