Commentary Magazine


Books for Jewish Children

On a June afternoon in 1819—so we are informed in a recent historical biography written for Jewish children—a young man with the unabashedly Semitic name of Alfred Mordecai presented himself for examination as a new cadet at West Point.

Mordecai? Yes. Noticed your name on the list. Strange name, Mordecai. More like a Biblical first name. What would it be, Welsh?

No, sir, American.

Major Thayer grunted. “Right you are,” he exclaimed. “I meant, of course, American of Welsh descent?”

No, sir, it’s a Jewish name.

“Is that so?” Major Thayer did not seem disturbed. “Very good. I wish you luck on your examination.”

If the current flurry of Jewish children’s books reflects with any accuracy the present educational ideals of American Jewry, one can wonder seriously what that supposedly distinctive cultural group is trying to make of itself. The exchange between Mordecai and the major, as we shall see, strikes the keynote for an important group of recent books for Jewish young people, but the note has a peculiarly hollow ring because in these books so little is sounded either above or below it on the scale.

The most ambitious publishing venture into Jewish juveniles in the past few years is the Covenant Books series, put out by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in conjunction with the Jewish Publication Society. Covenant Books is in many ways an impressive undertaking deserving special attention. In less than four years it has produced thirteen titles, and many more are projected, so one can assume that commercially the enterprise is proving successful. The books all are presented in an attractive format—well printed, competently illustrated, with handsome and, in some cases even artistically striking, jacket drawings. The literary talent is no less impressive. Many of the writers have published serious fiction or poetry; the list includes a translator of Sartre and Eluard as well as regular contributors to magazines such as COMMENTARY and the New Yorker.

With the exception of two Biblical novels by Frieda Clark Hyman, all the Covenant Books are biographies, or rather, biographical novels, intended for readers between the ages of eleven and fifteen. The writing is generally proficient and occasionally shows the mark of literary accomplishment. The narration of battle, for example, in Lloyd Alexander’s August Bondi artistically compresses rapid action into a staccato series of brief, sharply observed flashes of sensory experience.

August wheeled to rejoin his company. The butternut figures were racing across the field. Shouts of attacking men mingled with the rifle fire. Smoke drifted like a giant curtain and turned faces to blurs. Searing pain suddenly filled his chest and stomach and took his breath away. Another impact threw him from the saddle. . . . The hard ground came up to meet him. Overhead the treetops circled dizzily and the horizon disappeared. The sun turned black.

The Covenant Books, however, are not meant to be simply good books for young readers but good books for young Jewish readers. The general statement of purpose that appears on the jackets of the earlier books describes the series as an “expedition into the realms of Jewish experience” and promises that the books “will stimulate the young reader’s interest in his cultural heritage and prove a rewarding spiritual experience.” But one glance at the titles offered by the series is enough to make one wonder about the conception of Jewish experience held by the Covenant editors and about the nature of the cultural heritage they would like their young readers to enjoy.

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If Jewish experience involves some sense of identification with Jewish history, and if the cultural heritage of the Jews is significantly the product of three thousand years of existence as a people, then the view of both presented by Covenant Books is a drastically foreshortened one. Seven of the thirteen stories take place in America. Two other books choose figures who spend at least some important part of their lives in the Western Hemisphere. Apart from Mrs. Hyman’s two novels and Libby Klaperman’s biography of Saadia Gaon, the realms of Jewish experience in the Covenant Books are limited to the last three centuries. And of the individuals selected for the biographies, there are only three whose personal achievements are in any sense contributions to a distinctively Jewish cultural tradition. (Worthy of special mention is Sylvia Rothchild’s biography of Peretz.)

