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Curses

The Torah and the recent hit children’s book Go the F**k to Sleep both stress the importance of being aware not only of kind words but of damning ones as well

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An illustration by Ricardo Cortés from Go the Fuck to Sleep. (Akashic Books)

Earlier this month, a young author from Brooklyn named Adam Mansbach appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Mansbach had written several well-received novels, including The End of the Jews, an intriguing and spirited account of two Jewish writers, an old literary lion and his grandson, who battle each other for material and inspiration. But he wasn’t on New York public radio to talk about Jews or novels; he was there to discuss his latest work, the picture book Go the Fuck to Sleep.

Few literary efforts in recent memory have received the sort of instant, uproarious attention as Mansbach’s tome, referred to knowingly online as GTFTS. The book began as a Facebook joke, hit the top spot on Amazon.com before its actual release, and became an immediate best-seller, complete with readings by Werner Herzog and Samuel L. Jackson and a film version in development. This is a stellar achievement for any book, but much more so for an illustrated tale for adults revolving around one four-letter word and one exasperating concept, a toddler refusing to succumb to slumber.

But not everyone is happy. As Mansbach was chatting with an audibly thrilled Lehrer—it is not every day that an NPR host gets to say such naughty words, even if bleeped—a disapproving caller came on the air. It was Rosemary Wells, the celebrated author of many illustrated children’s books, a number of which follow the adventures of Max and Ruby, two adorable bunny siblings. Even though GTFTS was clearly intended for adults, Wells said she worried it was sending the wrong message.

“We live in the age of excessive child abuse and vulgarity,” she said, “and I’m very worried about this book validating the kind of talk that most of our underprivileged kids get day and night. In other words, it makes a joke out of something that’s really serious in kids’ lives, too much abusive talk.”

Mansbach parried politely, and Lehrer soon moved on to the next caller, but listeners were left with a lingering sense of conflict. The disagreement between the two authors was caused by more than the natural void separating a young and irreverent novelist and an older, more conservative writer and illustrator. Rather, each author represented, whether knowingly or not, a profound philosophical position. For Wells, civility—and, indeed, civilization—depend on the maintenance of a sacred space in which children can grow up unexposed to bad words and sensationalist sentiments. For Mansbach, there are no sacred spaces and little point in masking the rough emotional terrain we navigate each day with pleasantries or metaphor.

To better understand these positions and their implications, we would do well to read the first lines of this week’s parasha. “Behold,” says God, “I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God … you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim, and the curse at Mount Ebal.”

There are several curious things about this short passage. First is the even-handed and detached tone in which God presents both options; good deeds, he says, deserve blessings and bad deeds a curse, but the consequence of neither is discussed in detail and neither is endorsed. God, put simply, is telling the Israelites that blessings and curses exist, and to remember he commands them to assign to each a mountain, so that the chosen people might have a topographical reminder of good and evil.

The reason behind this peculiar designation has to do with Mansbach’s book. Although Mansbach’s curse words are of a different metaphysical order than God’s—the former releasing some steam at an annoying child, the latter smiting a sinful nation—they stem from the same recognition that kind words are meaningless unless we also know vicious ones, and that we should keep both prominently in our vocabulary, immovable as mountains. God assigns moral values to Ebal and Gerizim so that we may never forget that we have the free will to climb both, pursuing either righteousness or malice. It’s our choice.

And yet Wells, along with many educators, disagrees. When it comes to children, they support a one-mountain solution, an approach that champions showering children with blessings while letting not a curse sneak by. It makes common sense: After all, one can argue, children will have plenty of opportunity to wise up to the vulgarities of the world and needn’t be overly exposed to profanity, especially when they’re too young to contextualize language and grasp its nuances. But such protectiveness isn’t necessarily benevolent: Lacking a way to channel bad feelings—feelings too dense and volatile to flow through the acceptable channels parents and teachers like to promote—children might resort to much worse things than bad words. When cursing at someone in school is anathema, a child is likely to turn to Facebook; by the time he or she logs on, a momentary displeasure with a peer can very likely grow into a deeper resentment, and a four-letter word mushroom into a lengthier, more hurtful screed.

The stratospheric success of Go the Fuck to Sleep, I suspect, had much to do with the frustration we adults feel toward a society that automatically tags certain sentiments as vulgar, telling children that the only appropriate way to resolve conflict is by talking quietly and politely and telling parents that the only feeling permitted is one of contentment and gratitude. Fuck that. We, adults and children alike, are very often mad as hell, for no other reason than being perfectly human. And we need to see both mountains, need to hear all sorts of things, need to know our universe is not all blessing, not impossibly and repressively sweet.

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Wells should just shut the fuck up.

