Bibliotherapy is good medicine. That’s why the Association of Jewish Libraries, in response to the tragedy in Pittsburgh and other distressing events across the country, has committed to publishing a series of “Love Your Neighbor”-themed booklists, to help educate non-Jewish kids about Jews and Judaism.
Spearheaded by Heidi Rabinowitz—past president of the Association of Jewish Libraries, library director at Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida, host of The Book of Life podcast, and reviewer for School Library Journal—the first list, devoted to defeating prejudice through children’s literature, went live today at the AJL website. [Full disclosure: I helped! As did a bunch of other children’s book critics and librarians.]
Rabinowitz felt she had to do something. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and the number of incidents in schools—from kindergarten to high school—increased a whopping 94 percent. The first list features “stories of Jews and non-Jews standing up for each other, working out differences, and confronting prejudice.”
“For years, I’ve been saying that Jewish kidlit can save the world,” Rabinowitz told Tablet in an interview. “I’ve always believed that non-Jewish kids befriending Jewish characters on the page can help prevent prejudice from taking root. Obviously, it’s too late for some people, like the Pittsburgh shooter, but maybe we can help other kids grow up better and kinder by giving them these ‘window’ books during their formative years.”
The project began as a conversation on Facebook, Rabinowitz explained. “My friend Susan Kusel, a synagogue librarian—and incidentally, chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee—posted that she was at a loss as to what books to display in her library in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy. A book brainstorm began in the comments, and being librarians, we couldn’t resist organizing and distributing it. We gathered our posse of Jewish kidlit nerds, and about 100 email messages later, we had hammered it into shape. In fact, we had too many themes and titles for a single list, so it’s going to be a series.”
The librarians wrestled to come up with books that were kid-friendly (that is, they do not read like spinach) and represent different voices, genders, time periods, art styles. There are characters of varying backgrounds, and some nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction. The librarians also wanted books that were published recently enough to be easily obtainable. “Most importantly, we wanted books that would make sense to readers who don’t have a Jewish background,” Rabinowitz said. “The point is to build bridges with all kinds of readers.”
The initial impetus was to curate a list of books about friendship between Jews and non-Jews. But Lisa Silverman, library director for the Sperber Library at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, was furious about the non-Jewish “rabbi” joining Vice President Mike Pence on stage and praising Jesus as the Messiah. She insisted that the list be more pointed. “So we focused it on ‘Standing up for Each Other’ instead of on simple friendship,” Rabinowitz said.
Today’s list, intended for families and teachers as well as librarians, features six picture books for younger kids and six chapter books for middle-grade and young-adult readers. There are descriptions of each book, links to IndieBound (which lets you can buy the books and support an independent bookstore), and a printable PDF of the list for easy sharing with your school or community. Rabinowitz deliberately kept the list size small so that it would be unintimidating and user-friendly (and contained no books that even one person hated).
Upcoming lists will serve as a sort of Judaism 101, with books on synagogues and clergy and on diversity within Judaism. AJL welcomes suggestions for other topics, too. Go to the AJL site to check out their choices.