Rewarding the Jewish past…

I woke up this morning to see that the Sydney Taylor Awards had been announced.  Recently, the National Jewish Book Awards were also announced.

And I love the books on these lists! I love that we have these awards!  But while I’m always so excited to see who’ll win… they often leave me with a big question:

Where is the contemporary Jewish voice?  Where is our daily depiction of what it means to be a kid today?

These books are almost entirely unified by the fact they’re set in the Jewish past. From holocaust narratives to biographies.  And we need these books, to be sure, and they’re awesome… Kids need to learn about these many chapters of Jewish history, from biblical stories through our various diasporas, into the atrocities and great Jewish strides of the early twentieth century.  But…

What are Jews today?

Do we know?  (maybe we aren’t sure) Do we not think our kids need to see themselves reflected in their books?  (maybe we think they’re basically the same as other kids, and so that doesn’t seem important) Do we not think these books are as literary as their historical counterparts?  (maybe they aren’t)  Do we simply not have books to praise? (are publishers not willing to take a risk on a Jewish contemporary voices, since they can so easily be de-Jewed, for bigger sales?)  Or are we simply conditioned to expect the best Jewish books for kids to dwell in the past?  And so we reward books like that…

I have thoughts on this, an essay in the works (not about the awards, but about what Jewish books get published). I have, as you might expect, a loud and overwrought opinion… complete with a timeline of Jewish events and a book list…

But I’m curious to know what you guys think, if you think about this at all…

Is an old-fashioned Jew more Jewish than a newfangled Jew?   I don’t think this is actually about Jewish observance, exactly, because many of the Jews-of-the-past are far from orthodox.

And I don’t think these are questions about the awards, really. I think these are bigger questions– about what we, as a culture, think “Jewish” means.    I think these are questions about how we view our own contemporary identity.  And what we choose to showcase for the non-Jewish world. I don’t have answers, and I’m caught up in this too (at work now on an outline for a historical Jewish YA, as well as a biblical picture book).

And I’m probably wrong, as usual.

But I think it’s well worth discussion.  And as most Jews will tell you, it’s the QUESTIONS that are most interesting.

(and for the record, I didn’t have a horse in this race. And I haven’t written a Jewish contemporary myself.  That’s part  of my question, I guess… Why am *I* not writing authentic Jewish contemporary voices? Why aren’t *you*?  Hmmm….)

10 Responses to “Rewarding the Jewish past…”

  1. Sashi Says:

    I’m working on one!!!! (Jewish contemp.) And I LOVE the questions you’re raising!! Coming from a very secular family, I learned about being Jewish from the Sydney Taylor books. Are we so assimilated into our home cultures that our voice no longer has resonance? Importance? Do we think our struggles aren’t worth writing about? Are over? Aren’t specifically “Jewish” enough? So many interesting questions. I look forward to hearing more comments and definitely interested in your essay. Hope you’ll tweet about it when you finish it.
    Thanks for raising the issue.

  2. Erika M. Says:

    Firstly, for the record, I think your book, Baxter, The Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher, is one of the most contemporary Jewish books for kids that I’ve ever read (female rabbi! allegory for Jews who feel like outsiders to the normative Jewish community!) But I think the issue is that most Jewish kids’ books are meant to be proscriptive (teaching kids about Judaism and how to be Jews), rather than descriptive (dealing with the layered complexities of contemporary Jewish life in all its weirdness). And the majority of kids’ books are actually really moralistic, so I’m not sure this is relegated to Jewish kids’ books.

    Part of the big reason we don’t see many books reflecting the realities of contemporary Jewish culture/religion is that to do so would mean reflecting back: intermarriage, mixed race Jewish families, gay/lesbian rabbis, tattooed Jews, non-Kosher Jews, Jews who keep kosher for Passover but not normally, Jews who have to drag their kids to a sucky Hebrew school, Jews who are ambivalent or troubled about Israel, Jews who live where there are no other Jews. And don’t get me wrong–I would LOVE to see all of these things, as they’d accurately reflect my family and my experiences. But the ‘Jewish establishment’ (can I even make a generalization about an amorphous group?) is (and has been for a long time) pushing an agenda of endogamy, continuity, and ‘authenticity’ (and how that last one is defined is usually historical).

