Tuesday, October 01, 2019

You Don't Have to Be Jewish

It has unfortunately recently come to my attention during the course of a six hour workshop about diversity in children's literature by a high-profile and impactful sponsor, no books representing Jewish people were included.  My understanding is that when a participant questioned the exclusion, it was pointed out that the recommendations also did not include obsese or old people, either; time was limited, not every group can be included.

Well, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that happened in Pittsburgh less than a year ago didn't happen because people were obese.  And the attack on the San Diego synagogue this spring wasn't because people were old.  I appreciate that not every religious group can be represented at book recommendation events, but the timing of such exclusions is questionable. If any other racial or ethnic group marginalized in our history were excluded from the lists at the same time that mass marches were actively happening to call for their eradication byWhite Supremacist and other hateful groups, well, what would you call that?  Poor timing?  Outrageous?  Or something else?

Tzivia MacLeod has written a very brave article, Dear Diversity: Are Jews Allowed? which references another separate scenario of exclusion.  

Respectfully, to professionals: please. Find the room, find the time.  Whether Jewish or not, inclusion of this literature in collection development conversations is more than religious representation.  It's respectful acknowledgement of the backgrounds of some of the most seminal contributors to the genre:  Maurice Sendak, the Reys, The Hobans, The Zemachs, Judith Viorst, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, R.L. Stine, Judith Kerr, Julius Lester,  Mordicai Gerstein to name a very few. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that Jewish American contribution is American history, extending broadly and meaningfully into the secular American world.   But more than that, as is the battle cry of diversity in children's literature:  all children deserve to see themselves represented on the shelves.  Further, all children deserve access to quality literature that reflects people different from themselves.  Holes in collection diversity are holes in preparing students for encounters with the human diversity that with any luck and effort will demarcate the 21st century as much as any technology, so if you have no Jewish kids at your school, you need Jewish children's books even more. If you are a teacher or librarian and you do not have books representing Jewish people in your collection, there is a lack in the diversity of your collection.

So, what's the fix? 

The first thing to do is probably get acquainted with The Sydney Taylor Award list, which is kind of like a Jewish Newbery given by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL).  A committee of professionals determine "outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience," not unlike the Coretta Scott King Award and Pura Belpré award for their respective representations.  The authors and illustrators do not have to be Jewish to receive the Sydney Taylor award. The AJL has a handy annotated list of all winners since the award's inception in 1968, which is an education in itself. 

A less extensive but very thoughtful list is the Love Your Neighbor:  AJL Recommends Jewish Books for All Readers compilation (full discloure: one of my books, Vive la Paris, now out-of-print, appears on this list, and has also received a Sydney Taylor Honor). These titles can be organically integrated into character education programming.  One of my favorite articles I have read is "Is The Rainbow Fish Jewish?" by Heidi Estrin.  Written for Jewish educators, it is a powerful testament to the overlapping of values found in vibrant children's literature to be embraced by many faiths. Rachel Kamin, an esteemed and active AJL committee member and reviewer, along with her colleagues, compiled a beautiful and extensive list of Jewish Stars:  Recommended Books with Jewish Themes for Schools and Libraries that deserves the attention of anyone adding Jewish identity to the diversity of their collections.  And the Book of Life is a long-running, fun and informative podcast hosted by Heidi Rabinowitz for anyone interested in Jewish literature for young people.  

I am the lucky librarian in a racially, ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse school in Chicago and am acutely aware of the balancing act between presenting diversity and separation of church (and synagogue and mosque) and state.  But the bottom line is, a good story belongs to everybody.  These are just a few titles I personally use successfully in my programming over the years with the children I serve. I hope you will share yours in the comments section.

