Reading Without Writing and the Myth of Universal Literacy in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society

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Abstract

This Chapter explores the different kinds of literacy that were current in Eastern European Jewish society in the nineteenth century, and shatters the myth that this society was characterized by universal male literacy. It discusses the abstention from teaching writing in the traditional Jewish education system, its causes and its consequences, and explores the teaching of writing in informal educational settings. Along the way, it directs attention to the inferior status of those who taught and learned writing in informal settings and to the gender stereotypes that disparaged writing, namely, the identification of speech with masculine spirit and authority and the identification of the written word with the female sphere. Based on a close reading of selected testimonies and accounts of reading and writing episodes, the chapter provides evidence for the many instances of mechanical knowledge of reading, without actual comprehension, in Jewish society, and for the prevalent phenomenon of writing and signing “by transferring the pen” to a scribe or to another person skilled in writing. All this challenges the myth of universal male literacy in nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewish society, or, at the very least, testifies to the fluid nature of the definition of literacy in this society.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Directions in Book History
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Pages41-73
Number of pages33
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2022

Publication series

NameNew Directions in Book History
ISSN (Print)2634-6117
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6125

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