One of the most important values a child can gain from reading historical fiction, biographical or otherwise, is a vivid sense of the past, of what it looked like and felt like to live way back then, in another time and perhaps in another place. The Covenant Books do convey some sense of what it was like to wander through the bustle of New York’s wharves in the 1730’s, or to walk along Washington’s muddy streets in the early 19th century, or to live in a squatter’s hut in pre-Civil War Kansas. But one can learn nothing of how it felt to sit in a Palestinian academy of the law with Rabbi Akiba, under the threat of Roman arms, or to move from royal court to battlefield to literary circle in the medieval Spain of Shmuel Hanagid, or even what it was like to be a penniless young Jew with the improbable ambition of writing Hebrew poetry in the Odessa of Bialik. The heritage in which the Covenant series seeks to interest its youthful readers is quite specifically a heritage for American Jews.

To produce such a heritage where one hardly exists is no easy trick. Jewish history in America really begins only sixty years ago, with the great influx of immigration from Eastern Europe that made the Jews a distinctive and significant group on the American scene. But Covenant Books chooses to begin a full three centuries ago, and what it ends up doing is to present American history with a series of Jews as the principal actors. From the archives of the Jewish Publication Society, from a variety of collections of old letters and yellowed newspapers, the Covenant series manages to conjure up figures to serve as a Jewish Paul Revere, a Jewish John Hancock, and even a Jewish Davey Crockett. The historical material in these books may be for the most part factual, but the composite picture of American history the series suggests is certainly somewhat misleading.

And we are still left with the question of what is distinctively Jewish about the lives of these heroes. The brief dialogue between Alfred Mordecai and the West Point major enunciates the general formula for the entire series of books: one’s Jewishness consists principally in admitting the fact freely and proudly and in not being prevented from living the life of an exemplary American. While a minimum of meaning is attached to the idea of being a Jew, each of these figures participates in the sort of ritual of affirmation that is presented with paradigmatic clarity in the Covenant biography of Emma Lazarus: “I am twice blessed, she thought. A Jew and an American. Without being conscious of the gesture, her shoulders straightened and she held her head up high.” The writer, whose italics these are, is obviously very much conscious of the gesture, as are most of her colleagues in the Covenant series. To be a Jew, they affirm, is almost identical with being an American; in any case, no possible conflict between the two identities is ever imagined. One can rest assured, moreover, that Americans of other faiths—like Mordecai’s major—will invariably greet the self-respecting Jew with at least an open mind. However, given the frequency with which Covenant Books insists on making the compatibility of allegiances its main theme and moral, one suspects that the promoters of the series may in fact be uneasy about the problem of living in the two worlds which they protest too loudly are one.

In any case, many of the authors seem quite uncertain about the Jewishness of their American heroes. (A number of them seem no less uncertain about traditional Jewish culture. There are frequent slips in small factual details: a well-known verse from Samuel I is attributed to the Apocrypha, a Jew recites the “psalms and benedictions” of the psalm-less daily evening service, and so forth.) The general strategy of the Covenant writers is to produce some obvious symbol—a kind of rabbinical stamp—to certify the Jewishness of their thoroughly American figures. August Bondi, for example, is the complete frontiersman. But we do not forget that “the Border Hawk” is also a loyal son of Jewish heritage: “From the heavy belt around his waist swung a new Colt pistol. The old tefillin which he had carried since boyhood were in his saddlebag.”

In Silversmith of Old New York: Myer Myers, a Covenant writer tries to represent being a Jew as a phenomenon of inner life, but the Jewish religious experience which emerges has a peculiarly Protestant tinge. The Jewish colonial hero of this book repeatedly takes stock of his life, in a manner reminiscent of the 18th-century Dissenters, in order to determine whether God is “with him” or whether God has “deserted” him. But Myer Myers, the first of the Covenant Books, is nonetheless an appropriate introduction to the assumption about Judaism that underlies the series as a whole. The role of religion in the life of the American Jew is assumed to be strictly analogous to the role it plays in the life of an American Christian. We go to our synagogues, they to their churches, but mainly we are all good Americans.

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America itself is viewed in a glow of fervent patriotism as a new and unique stage in human history. Before the advent of American democracy, men had been subjected to injustice and oppression. In the new land all this was done away with: its Jews, consequently, could consider themselves to have embarked on a radically new period in their history. The reflections of Louis Fleischner, the protagonist of Northwest Pioneer, are typical:

A dull anger came over him. Perhaps in Europe nobody cared about such matters. People were born either poor or rich, important or unimportant, and that was that. But he was an American. Over there one felt differently about social justice.

