From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hans Christian Andersen's 'Jewish Girl'

(Hans Christian Andersen)
At a time when many Jewish characters were stereotyped in anti-Semitic ways, Hans Christian Andersen sought to portray Jews as noble – and succeeded beautifully.

This is apparent in his 1855 story, The Jewish Girl.  It tells of a “little Jewish girl, clever and good – in fact, the brightest of them all.”  This girl, Sarah, was a student at a Christian charity school, brought there by her poor father after her mother’s death.  Her mother’s dying wish had been that Sarah remain “a daughter of Israel” (with no Christian baptism). 

Sarah was therefore given a geometry book to study during the school’s religious-instruction classes.  However, she soon began paying more attention to the Scripture lessons than to the geometry ones.  Andersen then tells us, “And the teacher soon noticed that she listened more intently than any of the rest.” 

Readers might be wondering at this point:  Why didn’t the teacher simply send her to another study area where she couldn’t hear the lesson?  Andersen sensitively explains:
But to send her from the room during the Scripture lesson might have given offense and raised various thoughts in the minds of the other children in the class, and so she remained.

Long story short (or short story shorter):  Sarah’s father, in order to remain true to his deathbed promise, wound up transferring his daughter out of the Christian school.  Three words later - Years had passed… - Sarah was now a maidservant in the smallest of provincial towns.  She was, according to Andersen, as eager and wistful a figure as ever.  Since the house she worked in was right across the street from the church, Sarah would listen to the Sunday hymns as avidly as she once listened to the Scripture lessons.

After the years rolled by, Sarah died and was buried right outside the wall of the Christian graveyard – but not before she had been baptized by the holy fire of her own faith.  Andersen then equated this with Christ’s disciples being baptized by the Holy Spirit.

From a Jewish perspective, this might still seem highly prejudicial.  Sarah was portrayed as blessed in the
end because she inwardly embraced Christianity.  However, given Andersen’s own cultural context, the overall story was certainly a leap forward in the direction of empathy, respect, and harmonious interfaith relations.  


Copyright April 2, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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