Thursday, September 3, 2009
Finally! Sherlock Holmes for religious Jews!
Whooda thunk it? For all these years – presumably since 1887 when the first Conan Doyle stories featuring the idiosyncratic detective appeared – haredi Jews have been unable to enjoy them. But now, according to the BBC an American publishing company is releasing a kosher version of the stories “for the religious public.”
Publisher Bilson -- www.bilson.co.il – states that haredi-religious rabbis have approved the content saying that now the stories “don’t contradict the spirit of Judaism.”
The books, with an accompanying CD, are written in English, and are intended to help Hebrew speakers “improve and enrich” their English vocabulary.
Well, that’s fine. Good news, no question about that. But here’s what I can’t figure out: What was objectionable about the Sherlock Holmes stories in the first place?
In all, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 stories and four novels about the British "consulting detective", famous for his intellect, his acute observation, deductive reasoning and his ability to solve cases no one else could.
From the first, Holmes, his sidekick and chronicler Dr. Watson, and assorted other characters, like Sherlock’s mysterious brother Mycroft, captivated the public’s imagination. Newsstand copies were snapped up the minute they hit the street, while subscriptions to the magazines that carried them – primarily The Strand -- soared.
For ten years, Doyle wrote Sherlock stories, andwith each, became more and more tired of his own creation. Doyle wanted to write what he considered to be more serious literature, historical novels. He didn’t want to be remembered for such commonplace fodder as his detective. “He (Sherlock) distracts my mind from better things,” Doyle wrote to his mother. He said he intended to end the series, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him."
So Doyle killed off his own creation – or tried to, anyway. In “The Final Problem” he has Holmes and his arch enemy Moriarty fight and then presumably plunge together over Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
When "The Adventure of the Final Problem" appeared in December 1893 in The Strand, people were so upset that over twenty thousand cancelled their magazine subscriptions in protest.
Three years later -- probably with a highly significant monetary inducement from his publisher -- Doyle brought Holmes back. He started with a kind of return. In the ghostly “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, Dr. Watson writes it as a post-mortem tale. Holmes was still dead. Watson was just telling a story about something that had happened in the past.
It worked. Subscriptions to The Strand shot up by 30,000 overnight.
Finally, in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House”, the issue is settled. Watson learns that Holmes really is alive, that his death had been a ruse to trick Moriarty.
“I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me, “”Watson” writes. “When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.”
Doyle gave up. For the next 25 years, he wrote more Sherlock Holmes tales.
Okay, so what part of the Holmes canon could possibly have been offensive? As the stories go, Holmes certainly didn’t rise from the dead – it was a trick. He hadn’t been killed.
It wasn’t that Holmes was a womanizer. The only woman he took any serious interest in was Irene Adler, in “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Although Adler most probably appears in other stores, after that, Holmes refers to her only as “The Woman.”
Nor is there any real evidence that he was homosexual, although goodness knows, any number of spinoffs have tried to make it appear so. Throughout the entire 56 books and four novels, there’s no evidence of that. What does appear is that Holmes was too busy with other things to pay much attention to women. This caused the happily married Dr. Watson to suggest, "There is something positively inhuman in you at times."
Drugs? When Holmes was between cases and lacking mental stimulation, he did indeed use drugs – cocaine, in the infamous “Seven Percent Solution”, and also morphine. In turn of the century London, none of that was uncommon or illegal. When, in “The Man with the Twisted Lip” he visited an opium den as part of his investigation, he expressed great disapproval.
Language? Hardly. Holmes was the sole of propriety.
Interestingly enough, though, in 1929, the Soviet Union banned “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” as “occult”.
It seems more likely that it wasn’t the Holmes stories themselves that had any “occult” aspects, but rather that Conan Doyle himself was interested in “spiritualism”.
Doyle was a great fan of that Great Jew Harry Houdini, to the extent that while Houdini himself insisted that Spiritualist mediums were frauds and tricksters and worked to expose them, Conan Doyle insisted that Houdini himself possessed supernatural powers.
But again, that was Conan Doyle, the author. Not Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character.
So what exactly did the American publishers do to the Sherlock Holmes stories to make sure they could be enjoyed by “the religious public”?
I have no idea. If anyone knows, I’m interested.