It seems hardly an accident that the fourteen titles announced so far by Covenant Books do not include a single Zionist figure. The series, to be sure, is by no means anti-Zionist. It views with favor the fact that Israel exists as a haven for those persecuted Jews who are unable to come to America, and it applauds American Jews who give Israel their sympathy and support. But Israel exists on the periphery of the Jewish world; otherwise it might upset the delicate balance of American religious pluralism achieved by the Covenant series which regards the Jews as a group of coreligionists—not as a people.

On the other hand, Covenant Books clearly bears the mark of Jewish educational notions that belong to the era of Uris’s Exodus. Jews, we are informed in one biography after another, are fighters. This does not mean simply that they are willing to struggle for their ideals or stand up for their rights, but that they are ready to fight with rifle or pistol or fist no matter how great the danger or the physical hardship. As the author of Aboab: First Rabbi of the Americas states the case, “They were Jews: they were tough.” Consequently, Bar Kochba and Judah Maccabee are invoked in these biographies as models of great Jews with almost the same frequency that they are in certain circles in Israel. Emily Hahn, the author of Aboab, goes so far as to have her Amsterdam rabbi use the Book of Maccabees as his text of instruction—in an age when it was unthinkable for a rabbi to teach, or even study, anything from the Apocrypha.

But in Covenant Books one can still be a Jew without being either a practicing member of the faith of Moses or a two-fisted fighter. There are three biographies of non-practicing Jews whose principal achievements are in non-Jewish fields of endeavor: Emma Lazarus, the sculptor Jo Davidson, and Albert Einstein. The conception of Emma Lazarus as an “essentially Jewish” figure is probably defensible; in Einstein’s case, it is problematic; in the case of Jo Davidson, it is certainly questionable. But the biographers assume that their subjects made their contributions to the Western world as Jews—almost, because they were Jews. There is a passage in which Einstein, after leaving Germany for the first time, feels that he is at last free but wonders what use he will make of his freedom. His Covenant biographer then editorializes: “Surely to seek after knowledge, to acquire wisdom. Though he had given up the outward forms of Judaism, he could not help obeying, instinctively, its inner principles.” But is Einstein’s thirst for knowledge really any more Jewish than Newton’s or Heisenberg’s? For the Covenant series, however, to seek wisdom is a distinctive element of the “Jewish heritage” with which the young reader is invited to become acquainted. In the case of Einstein and Jo Davidson, only two more important values need to be added in order to fill out the realm of Jewish experience. The Jew is also a man who seeks self-realization, not only in developing his unique abilities, but in serving some larger community as well; and, concomitantly, he is a man who has the inevitable Jewish concern for social justice. At this point, Covenant Books has drawn precariously close to the conception of Jewishness offered by the consensus of last April’s COMMENTARY symposium. The symposiasts’ Marx-Freud-Einstein trinity of great Jews already has one of its members on the list of children’s biographies, and while Marx must of course remain taboo, it would not be incongruous for a life of Freud to take its place in the Covenant series.

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Another regent entry into the field of Jewish juveniles is Jewish Youth Classics, published by an Orthodox house, Philip Feldheim, Inc. The series deals in “classics”—that is, translations or adaptations for Jewish children of 19th-century books originally written in German. Reading one of the three books that have appeared, I could discover no reason why it. should be called a classic other than the fact that it is a century old. I suspect that for the Orthodox habit of mind, even popular books for children must acquire a respectable age to assure their educational trustworthiness and their Jewish authenticity.

