I started this post so long ago that I started it, somewhat awkwardly, “I think this book could have gone in my holiday book post, in a way.” And, well, yes, it could have, and I bought it in December and even gave it to a very dear friend in December. And yet– while normally I feel very sheepish about a late post, this time I think I’m glad I sat with this book longer, and mulled it over seriously. That’s what this book feels like it’s for. Books dealing with anti-Semitism that are nevertheless appropriate for young kids are in decidedly short supply, and should be given attention, not rushed into glib reviews. I’m doubling up here to allow the two picture books I will recommend on the subject to talk to each other, and to you.
I have… how do I put this? I have a lot of thoughts about anti-Semitism, Jewish representation in children’s literature, and the shadow of the Holocaust. I think it’s very important to have these conversations, to have them openly, to be firm, open, polite, and direct about Jewishness in books. I also think it’s a really hard, really painful topic, and the enormity of the trauma of the Holocaust, which was so very recent and is still deeply felt, makes it harder to have these conversations. Anti-Semitism did not go away after that traumatic event, though we say “Never again” so often, and said it so recently, weeks after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants were taken hostage in a totally unrelated act of anti-Semitism which nevertheless immediately clicks every brain to that moment in history. It’s automatic, because it was so big, so enormous and so traumatic, to relate every current act of anti-Semitism back to that black, gaping wound in our history.
Right after the hostage-taking, I got a text message: “How do you talk about anti-Semitism with kids? Are there books?” And then I got an email from another friend, and she asked me how to talk about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with children, are there books? (Yeah, I love that question: “Are there books? Can you recommend books?”)
And the first thing I thought was: “Well, good job Lee Wind and Paul O. Zelinsky did Red and Green and Blue and White,” and the next thing I thought was, “Careful with those conversations, friends. There’s still so much trauma and you do not want to hand it wholesale to the kids.” And the third thing I thought was: “Remember that the one person, the one friend, who reached out to check in with me after that hostage-taking in Texas was a Muslim woman, because she knew what it felt like. We have so many friends, and we should learn to talk about these problems openly and honestly and compassionately with them. We have so many friends.”
First, I’ll talk about Red and Green and Blue and White. Then I’ll talk about talking to kids about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, what not to do, why Nicky & Vera is so wonderful, and finally I’m going to urge you to do more than read this book; I’m going to urge you to do more talking about Jews, Judaism, Jewishness, and how to tell Jewish stories.
I love this beautiful book. It tells the story of Isaac and Teresa, a Jewish boy and a Christian girl, who are friends across the street from each other and share a love of both Christmas and Chanukah. That sounds kind of corny, but for me it rang so true! I have a deep and abiding resistance to stories where Jewish kids are jealous of Christmas, because I found so much joy in sharing my Christian friends’ holidays and sharing mine with them. (Usually I found it even more fun having them for Shabbat, it was simply more important to me than Chanukah and I loved sharing it.) They would invite me to help decorate their trees and I would admire how each friend had a different story to their trees, different types of ornaments with different histories. This book taps into that feeling, and it gave me a warm glow. And that glow was what made the shattering glass as a rock breaks the window in front of the Chanukah menorah feel all the more fractured. “Jews aren’t wanted, shouldn’t feel warm glows, shouldn’t feel safe,” is the hissing of the rock breaking the glass. And, indeed, Isaac’s family is scared, despite the immediate police response, but they decide that it’s impossible not to go on lighting their candles: that would be like hiding their Jewishness. And Teresa stands by her friend, putting a picture of a menorah in her own window, and inspiring the whole neighbourhood to do the same, in an act that feels instinctively evocative of the legend that King Christian of Denmark wore the yellow star to rally his citizens to do the same, standing by his Jewish citizens (except this story from Lee Wind is actually based in reality). See? You see how strong the shadow of the Holocaust is, popping up even in my response to this story?
It’s impossible and irresponsible to suppress that mental jump, but, I will warn you from personal experience, too much too quickly for a kid is also traumatic. So what do you do? I can’t tell you what you should do with your own children, but I can tell you my experiences, and my thoughts. I can tell you, also that this book is one of the only ones out there that, in my view, does a good, straightforward, honest job of confronting real-world anti-Semitism today, as well as making children feel reassured that they do have friends who can and will help.
I did not, however, pick up this book the morning after the hostage situation in Texas and run around reading it to kids. I felt shaken, my friends felt shaken, that was not the time. Instead, I went back to basics: I thought in myself, and I talked with my friends and the Changeling, about what discrimination is, anyway? Being religious, we could think about it in those terms, which I found helpful. If all humans are created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elokim, imago Dei, choose your language– I find that soothing, too), then what does that mean when we hurt someone? Is there a limit? Maybe, my daughter once suggested to me, it’s about what you can be, and how you get there, as a person. I liked that. It’s a spark of possibility, that image, but it’s no guarantee. But everyone does have it, whether they get there or not. So if we say that a given group is worse than we are, we’re breaking that rule: we’re saying that they don’t have that image, that it’s wrong. Well, that doesn’t work, so we can’t deny that image is there in everyone. Kids have a strong sense of logic, and I always find it helpful to try to get that logic in order. Adults may not want Jon Klassen’s bear to eat the rabbit in I Want My Hat Back, but every kid expects it to happen. It’s logical.
