“Do Not Turn a Deaf Ear or a Blind Eye on Me, as I Am Your Son”: New Conceptions of Childhood and Parenthood in 18th- and 19th-Century Jewish Letter-Writing Manuals

Mar. 09, 2016

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Vol. 82 iss.1, pages 4-27


This article focuses on the cultural functions of Hebrew letter-writing manuals published in German-speaking countries in the 18th and 19th centuries, aimed at young people. I argue that these books, which were used frequently as textbooks for studying Hebrew writing, conveyed modern ideological values and at the same time corresponded to the particular requirements of the traditional Jewish audience. They also bear witness to a marked shift in the conceptions of childhood and of education within the Jewish realm, as their emphasis on sons’ duties toward their fathers was gradually replaced by a growing sensitivity toward their young audience’s needs.

Templates of letters between family members which appeared in Ashkenazi letter-writing manuals in the 18th and 19th centuries were intended for various purposes. They could be copied and real letters could be derived from them as required for different uses; they could be used by children and youth to practice and polish their Hebrew writing skills within an educational framework, and they could be read as works of fiction. Each of these uses could serve to disseminate educational and cultural values among the recipient community. And indeed, authors of letter-writing manuals took advantage of this potential, with the letters that they comprised often expressing modern perceptions on education, society, gender, and morality.

The letter-writing manuals this article has described encompass and reveal a great deal of information pertaining to the changes that took place in the perceptions of childhood and education within traditional Jewish society in the modern period. Although the letters that appear in them lack a sender’s signature, the name of a recipient, and usually also the time and place of the letters—that is, all the details that turn a text into a credible piece of historical evidence—they have nonetheless been found to be important sources that shed light on parent-child relationships and on shifting educational ideals. The repeated inclusion of the same types of situations in the letters alludes to reality as it actually is and attests to the fact that these phenomena were characteristic and common; in other instances the descriptions attest to the way things ought to be, the author’s aspiration, in other words, to alter conventional models and to replace them with modern ones. Alongside the shift in perceptions of the family and of relationships among its members, the authors used the manuals they wrote to disseminate modern, enlightened, and Maskilic ideas. In the letters that they wrote and within the storylines that they created, they criticized traditional education and offered alternatives, highlighted the Library of the Haskalah as vital for the expansion and deepening of the upcoming generation’s education, and gave expression to contemporary modern notions of childhood and education.

The image of the Jewish family as it takes shape in the letter-writing manuals is of a family in a state of flux between traditional to modern models of interaction and relationship. Patriarchal notions with the emphasis on the son’s duty toward his father manifest especially in the early manuals described here. Later manuals bear witness to a marked shift toward a more equal model of parent-child relations. The emphasis on sons’ duties toward their fathers was replaced in modern letter-writing manuals by a growing sensitivity toward the young recipients’ hardships, wishes, and desires.

In summation, the study of letter-writing manuals reveals the ways in which tradition and modern values interacted in the process of modernization of Jewish society, and proves instructive as to the functions educational media fulfilled in this process of fundamental cultural change. The exploration of letter-writing manuals, as other textbooks for children and youth, shows that they include significant evidences for processes of cultural change. It also hints to the ways we used, and still are using, the channel of children and youth culture for disseminating values and ideas, especially of family relations and concepts of childhood.

Updated: Mar. 23, 2016