The family y Aguilar, the only nonbiography of the Feldheim books, is a novel of Marrano life based on a book by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann, cited on the jacket as “a leading figure of 19th-century Orthodoxy in Germany.” Two of the three titles in the series are by Rabbi Lehmann. Not having seen the original text of The Family y Aguilar, I am not sure how much of the blame for it should be borne by Rabbi Lehmann and how much by his American adapter. At the very least, it is evident that the latter has only the shakiest grip on the English language. But in any case, the imagination that makes itself felt here is neither that of an educator nor of a novelist. At best, the novel is lurid, thriving on such Gothic extravagances as detailed descriptions of Inquisition tortures. More often, it is simply a lifeless, cliché-ridden narrative. People in employ of the Inquisition are invariably “henchmen,” the villains insist on hiding behind pillars where they rub their hands “with demonic glee,” etc. The plot moves forward through a series of farfetched coincidences, including a life-saving earthquake in the middle of an auto-da-fé. The author, drawing on a different theology from that of the Covenant writers, can invoke a simple explanation each time the machinery of his plot begins to creak: “Divine providence moved again.”

One expects that Jewish content would be an intrinsic part of a novel about Marranos, but I do not find this to be the case in The Family y Aguilar. Of the Covenant Books, at least the two historical novels and the biographies of Saadia and Peretz succeed in making some distinctive Jewish values integral to the adventurous careers of the protagonists. But Rabbi Lehmann’s book encounters the same difficulty as the majority of the Covenant series: it turns out to be a tale of intrigue and adventure over which some sort of Jewish flag is punctually waved with considerable animation. At strategic points, for example, we are reminded that the crypto-Judaic head of the Inquisition [sic] and his Marrano companion take time off from their perilous counterplotting for daily prayers and a Talmud study session. The author of The Family y Aguilar also makes his educational point by sprinkling his narrative liberally with sermonettes; often he has the characters do their own preaching:

Father, I have always been one of you, a true son of my Jewish people. When I planned this escape I did not only think of you and mother and the others. I also thought of myself, of the glittering emptiness and the shallow deception that are my life. I want to belong wholly to you, to my family, my Torah, my people—my Jewish future. Oh, father, I want to be a Jew again!

It may very well be that Rabbi Lehmann’s Marranos were intended to point a moral for the 19th-century German Jewry among whom apostasy was widespread. Presumably the editors of the Feldheim series sense in the masses of assimilated American Jews an analogue to the apostates of the last century, and consequently they feel that the appeal made by The Family y Aguilar is appropriate for our own time and place. If so, the analogy seems to me to be a false one. American Jews have not been forced to abandon their distinctive identity, as the Marranos in fact were forced to do and as the German Jews felt they were. Rather, American Jews at worst have in various ways adulterated or denatured their Jewishness and—witness the trend of Covenant Books—have legitimized their new versions and come to think of them as authentic. The Orthodox Jewish Youth Classics, in contrast to the Covenant series, naturally has a maximal conception of the “Jewish heritage.” The hope is that the young readers will feel responsible not merely for serving the community but for daily study, prayer three times a day, and precise performance of all the commandments. Judging by The Family y Aguilar, however, this appeal is clothed in such badly fitting, anachronistic dress that it will hardly be any more effective than the noble generalities of Covenant’s I-am-an-American line.

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Still another series of biographies for Jewish youngsters has begun to appear during the past three years: the Famous Jews Books published by Vallentine-Mitchell, a London house. A look at the list of names in the titles announced or published by Vallentine-Mitchell is instructive: Moses Montefiore, Herzl, Ben Gurion, Einstein, and Moses Mendelssohn. Again, the foreshortening in historical perspective is worthy of note; thus far, the Vallentine-Mitchell conception of famous Jews goes back less than two hundred years, precisely to the beginning of the Emancipation. In some respects, the British series is moved by a concern similar to that of Covenant Books in demonstrating that one can be a perfectly good Jew and a model citizen of one’s native country. The brief list includes a biography of Montefiore, pre-eminently both an Englishman and a Jew; the life of Mendelssohn quotes from his Jerusalem as follows: “Adapt yourselves to the manners and the constitution of the country in which you live; but hold fast also to the religion of your fathers! Carry both burdens as well as you can. . . .” In connection with this emphasis, Jacqueline Pinto, the biographer of Mendelssohn, can casually write off Jewish history before the Emancipation as “the mental stagnation of the ghetto.”