When you’ve got that sorted (and it may be more necessary to do it in your head than to walk through it with kids), it’s easier. You can get specific. You still don’t strictly need to go into the nitty gritty of anti-Semitism, though; they need a story to relate to, and sometimes a step removed is helpful. I read a Jewish Grade 3 class excerpts from Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Eric Velasquez. I paused when the teacher told young Arturo Schomburg that there was no one and nothing of value in Black history: “Imagine you had a teacher who said that about Jewish history!” There was an angry mutter and one more vocal girl exploded, “That would be horrible!” “Well, that’s how Schomburg felt.” “She shouldn’t have said that!” “You’re right. There are people who say that about Jews, and about Blacks, even today, but, as you’ll see, Schomburg didn’t back down…” And I read on. The story tells itself, the kids relate, you’re just there to highlight it. And I had kids follow up, too.
Depending on the age and the kid, eventually you can get to the Holocaust. It’s important not to hide it, because then it becomes a Big Unknown, and that’s scary. But too much too quickly is simply unnecessary and traumatic, but the balance depends on your kid. For example, at age 8 the Changeling knows there was the Shoah/the Holocaust, that it was a time of great fear and danger to the Jews, she knows about certain particular stories of WWII. What would 6 million mean in her head, though? I don’t know, I haven’t gone there. When we were at the Eric Carle Museum, I drew attention to the fact that Eric Carle’s teacher had secretly shown him “degenerate” art to open his mind, and that this was at great personal risk. What was that about, and who were the artists? Again, we listen to a lot of music in my family. Did you know that Wagner was allowed and encouraged and considered great, but Mahler was not? Why was that?
But I strongly discourage too much vivid historical fiction of the Holocaust until the kid walks there independently, and you’re there as support. I vividly remember lying in bed at night watching car lights go by followed by shadows and hearing dogs bark and expecting the Gestapo. You don’t want to put a kid through that! Historical fiction is vivid, it’s dramatic, it’s very effective, and it’s a terrible idea for young readers about the Holocaust.
My advice is to go small, not big, and focus on people. That’s why this is the one and only picture book to do with the Holocaust I can recommend: Nicky & Vera by Peter Sís (no, he’s not Jewish, and I think that remove may be part of what gave him the space to do this).
Peter Sís’s Nicky & Vera does not talk about the horrors of the Holocaust but also does not in the least minimize or erase them. He uses the story of Nicholas Winton who cancelled a ski vacation to go to Prague and rescue hundreds of children. And then, when he’d done what he could, he never bragged, but quietly lived a good life. And the way Peter Sís does it shows through Vera (a child Winton rescued) that every person is a whole person, a life, unique, truly imago Dei, and it gets at that pure level of logic: “Hey, if that person hadn’t been saved, that kid I see on the page who loved cats there in Prague would have died. And that kid, that whole person who went on the train to England and then lived and did all those things and had kids– that wouldn’t have happened. And that must be true for every kid he saved.” And later they’ll probably realize that there were many who were not saved, and every person who died was a world of potential killed, snuffed out, never allowed to develop, which, yes, is a hard leap. But it’s in the power of the individual that Peter Sís makes his mark there.
That’s what I like to emphasize, because that’s all a kid should be asked to stretch their mind to, honestly. If they can’t do that, they can’t think more broadly later. It has to start with understanding that an individual mattered. So, rationally and emotively, every person is an individual who matters– what a difficult, difficult concept! I have to work on it every day, as, I’m pretty sure, do you. Schomburg worked for my kids in the library because they could relate so clearly to a kid in a classroom being told he and his people didn’t matter. You need that moment to relate to. And if you don’t do that, if you only do the big, traumatic picture, you end up with: a) a story that can be denied or minimized later based on prodding at the big picture history, b) people who want to deny and minimize that story because it’s so horrible. If they can minimize it, they can get away.
I do not think there’s value in the horror just as horror. There’s only value if we can really push that Peter Sís side to it: The side that says we want to hear about each person, each valuable member of the human race, and grow in kindness and compassion and work for better. (The book for grownups that did that for me was Edmund de Waal’s Letters to Camondo.) That level of individuality and compassion is how you get people who reach out to you and say, “Are you OK? I know how scary it is. I feel it, and I know you must. I’m not here to bug you, but I’m here for you, beside you.” And then you feel less alone.
Why don’t we have so many good books representing Jews? Well, honestly I think it’s because we’re still so paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of what was lost that we can’t come around to representing the many beautiful and valuable Jews who have lived and continue to live, and figure out how to tell their stories. I wish that we had more of those. I wish we had stories that told what it’s like to be a kid eating a kosher lunch in the cafeteria at school, a boy in a kippah. I wish there were picture book biographies of Jascha Heifetz, ones that told how when he was a kid studying with Leopold Auer in St Petersburg, Auer registered his father as a student as well to get him a permit to live outside the Pale of Settlement so little Jascha wouldn’t have to live alone. I want a book about Vera Rubin for kids. I want all of this!
But first we need to do the same thing I say we should do with kids: don’t jump into the deep end of the trauma. Remind ourselves that every human being has a spark of the divine. Jews, too. We can relate to each other, and each other’s stories. And then, moving forward, we can look at these stories and, by thinking small, thinking about the individual, we will see the Isaac and Teresa, the Nicky and Vera, in every person, and stand by each other’s stories as we tell them, listening and enjoying, laughing and crying, and learning.