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On the Bookshelf

What makes a Jew: Family? Community? Books?

Josh Lambert
July 06, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Talk of Jewish genetics notwithstanding, virtually every Jewish community agrees in practice that its members are made, not born. Why else would they pour so much time and effort into education? In Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn (Princeton, September), Fordham assistant professor Ayala Fader explores how young girls in Brooklyn learn to be Hasidic women. While hers surely is not, as her publisher claims, “the first book about bringing up Hasidic Jewish girls in North America,” at least not in any broad sense—what about Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader(1995) or Stephanie Wellen Levine’s Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers (2003)?—Fader relies on years of ethnographic fieldwork in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn during which she delved deeply into girls’ everyday life and what she terms “Hasidic English,” a Yiddish-inflected hybrid evolving among these women.

It’s not just Fader’s subjects who have been carefully educated and socialized into their gender roles and traditions, as Jewish Cooking Boot Camp: The Modern Girl’s Guide to Cooking Like Your Jewish Grandmother (Globe Pequot, August) amply demonstrates. Written and compiled by the daughter-mother team of Andrea Marks Carniero and Roz Marks, this cookbook promises to teach recipes “handed down over the centuries” to “even the most kitchen-challenged gal (or guy)”—though evidently someone involved with the book’s subtitle pegged the ideal audience as female. Keep in mind, though, that Joel Russ and Yonah Schimmel were nobody’s grandmothers.

As these examples suggest, approaches to transforming children into Jews in the contemporary United States range widely, and Learning and Community: Jewish Supplementary Schools in the Twenty-First Century (Brandeis, July), edited by the historian Jack Wertheimer, exhibits more of that variety. Through its 10 chapters, each a collaboration between an academic and one of the educational professionals who run these schools, the collection posits that “under the proper conditions, supplementary schools are able to give children positive Jewish experiences,” a point that would not need to be proved if such schools garnered more respect in popular culture—think Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews”—and in the memories of their former pupils. Still, given how many children do pass through a religious supplementary school of one sort or another, the Avi Chai Foundation, which sponsored the project, can be applauded for its attempt to highlight the successes that remain possible in such institutions. [Editor’s note: two members of the Avi Chai Foundation’s board of directors also serve as directors on the board of Tablet parent Nextbook Inc.]

Books play rather direct roles in educating and socializing children, too, at least in the Jewish families with which I’m familiar, and Jewish children’s publishers cater to parents’ desires to familiarize their kids with obscure details of traditions and history. Sure, tashlich—the Rosh Hashana tradition in which crumbs of bread representing sins get balled up and thrown into bodies of water as a form of expiation—may be a folk tradition, without especially deep roots in Jewish theology or ritual. But it’s charming and popular, and April Halprin Wayland’s New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashana Story(Dial, June, ages five-eight), set in a Southern California beach town, cheerfully embraces it.

The prolific Jacqueline Dembar Greene, author of the collection of storybooks accompanying the release of the first Jewish American Girl doll, meanwhile revisits the Spanish Inquisition in another Rosh Hashana story. The Secret Shofar of Barcelona(Kar-Ben, August, ages five-eight) features a crypto-Jew longing to hear the sound of the tekiyah. Greene has presumably airbrushed out the grisliest aspects of her tale’s setting, as it seems unlikely that a watercolor auto-da-fé would have much educational merit.

Neither, presumably, would the rape of Dinah or the long genealogical lists found in the early books of the Torah, all of which have sensibly been excluded from The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible(JPS, July). Yet in assembling 53 stories and “tailoring” them, Ellen Frankel, until recently the CEO of the Jewish Publication Society, has wisely not bowdlerized the NJPS translation any more than necessary. She allows many of the Torah’s more disturbing moments to stand, including Lot’s rather unsavory offering up of his two unmarried daughters to a mob of pleasure-seeking Sodomites.

Perhaps because education remains key to the maintenance of Jewish identity and culture, American Jews tend to invest deeply in schooling, and not only for their own offspring. Michael Rosen’s What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse (PublicAffairs, July) describes how in 1998, he and his wife, both highly educated, well-to-do Jewish professionals, welcomed five poor African-American and Latino teens into their home. Stopping short of formal adoption, Rosen blended them, along with his two younger adopted sons, into a single family unit, thereby transforming his penthouse apartment overlooking the Lower East Side into an unusual laboratory for young adults’ intellectual and social development. One result: the kids “found out what a synagogue was and began calling themselves half-Jewish.” But that’s not Rosen’s primary hope for these young men, now well into their 20s; as he remarks in his Father’s Day video addressed to their murdered, jailed, or absent fathers, “Nothing is more important than good grades and graduating from college.”

Most American Jews will never find themselves in a situation like Rosen’s, nor will they have to decide, as Deborah Copaken Kogan did, whether or not to allow their children to appear in films. As she relates in one essay in Hell Is Other Parents and Other Tales of Maternal Combustion (Voice, August), Kogan reluctantly allowed her son to audition partly because of her husband Paul’s experience, as a child refusenik in the USSR, starring in a movie alongside his twin brother. Eventually, her sons appeared in Joshua (2007), and one played Young Spock in the new Star Trek. Like Rosen’s, Kogan’s parenting choices may not find favor with all readers—and her humorous stories may not either—but they offer a window onto another sort of modern American Jewish family.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.