It is not surprising, on the other hand, that two of the five biographies on the Vallentine-Mitchell list are of Zionist leaders. British Jews may be at least as complacently satisfied with themselves as their American counterparts, but they do not have the same passionate conviction that English freedom has brought Jewry—and mankind—to a radically new point of departure. England is looked upon gratefully, but as the biography of Theodor Herzl indicates, the British Jewish educators feel no compulsion to regard their country with eyes altogether dazzled by the light of patriotism. The Famous Jews series is far from being militantly Zionist, yet its directors apparently feel that the creation of the Jewish state is a major event in the recent history of the Jews and that it should not be relegated to the borders of Jewish experience.

The Vallentine-Mitchell books are competently written, but have little of the imagination and literary aura of Covenant Books. Judging by the vocabulary used, the British writers assume a higher degree of literacy in their young readers. Also they apparently do not feel impelled—as do their American colleagues—to dramatize the biographical material for the youngsters. At their worst, the British lives of famous Jews read more like long encyclopedia listings than exciting biographical narratives.

The ubiquity of the biography in recent publishing projects for Jewish children itself raises a question about educational purposes. Biography no doubt can provide a convenient means of focusing and dramatizing history for young people. And one perfectly legitimate way to approach the unique values of a people or a tradition is through the lives of its great men. But the virtually exclusive emphasis on biography as the way to “get to” Jewish children suggests further implications. Since the varieties of Jewish experience presented in such books start in every case with and from the individual, the reader is led to the inference that being a Jew is basically an individual concern in which one arrives at some strictly personal adjustment both with the Jewish past and with the Jewish community. This individualist—one might say, subjectivist—approach to Judaism may be a justifiable emphasis for some sectors of contemporary Jewish education. However, the predominant use of the biographical form implies something more. Biographies written for young people inevitably stress the notion of self-realization. One begins to get the impression, certainly from some of the Covenant Books, that self-realization is the first obligation of a Jew. Judaism may not be opposed to self-realization, but it is a distortion to suggest that it is the supreme Jewish ideal.

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One welcome sign of relief from the current surfeit of juvenile biographies is a series of informative books for Jewish children by Azriel Eisenberg, published over the last three years by Abelard-Schuman. Dr. Eisenberg apparently assumes, as generations of Jews before him have assumed, that knowledge in itself can be fascinating. His books actually communicate factual material instead of introducing vaguely conceived “values” into stories intended to entertain. Three of his titles have appeared since 1958: The Story of the Jewish Calendar, The Great Discovery (on the Dead Sea Scrolls), and Voices from the Past (an account of some of the great archaeological discoveries that have illuminated our understanding of Jewish history). These books have obviously been thoroughly researched; the writing is uniformly literate and reflects a lively sense of narration; the exposition of the subjects is lucid without being overly simplified. In the last analysis, Dr. Eisenberg’s factual accounts are more intriguing than any of the exemplars of the Jewish cloak-and-dagger or Jewish cowboy-and-Indian genres.

But what is involved here ultimately is the question of whether we are still prepared to assume that the content of the much talked-about Jewish heritage has some intrinsic appeal. Entertaining children’s books that “convey values” may have their place, but the present plethora of them is somewhat disquieting. It is probably not a coincidence that such books are the educational enterprise of a contemporary Jewry whose grand strategy of Jewish life is sugar-coating a diluted pill, whether in youth activities or adult organizations or in the synagogue service itself. It seems to me that if a child is looking for good adventurous reading, he is better off with honest fiction for young people, like the novels of Jules Verne, than he could possibly be with any quasientertaining, quasi-educational narrative in the style of The Family y Aguilar or even of August Bondi. And, on the other hand, when it comes to Jewish education, my personal preference would be to have the children spend their reading time actually learning something Jewish. The Abelard-Schuman series is at least a signpost in the right direction.

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