The Se­cret Jewish His­tory Of Win­nie-The-Pooh

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Seth Ro­govoy

A.A. Milne’s Win­nie-the-Pooh sto­ries have de­lighted young­sters for over 90 years, as have their nu­mer­ous spinoffs as TV shows, car­toons, hol­i­day spe­cials, movies and, of course, branded mer­chan­dise, all of which made Milne very wealthy.

But the story be­hind the story of how Milne cre­ated the com­plex chil­dren’s tale and char­ac­ters based on his son, Christo­pher Robin, and his col­lec­tion of stuffed an­i­mals

isn’t such a happy one. Which is pre­sum­ably why it has been deemed per­fect fod­der for a fea­ture film, “Good­bye, Christo­pher Robin,” that re­counts the mirac­u­lous suc­cess of Milne’s sto­ries, pre­cisely timed to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of a na­tion bru­tal­ized by the hor­rors of the World War I, as well as the steep emo­tional price that Milne, his wife, Dorothy “Daphne” de Sélin­court Milne, and their only child, Christo­pher Robin, paid for that suc­cess.

For Milne him­self, a se­ri­ous nov­el­ist, play­wright and poet, the cre­ation of Pooh was a Golem-like mon­ster that would come back to haunt him, over­shad­ow­ing all his lit­er­ary pur­suits, be­fore and af­ter the publi­ca­tion of “Win­nie-the-Pooh” in 1926. For Christo­pher Robin, he would be sub­ject to teas­ing and ha­rass­ment from an early age, with ev­ery­one as­sum­ing he was just like the fic­tional char­ac­ter that bore his name, even though he was not. He blamed both his par­ents for his ex­ploita­tion, and lived most of his life es­tranged from them.

In what reads like a pas­sage right out of a Philip Roth novel, Christo­pher Robin Milne once wrote, “In pes­simistic mo­ments, when I was trudg­ing Lon­don in search of an em­ployer want­ing to make use of such tal­ents as I could of­fer, it seemed to me, al­most, that my fa­ther had got to where he was by climb­ing upon my in­fant shoul­ders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with noth­ing but the empty fame of be­ing his son.”

Milne him­self came down on the right side of his­tory where the na­tional de­fense was con­cerned. Af­ter serv­ing on the front in Europe, Milne joined MI7b, a lit­tle-known Bri­tish mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit con­sist­ing in large part of es­tab­lished au­thors who wrote pro­pa­ganda about Bri­tish hero­ism and Ger­man atroc­i­ties. When war against the Ger­mans came around a sec­ond time, Milne spoke out loudly against his erst­while friend, the au­thor P.G. Wode­house, for mak­ing pro-Ger­man ra­dio broad­casts from Ber­lin. Wode­house point­edly replied, how­ever, by ac­cus­ing Milne of child ex­ploita­tion. Ouch.

Still, how­ever Milne felt about the bear, and how­ever his son felt about be­ing un­able to es­cape the char­ac­ter’s fic­tional clutches, Win­nie-the-Pooh gained a life far beyond his cre­ator’s con­trol or imag­i­na­tion.

Part of that imag­i­na­tion has ex­tended to find­ing – or even plac­ing – Jewish themes and mes­sages in the sto­ries of Pooh. Pooh him­self, of course, loves honey – that quin­tes­sen­tial Jewish food (not for noth­ing is the Promised Land called “the land of milk and honey”) – to the point that his ob­ses­sion with it gets him into some sticky messes. Saul Blinkoff, who an­i­mated the 2004 full-length car­toon ver­sion of Pooh for Dis­ney, went so far as to add a mezuza to Pooh’s door­post.

It hasn’t been lost on many that Pooh’s side­kick, Eey­ore, has a comic, neu­rotic out­look wor­thy of Larry David: “Good morn­ing, Pooh Bear,” said Eey­ore gloomily. “If it is a good morn­ing,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he. “Why, what’s the mat­ter?” “Noth­ing, Pooh Bear, noth­ing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” “Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rub­bing his nose. “Gai­ety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mul­berry bush.” Fetch this don­key a good ther­a­pist! A 2016 fea­ture ar­ti­cle in Mo­ment mag­a­zine asked 20 au­thors – Jewish and non-Jewish – to name the book that most shaped them. Among the picks you’d ex­pect – Tol­stoy’s “War and Peace,” Primo Levi’s “The Pe­ri­odic Ta­ble,” Kafka’s “The Meta­mor­pho­sis” – one stood out from the pack. Wal­ter Mosley chose “Win­nie-the-Pooh” as the book that most shaped him: “Jews should read ‘Win­nie-the-Pooh’ just like ev­ery­one should. Jews think and need the ex­act same things other peo­ple do. Jews think, ‘I’m hun­gry, I’m tired, I’m in love, I have a job to go to, my back hurts, and I’m get­ting older’ — all of that stuff is com­mon to ev­ery­one. Ninety-nine per­cent of who we are is the same. Jews should be in­ter­ested in th­ese books for the same rea­sons as ev­ery­one else. And there is no con­flict; I’m not say­ing peo­ple should eat Piglet!”

Per­haps the fi­nal proof of Pooh’s uni­ver­sal mes­sage is what may just be the peren­nial best-sell­ing chil­dren’s book in Yid­dish since its publi­ca­tion in 2000. Leonard Wolf had lit­tle trou­ble trans­lat­ing the orig­i­nal book into “Vini-der-Pu,” in which Pooh be­came Pu, Eey­ore be­came Iya, and — your fa­vorite and mine — Piglet be­came Khaz­erl.

And you didn’t have to be an ex­pert to trans­late Pooh’s catch­phrase, “Oh, bother,” which ver­ily leaps off the page as “Oy, gevalt,” as if Milne had ac­tu­ally back-trans­lated the phrase into English.

Seth Ro­govoy is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at the For­ward. He of­ten ex­plores the cor­re­spon­dences be­tween pop­u­lar cul­ture and Jewish themes.

The cre­ation of Pooh was a Golem­like mon­ster that would come back to haunt Milne.


OH, BOTHER: The fate of A.A.

Milne’s son is the sub­ject of the film ‘Good­bye, Christo­pher



CARRY ON: Milne spoke out against P.G. Wode­house for mak­ing pro-Ger­man broad­casts.


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