In medieval times, when a Jewish boy of five began religious schooling, he was carried from home to a teacher and placed on the teacher's lap. He was then asked to recite the Hebrew alphabet and lick honey from the slate on which it was written, to eat magically inscribed cooked peeled eggs and cakes, to recite an incantation against a demon of forgetfulness, and then to go down to the riverbank with the teacher, where he was told that his future study of the Torah, like the rushing river, would never end. This book--Ivan Marcus's erudite and novel interpretation of this rite of passage--presents a new anthropological historical approach to Jewish culture and acculturation in medieval Christian Europe.
Marcus traces ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman elements in the rite and then analyzes it from different perspectives, making use of narrative, legal, poetic, ethnographic, and pictorial sources, as well as firsthand accounts. He then describes contemporary medieval Christian images and initiation rites--including the eucharist and the Madonna and child--as contexts within which to understand the ceremony. He is the first to investigate how medieval Jews were aware of, drew upon, and polemically transformed Christian religious symbols into Jewish counterimages in order to affirm the truth of Judaism and to make sense of living as Jews in an intensely Christian culture.