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Project seeks to discover aspects of early Jewish childhood

Thursday, November 13, 2014

LAWRENCE — Childhood in the West today is often determined by age. However, in Roman and Jewish antiquity a family's social status likely influenced whether a young boy or girl spent time going to school and playing with other children at all or if they would be required to start earning money for the family.

A University of Kansas researcher is a member of an international project. operating out of Oslo, Norway, in which scholars are examining the origins of Western childhood.

"The way to distinguish between childhood and adulthood was in a sense more complex than we realized," said Hagith Sivan, professor of history.

In May, Sivan participated in the Origins of Western Childhood workshop of the project "Tiny Voices from the Past: New Perspectives on Childhood in Early Europe" at the University of Oslo. The program focuses on the history of childhood from fifth century B.C. to 13th century A.D. Sivan is also working on a book project, "Jewish Childhood in the Roman World," under contract with Cambridge University Press.

The book is the first study of a subject that has been gathering momentum throughout the academy. The study of childhood in antiquity and Jewish childhood in any period of history is in its infancy.

"In the last 20 years there has been a huge shift from history as it was dictated, and it reflected the upper class, essentially to the history of what you would call the voiceless majority," Sivan said.

She said it was important to dig deeper into this segment of history that has likely been ignored for so long and all the more because childhood experiences are universally shared even when they are culturally determined.

"Childhood is a perennial subject. Everyone one of us goes through that phase," Sivan said. "It should really challenge your intellect. Knowledge and understanding of what happened before your time helps us all to understand our own environment."

For her part in the project Sivan is seeking to understand how Mediterranean children and childhood were perceived in the context of Jewish biblical interpretation. At the heart of her research is the figure of Miriam, Moses' sister, who, according to the biblical narrative of Exodus 2, was instrumental in saving him from drowning in the Nile. Using primary texts across Jewish-Hellenistic, sectarian and rabbinic-midrashic interpretations she shows how the voice of Miriam was recast. Sivan makes Miriam talk.

"I am connecting narratives, recreating children deliberatively, giving them names, ages, family, sex and a city," she said. "Each one tells his or her story in order to really understand what it was like to be a child somewhere."

Sivan said that there are contradictions in the ways in which Miriam is presented both as a symbol of obedience and sisterly devotion, yet also of defiance.

Sivan also is wrestling with the question of who was treated or considered a child in ancient times.

"In theory, at least in the Roman world, schooling was open to everyone, but the chances are that most children actually worked as early as possible," Sivan said.

Jewish rabbinic sources refer to children's earnings and ponder on the definition of a child versus an adult. If you continued to live at home you were considered a dependent child, regardless of your actual age. The rabbis also used intellectual and sexual criteria to determine the all-important transition between childhood and adulthood.

"My suspicion is that most children would work as early as they could stand on their feet," Sivan said. "I would suspect that the upper-class children would go to school and would have their own tutors."

However, in some ways, ancient childhood may not have been dramatically different from childhood today. Boys played at school, sometimes aggressively. Girls played with balls. Tiny children liked to play with live insects. In schools throughout the Roman Mediterranean, boys act out scenes taken from famous stories like the Fall of Troy.

"What has really changed is our own understanding of childhood and the centrality of children in our life," Sivan said. "Children, however, remain children. But the rules governing their lives were different."