John B. Gruelle
A Thorny Tale
This is my favorite part of the day, when Thalia crawls into my lap with Teddy in tow and we nestle into the comfy chair. Thalia’s small finger circles in the air and lands on a line of the table of contents in her copy of Grimm.
I grimace. “How about this one?” I stab at another line. She jerks her head around and fixes me with a stare of suspicion. “Well,” I defend, “it’s not a nice story.”
“How do you know?”
“I read it.”
“Read it to me.”
I sigh and give into child logic. “The Jew in the Thornbush.”
A servant, after three years of faithful service, is paid a mere three farthings by his miserly employer. The servant, content with that small amount, nonetheless gives it all to a beggar. The beggar, who is more than he seems, grants the servant three wishes: a fowling gun that never misses; a fiddle, to the music of which all must dance; and the boon that others must do as he wishes.
The servant soon comes across a Jew admiring a bird’s song and wishing aloud that he could have that bird. In a rather sudden turn of his good nature, the servant shoots the bird and obliges the Jew to crawl into the thornbush into which the bird has fallen. The servant then plays his fiddle, causing the Jew to dance inside the brambles. In pain, the Jew pleads with the servant to stop playing and offers him all the money he has, a substantial bag of gold.
Thalia wriggles in my lap, pulling Teddy closer to her, toying with his floppy ear, the one not as well sewn on as the other.
When freed, the Jew curses the fellow and runs off to a judge with his complaint. The servant is found, arrested, and condemned to death for highway robbery.
At the hanging, the servant requests to play his fiddle one last time. Against the Jew’s warning, and because everyone must do as the fellow wishes anyway, the judge allows it. Soon the Jew, the judge, the hangman, and everyone gathered to watch the hanging are dancing to the tune of the fiddle.
At the point of exhaustion, the judge cries out and pledges to release the servant from his sentence if he will only stop fiddling. The Jew then, unaccountably, confesses that he stole the money, but that the servant came into its possession honestly, and for this confession he is hung in the servant’s stead.
Thalia looks at me accusingly. “Teddy doesn’t like that story.”
“Well, I don’t either and I did warn you,” I say.
“Humph.” Thalia slips off my lap. Teddy, being dragged behind her, looks at me with the same accusing eyes.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2015 The Jew in the Thornbush – Part Two
Traditional Jewish Hat
Not So Bad?
Duckworth and I stand under an archway at Christ Church, one which barely affords us shelter from the rain that has cut short our walk around the quad.
Duckworth stuffs his hands deeper into his overcoat pockets. “While we’re trapped here—careless, umbrellaless chums that we are—tell me how you have been entertaining Thalia of late.”
“Hmmm. Jew in the Thornbush last night.”
Duckworth looks at me askance. “You know I don’t spend time reading fairy tales, but that one sounds a bit dodgy. I’ll assume it has its redeeming qualities.”
“No, none whatsoever. It’s as bad as it sounds.”
“Then why did you choose to read it to her?”
“She asked me to.”
“My good fellow, I know she has you wrapped around her little finger, but you are the adult. You ought to be protecting her from such things.”
I am not sure how to answer. “Should I protect her, or would I be pretending anti-Semitism doesn’t exist?”
“We’re talking about a child.” Duckworth raises an eyebrow.
“Yes, we are,” I say. “Perhaps that’s the point.” I notice my shoes and pant cuffs are getting wet. “Perhaps informing them is what fairy tales do best for children.”
Duckworth’s skeptical smile begs me to wade in deeper.
“Thalia,” I muse, “told me she didn’t like the story. Actually, she said her teddy bear didn’t like the story. That is displacement, which is what I think I am talking about. I introduced her to an anti-Sematic thought—before that adjective has entered her vocabulary—in a safe, nonthreatening-to-her fashion. She does not have to take action, or make a judgment. The act of judgment she passed off to her teddy bear. And yet, in a small but significant way I have prepared her for facing anti-Semitism when it comes around again in a more direct manner.”
“Displacement,” Duckworth considers. “Then Thalia is not dealing with the issue directly, but flitting around the edges? That appears to me rather unproductive.”
“Think of it as dipping her toe in the water instead of throwing her in over her head.”
“Sorry, I’m not buying it.” Duckworth stares at the sky as the rain comes down harder. “Your approach is terribly indirect. Besides, children will face prejudice soon enough without us foisting it upon them at an early age.”
“Well, perhaps it’s a moot point.” I press against the wall behind me, trying to stay dry. “Anti-Semitism isn’t the issue it used to be, say, a hundred years ago. Jews are much more accepted in our—let me call it—cosmopolitan times. I don’t think Thalia will observe nearly the level of prejudice that once existed.”
“That’s arguable. And what about the Muslims?” says Duckworth.
“What do they have to do with The Jew in the Thornbush? Oh, I know in the Muslim world there is plenty of . . .”
“No, I mean here, in your cosmopolitan times, Thalia may well have her mind poisoned against them. In our context, the Muslims are simply the new Jews. And for how many decades will that go on?”
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2015 The Jew in the Thornbush – Part Three
Not So Good
A drizzle still falls outside my study’s bay window. It is misty enough that I can barely see the first line of trees at the edge of the Magic Forest. Johannes dozes on the window sill. I will not disturb him with my questions. I can image what less than generous things he might say.
I decide to explore how The Jew in the Thornbush reflects the time and culture from which it came: the late seventeenth century, among the uneducated peasants of the Holy Roman Empire.
To help educate myself, I have balanced the laptop on my knees. With one hand I tap “Jewish History German 17th Century” into the search box, holding my pipe filled with Elfish Gold in the other.
I find that religious differences between the Christians and the Jews weren’t enough (Martin Luther had truly terrible things to say.) there were other causes for the peasants to harbor resentment.
Starting in the Middle Ages, Jews were confined to ghettoes, and barred from many occupations and trades, allowed to fill only those positions considered socially inferior. Both money lending and tax collecting fell into that category. Money lending, in particular, Christians saw as a sin, a necessary sin at times, but a sin nonetheless. Not surprisingly, the Jews, whether they practiced those services or not, acquired the reputation for being stingy, greedy, and corrupt.
At some times and places the restrictions on the Jews were so great, they turned to crime to survive. The reputation of “thief” the peasants quickly added to their Jewish list of sins.
I close the lid of my computer as I settle back to consider how this applies to The Jew in the Thornbush.
In this tale, the Jew appears as the butt of the joke, a comic character, not to be taken seriously. Even his hanging is portrayed as entertaining. The purpose of the tale is to have an underling, with whom a peasant might well identify, get the better of those outside his class. This brings to my mind The Blue Light, in which a soldier gets the better of the king, his daughter, the judges and their assistants (Judges, too, come in for a fair amount of abuse in the Grimm tales.) The Jew in the Thornbush is not meant to be an anti-Semitic tale. It is casually anti-Semitic, using the Jew as a device for humor.
Violence in the Grimm tales is certainly not unusual, but usually has a purpose. The tales were structured so that violence becomes an obstacle for the hero or heroine to overcome during the tale, and serves as punishment for evil at the end of the tale. That the Jew is hung in the last act of the story is meant to signal to the reader that evil has been destroyed.
As my pipe goes out, I must sadly conclude that my precious fairy tales, for all the good they do when reflecting on personal concerns—such as feelings of abandonment, fear of the unknown, finding a life partner— fail when they touch on issues of social justice. They bear no more insight for us than could be provided by a medieval peasant, for whom the tales were meant to entertain.