As a mother, illustrator and author, I am bemusedly torn between your comments and those of Rosemary Wells. Each are valid as they stand. While it’s true that children need to be taught the difference between good and evil in everyday speech and actions, it needs to be clear that GTFTS is NOT a book for children, nor should it be marketed as such. Children learn not only what we wish to teach them, but more so by the tacit examples we set for them, which become ingredients in the recipe for their future. The parallel that you have drawn between the effect of this book and Parsha Ki Tavo is striking. However, Parsha Mattot also provides a a thoughtful example of understanding the power of words. It is both their use and misuse that defines their ability to alter both reality and our perception of it. Two entries in my weblog (Imaginarius) look at Parashah Mattot: http://bit.ly/nmg992 and http://bit.ly/qViRjs These are excerpted from my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

Asherz says:

“The stratospheric success of Go the Fuck to Sleep, I suspect, had much to do with the frustration we adults feel toward a society that automatically tags certain sentiments as vulgar, telling children that the only appropriate way to resolve conflict is by talking quietly and politely and telling parents that the only feeling permitted is one of contentment and gratitude. Fuck that.”

Mr. L. thinks that the young should let it all hang out and express themselves with his favorite four letter word. Wonderful. The lack of civility which Lebovitz advocates has resulted in fighting and shootings at football games, and the scenes we are witnessing in London,Athens and Philadelphia.

Trying to take his lesson from the Torah, Lebovitz again misinterprets the meaning of the Torah. When it talks about curses emanating from the Mount of Ebal, the Torah says, ” Cursed be he that distorts the judgment of the stranger, the orphan,and the widow”, it does not advocate telling the errant judge, “F..K yourself”. It is telling the reader that bad behavior will end badly for those that do not act properly. The sages have always advocated lashon sagi nahor or clean speech and euphemisms. Mr. Lebovitz again misses what the Torah is trying to teach us.

Ephraim says:

I’m sorry, how does dropping an f-bomb lead shootings and riots? Did the S&P downgrade cause the earthquake in Washington this week? What logic.

Liel, maybe you are unaware of it but when the curses are read as part of the Torah portion they are read in an especially hushed and soft tone.

Cursing is cursing, hatred is hatred, and it reflects as much, if not more, on the one doing it as on the intended target.

If you are “frustrated” then look at your expectations – they may be and probably are the source of the problem.

If you are “mad as hell” then look at what you believe. Is it true? And is it true for others?

The vulgarity and hatred are exactly what poisons families and communities.

Asherz says:

ephraim,
Here is the logic. A lack of civility and restraint in language in a child will lead to a lack of civility and restraint in the adult and physical manifistations thereof. Ask any psychologist. The Torah teaches you that there are boundaries and limits in all aspects of your life and putting constraints on the basic human instincts, actions and speech. An S&P downgrade reflects the financial condition of the US government and your analogy lacks logic.

Ephraim says:

Guess what, Asherz: children hear bad words when they’re little. My friend told me the f-word when I was five. I watched South Park and other foul-mouthed television shows as a young adult. As far as I know, I haven’t been responsible for any criminal acts of violence.

I understand what you’re saying: swear words are coarse and can lead to other coarse types of behavior. However, this slippery slope mentality does not necessarily reflect reality. There are much greater factors than swear words shaping this “lack of civility” meme you’re describing. If a parent yells at a child using swear words in an abusive manner, that’s entirely different.

Also, if you have any evidence linking swear words to the London riots we’d all love to see it.

@Ephraim: Language was only a detail behind the London riots, but the reality of its power was evident in the license and actions taken with its use. Language is a metaphor that characterizes the deeply disrespectful nature of mob mentality and the deeper disconnect between the words we use and the actions we carry out.

“The stratospheric success of Go the Fuck to Sleep, I suspect, had much to do with the frustration we adults feel toward a society that automatically tags certain sentiments as vulgar, telling children that the only appropriate way to resolve conflict is by talking quietly and politely and telling parents that the only feeling permitted is one of contentment and gratitude.”

Way, way, way over-analyzed! Liel, have you ever had to put a young child to bed night after night reading the same 3 or 4 books over and over again? At some point, it happened to me during the 500th reading of “If You Give A Moose A Muffin,” a parent enters the “parental twilight zone.” I didn’t use profanity though. I just started to read the books like Tom Waits. Dr. Suess never sounded so good.

I’m sorry, how does dropping an f-bomb lead shootings and riots? Did the S&P downgrade cause the earthquake in Washington this week? What logic.

This is not a new phenomenon. Compare this book with Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, which has a similar attitude but without the vulgarity.

Considering that Shel Silverstein’s book came out more than 25 years ago, I can imagine that it could have been more shocking to the sensibilities of the time, even though it didn’t cross the additional threshhold of swearing, after already dragging childhood into the scary realities of the adult world.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine Shel Silverstein *not* inspiring the kinds of sarcasm that we wee in this book and in adult cartoon’s such as South Park and The Simpsons.

Hmm it appears like your blog ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any recommendations for novice blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

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Curses

The Torah and the recent hit children’s book Go the F**k to Sleep both stress the importance of being aware not only of kind words but of damning ones as well

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