All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.  The name Sydney Taylor comes up a lot in conversations about Jewish children's literature because she was "the first children's author to write books about Jewish people that were read by mainstream America" (Cummins, 2014). She started the series in 1951, a chummy plum of realistic fiction that finally depicted Jewishness as a matter-of-fact in the course of the daily adventures. To me, it's kind of like The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 of Jewish literature.  Throughout, there's feeling that family is the world, but the rest of the world is still there, too. For better or worse. 

Taylor also was pioneering in the way she wrote about urban life, a family crowded into a small apartment, relatable to many of my students.  The exciting, funny, emotional, episodic chapters are devour-able, thank goodness she wrote more than one. Fans of old-fashioned book candy a la Beverly Cleary and Betsy-Tacy series will rejoice.  The series holds up like a good TCM movie: classic. 

King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak is the story of a boy king who rules over a country of children while the grown-ups make a mess of their own.  By page two of a read-aloud, my fifth graders were hooked.  Whether being in the trenches of war with his foul-mouthed roughneck bestie Felek, building life-sized dolls to fool his jealous advisors, trying to ingratiate himself through dispersal of chocolate or traveling the world to find an unlikely guest for his meeting of a children's parliament, this book is a masterwork of cliffhangers.  It also contains some of the most nuanced, profound and entertaining characters in children's literature.  Popular as Peter Pan in parts of Europe, it is largely unknown here in the states, which is a great loss to be ameliorated.

Korczak's real life story is legendary, and ultimately tragic.  He was a Polish pediatrician during WWII who ran orphanages in Warsaw (and really did try an innovative children's parliament as described in the book in that setting).  Korczak had many opportunities to escape the Nazis but elected to stay with his charges, and died with them at Treblinka.  Every time I read this book, I can feel Korczak loving those children and trying to prepare them for the difficulties of this imperfect world.  He wrote and read aloud these words as a gift to the children he loved, children he was trying to distract from suffering with the joy and excitement of these great adventures. And now, almost a hundred years later, the words can come from your lips to the children you care about, and they still work their magic.  A miraculous legacy of read-aloud. 

Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Issac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Written by the master storyteller, my students have thrilled and laughed raucously to this read-aloud, favorites being "Fool's Paradise," the story of a family who tricks a bridegroom into believing he has died and gone to Heaven in order to help him appreciate his life on Earth; "The First Shlemiel" which is a slapstick series of events gone wrong with culminating hilarity and forgiveness; and then the cover story, Zlateh the Goat, in which a goat saves a boy's life in a winter's storm.  There is also "The Snow in Chelm," an introductory story to the town in literature that is famous for its wise fools, though exploration of this may be better served in Singer's wider collection, Stories for Children.   To introduce children to Singer's work is to introduce children to truly graceful narrative and a gentle view of humanity.  


Less gentle but just as important: The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel and Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy.  If the only books that represent Jewish people in your collection take place during the Holocaust, that would be as much of a mistake as only representing African Americans in the context of slavery.  That said, it is an important chapter in history shared by all humankind, and there are some remarkable children's books set against this backdrop.  Two of the finest are, inexcusably, out of print, one of them being The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel, a brilliant translator and author whose own family escaped Vienna during the war.  She does such a resonating job of depicting the painful cleaving of a friendship between Jewish Inge and Leiselotte, daughter of a Jewish S.S. officer.  It is easy for children today to imagine the strain between the two friends, and the ultimate loss.

"In 1945 the war ended.  the Germans surrendered and the ghetto was liberated.  Out of over a quarter of a million people,  about 800 walked out of the ghetto.  Of those who survived, only twelve were children.  I was one of those twelve."  Yellow Star was written by the niece of one of these twelve, composing the unthinkable story into an accessible verse memoir that does the honest and tricky work of presenting what really happened to the Jewish people during World War II while still being readable and appropriate with guidance for middle-grade readers.  A masterful introduction, and in tandem with The Devil in Vienna, they do highly effectual work in teaching students about the human experience in this most inhumane context. 