    I mean, I would LOVE to see a book set at Bechol Lashon’s summer camp for multi-racial Jewish kids. I would LOVE to see a non-preachy book that deals with what happens for a Jewish family when Hanukkah falls over Christmas and they go to celebrate both at their Christian grandparents’ house with their Christian cousins. I would love to see a kids’ book that deals with some of the complexities of Israeli life (dati vs. heloni, the stalled peace process), but this would mean describing Judaism as both a religion and culture in all its weird messed up awesome contemporary glory. Instead it gets sanitized and what we get are prescriptive books, rather than descriptive books.

  3. matthue Says:

    At the heart of any good story is conflict, right? And tension, and daring and adventure. And these days, most of the ways Jews interact with Judaism is pretty clean, sanitized, and easy.

    I think there’s a tendency to romanticize and exoticize our past, when Jews were being hunted by Cossacks and Nazis! and persecuted for our beliefs! It’s not that there AREN’T contemporary dilemmas and dramas, but for a lot of us, our Jewish identity isn’t something we’re actively wrestling with and engaging on a daily basis — and so it’s challenging us less frequently, and in ways that are less integral to our identity and our lives.

    Don’t misunderstand me: I think this stuff is OUT there. And it’s HAPPENING. But if you write a book about Jewish kids during the Holocaust or immigrating to America in 1899 and doing their own thing or owning their Judaism, you’re a hero. But if you write about contemporary Jewish kids doing their own thing or owning their Judaism, people will think it’s subversive.

  4. Frume Sarah Says:

    Reading stories about the Jewish past is not so very different from reading the “Little House” series, Caddie Woodlawn, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, etc. There is a certain romanticization of the past that is awfully compelling.

    By no means am I suggesting that there isn’t a need for contemporary stories. However, there is still a great deal of value to have “our” classics sit alongside the American classics. That, in and of itself, is a type of normalcy.

  5. Pamela Gottfried Says:

    I agree with, Erika, but I don’t think such books get published not because they would be considered subversive but because they are not considered marketable. (Maybe, Laurel, that’s why they don’t get written, too?) The Jewish publishing industry–to the extent that it is an established “institution” that wants to achieve commercial success–goes with established authors and stories that it knows will sell to religious schools, synagogue libraries, etc. Also, FrumeSarah is right: that we have classics indicates a certain normalcy or place for Jews in American/world history. It’s hard to remember that we are living in the “middle” of history. If we can get some contemporary stories written and published now, we will be able to measure their success/staying power from the view of 20 years from now.

  6. Leanne Says:

    I agree with Erika M: to write books that reflect contemporary Jewish culture is to be ensnared in all the messiness of what it is to be a Jew. To me, this is this is way more interesting as a reader and a writer than a historical setting. Stories that have mixed-race families, intermarried families, gay family members reflect what’s going on around me in my community. I have found the Jewish literary community to be incredibly open to a book about gay teens, but incredibly closed to books that are at all critical to Israel. The American Jewish Library actually chastised my publisher for publishing my latest book. While I recognize that books that point Israel in a critical light can be dangerous, to me such a book reflects the complexity of modern Judaism.

  7. Shana Says:

    Do you know this book, Laurel? Loved it growning up (not contemporary, but was 40 years ago). Interesting that we did it then.

  8. laurel Says:

    I don’t know it, but I’ll hunt it down!

  9. Laurie Says:

    Hi Laurel,
    I found your site through your interview about skyping on Liked the interview so I visited your site. Liked the site so I visited your blog. Loved your posts! When I saw this I had to drop a line. There are middle grade books about contemporary Jewish kids-Sarah Darer Littman’s “Confessions of a Closet Catholic” (yes Jewish protagonist conflicted about religion), and Fiona Rosenbloom’s “You Are So Not Invited to my Bat Mitzvah” (though a cell phone conversation from the Bimah on Shabbat wouldn’t fly in most synagogues I know). I’m sure there are others that are out there–and many many more that are probably worthy of publication but won’t get there because of concerns about marketability. And what is a contemporary Jewish family? One with adopted children of different races? Interfaith? Baal t’shevua Orthodox? Morroccan or Syrian descent? (Look at the books in some of the Jewish publishers’ catalogs–you’d think all Jews had an Eastern European background). You see more variety in Jewish family life (though not always realistic) on the Larry David show or Entourage. I’ve had my own experience with this in trying to get stories published. But great good luck with your new PB Laila Tov–it sounds like a winner!

  10. Rachel Says:

    I am half Jewish half Irish (like you I believe?). I recently started Shabbat dinner, and was vastly influenced by Wendy Mogel’s book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. I really like that you are raising these questions. I want to join in the discussion. Great to see all your erudite followers, too. (Finding your beautiful book Good night, laila tov brought me to your site).

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