Set in 13th-century France, The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz, tells the story of a young ex-monk of moorish ancestry, a peasant girl, and a Jewish boy—all with supernatural powers. This novel, Alan Verskin notes, is thus a rare example of children’s fiction with an explicitly Jewish character that is neither aimed primarily at a Jewish audience nor Holocaust-themed. Himself a medievalist who read the book to his own children, Verskin objects to its “heavy-handed moralizing about overcoming religious, racial, and sexist bigotry” and finds the numerous gratuitous historical inaccuracies “grating.” Yet halfway through, the plot shifts its focus to the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240, and Verskin discovered much to like about what follows. (Free registration may be required.)
What has been lost and what has been accomplished in Gidwitz’s tale? The loss is primarily located in two matters: first, the mischaracterization of the Talmud and, second, the bowdlerization of this particular episode in Christian-Jewish history. The first is a flaw that distracts from the story. The second is, I believe, a price worth paying. . . .
The conventional wisdom of liberal American Jewish educators is that children (or at least their parents) need Jewish stories that feel relevant, speak to their own experiences, and reflect their values and goals. Too often, this attitude cuts Jewish children off from much of their heritage, which was, after all, forged in profoundly foreign environments, sometimes under terrifying pressures. It has also rendered many Jewish children’s books boring and sterile.
The brilliance of The Inquisitor’s Tale lies in its use of familiar modern values as a bridge to unfamiliar historical situations. Its heroes embody impeccable 21st-century ideals, but they inhabit a dazzlingly foreign landscape where the ideological struggles are as far removed from American life as its monasteries, taverns, and dung-heaps. Adam Gidwitz thereby shows that an obscure historical episode about a recondite text can indeed help children to engage with Jewish history thoughtfully, and even joyfully.