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Hershel has agreed to spend eight nights in the synagogue and rid the town of Ostropol from the goblins plaguing their Hanukkah celebrations. Part ghost story, part holiday story, and decorated with both hilarious and beautiful illustrations by the inimitable Caldecott-winning Trina Schart Hyman,  this is the favorite, favorite,  favorite annual classic read-aloud for my second grade; I show the children menorahs, dreidels and chocolate gelt to allow children who are not Jewish to understand the objects referenced, and then we all play dreidel, dance the hora and draw pictures of our own goblins.  This is what I mean when I say story belongs to everybody.   More mystical Jewish fun may also be found in reprint of the classic The Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches by Marilyn Hirsh, one of my own childhood favorites.  

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Carillho, is the story of the great New York Dodgers pitcher so dedicated to his faith that he would not come to the mound during the 1965 World Series on the highest Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even in the face of great discrimination. Biographies are a great place to start with sharing Jewish history and identity, and they can be read aloud across the grade levels.  Besides, there are so many good ones: I Dissent:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley;  Brave Girl:  Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet; Sholom's Treasure: How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein; Through the Window:  Views of Marc Chagall's Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpré; Write on, Irving Berlin!:  How An Immigrant Boy Made America Sing by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardener, to name a very few, many more cited on the lists referenced above and out there in the world, including one of my very favorites: 


Emma's Poem by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, the wonderful story of Emma Lazarus and how she came to compose the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus," which famously begins, "Give me your titred, your poor, your huddled masses/yearning to breathe free..."  Every young citizen deserves to know this story and that a Jewish woman is behind this national invitation.  It is a great story to begin a school year with, but also perfect for integration into units about immigration which also often happen around Thanksgiving, an occasion to read another Jewish classic, Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, though I usually elect instead to share the Oscar-winning video adaptation of the book, a little pricey but worth it and along the lines of Eleanor Estes' masterpiece The Hundred Dresses as far as fodder for discussion of bigotry and empathy.  Here is the trailer:

Finally, Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, which I share with children just because it is a book I happen to love.  In an effort to show gratitude to his God, Benny hides bagels in the Holy Ark of the temple.  The bagels disappear, and Benny's grandfather is outraged at the sacrilege.  But where are the bagels actually going?  This tear-jerker is about the connection between people's idea of God and the more earthly ideas of gratitude and service, the idea of tikkun olam, acts of kindness performed that honor and are in keeping with one's faith; like the Golden Rule, a concept embraced by caring people of all religions and all non-religions, and certainly by children.

By sharing these kind of stories, children will learn important words like "synagogue," "rabbi," "mazel tov," "mitzvah," "Shabbos,"even latke and dreidel, vocabulary that I do not believe will invite conversion any more than reading a book about a child in a hijab will make someone a Muslim or seeing an illustration of a Christmas tree will make someone a Christian, but it will in fact allow children to navigate in a friendly, knowledgeable, tolerant and compassionate manner amongst people of a particular group who may be different in some way from themselves. I would think that would be a general objective for the education of all children.  

To suggest "well, we also didn't include people who are heavy" when talking about limiting our conversations about diversity is unfortunately an utterly nonsensical answer; think of it being offered to any other racial or ethnic group.  It is logically flawed.  An old person used to be young, and a heavy or thin person might change their weight, but regardless of religious practice, Jewish heritage is part of an unchangeable identity. As sure as African American, Native American, Latinx or Asian people have unhappy stories of American aggression and "otherness," so do Jewish people. And in conversations about diversity in children's literature and allowing children to see themselves reflected in the literature they read, to exclude Jewish children's literature, particularly at this juncture of revisited history, is irresponsible at best and a form of ethnic erasure at worst. It is especially ugly juxtaposed with the publishing world's flood of salable, sometimes platitude-filled pablum about empathy.  Kindness is as kindness does, and the word is a living thing.  Read and develop collections with g'milut chasadim, or loving kindness, in deed as well as in mind.  My wish for the Jewish New Year.  

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