At midnight today / last night, I posted some musings about Labels for Laibel. I knew frum people would not like my take, but I wasn’t quite expecting the pushback I got from some non-haredi friends. Still, I’m grateful for their comments because they helped me identify where my writing was not as clear as I wanted. So here’s a quick follow-up to address some of their concerns – for the record, I stand by what I wrote! This post is just to clarify some things I left unclear in that original post.
First, the concerns that friends had:
- “There might be a false dichotomy between authoritarian lessons (because Torah says so) and between learning negative consequences of selfishness.”
- “How much of this is celebrating child abuse – and I agree with you that it is creepy as hell – as much as just a not very creative plot?”
- “It’s cut out of sending you to bed with no dinner a la Where the Wild Things Are, a hopefully archaic parenting practice…I’m reluctant to fully judge it out of the context of its own environment.”
- “I don’t remember how long they go without food. How long is it?”
- “It’s a spoof to show the kids how they themselves benefit from other people sharing, and how the world is a better place when we share… The parents used this as a quick teaching tool, not as an absolute principle.”
So, let’s start with point #1, because points #2-5 are actually all about the same thing.
I didn’t intend to imply that there is a “dichotomy between authoritarian lessons (because Torah says so) and between learning negative consequences of selfishness.” I will discuss this more when I focus on the Artscroll Middos Series, which quotes Torah. But the gist of that is – of course, the books demonstrate social interactions and the benefits of good social behavior.
In The Little Old Lady Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep, the children who are making noise and preventing their elderly neighbor from falling asleep learn that they need to be considerate of others through the very real, very personal example of their neighbor. But the book encapsulates the lesson with a Torah quote: ve-ahavta le-rei’acha kamocha, you should love your friend as yourself.
In the Hachai book Messes of Dresses, the protagonist learns to be happy with fewer dresses when she realizes that her obsession with fancy dresses has lost her all her friends – a very real, very personal lesson based on social interactions. But again, the book encapsulates the lesson with a quote from Mishnah: aizehu ashir, ha-same’ach be-chelko – who is rich, one who is happy with his lot.
Children reading these books will certainly get the idea that good middos are about social interactions. But they also get the message that good social interactions are based not only on what works with others, but on what the Torah says about these social interactions. The books help build the child’s ideology that the world functions correctly only when people follow the guidelines of Torah. And my purpose in pointing this out is not to decry this, not at all. It’s simply to note that Deborah Brandt’s idea of sponsors of literacy is clearly at work here – the literature that the child has access to caries the ideological freight of the literacy sponsor.
So, on to the next set of concerns, all of which center on my (admittedly provocative) use of the term “abuse” when referring to the parents’ ploy of pretending not to feed or take care of the children.
First of all, looking at Where the Wild Things Are in connection to this book is a good impulse. I left it out because I was going for brevity, but let’s take a look at it now.
Maurice Sendak published his award-winning, never-out-of-print book in 1963. That’s not quite of the same time as Labels for Laibel, which was published in 1990. Still, the practice of sending children to bed without dinner, as the mother in Where the Wild Things Are does, was still very common in the 1990s.
But there are some key differences to what Where the Wild Things Are does and what Labels for Laibel does.
Max, dressed in his wolf suit and making “mischief of one kind and another,” is disrupting the household. The illustrations show him hammering a rope-sheet into the wall and chasing the terrified dog with a fork. When his mother calls him “WILD THING!” and sends him “to bed without eating anything,” the purpose is to confine him and “cure” him of his wildness.
It may not be best practice recommended by psychologists now, but there’s a clear action-consequence there: Max is running wild and terrorizing other family members, so he must be confined so as not to hurt others. (I think it’s also significant that the text doesn’t say his mother sent him to bed without eating anything, but that “he was sent to bed without eating anything.” There is a clear implication there that he brought this on himself, through the passive construction of his punishment.)
In Labels for Laibel, the “punishment” is not organic or borne of clear action-consequence. It’s a ploy, a manufactured situation, designed to teach the children a lesson. In all the picture books about sharing that I’ve surveyed, the child (or anthropomorphized animal) learns the benefits of sharing and the drawbacks of greediness orgnanically, emphasizing cause-and-effect, action-consequence.
My favorite of these is Robert Munsch’s We Share Everything.
On their first day in kindergarten, Amanda and Jeremiah argue and fight over all the toys, and the teacher tells them again and again: “Now, LOOK! This is kindergarten. In kindergarten we share. We share everything.” Amanda and Jeremiah always respond with “Okay, okay, okay, okay,” signalling exasperation with the saccharine teacher (pictured always with flowers and butterflies surrounding her as she floats over to the arguing kids).
By the end of the book, Amanda and Jeremiah decide to “share” their clothes, and – to the teacher’s fainting horror – all the other kids follow suit, yelling joyfully, “Now LOOK! This is kindergarten. In kindergarten we share… We share everything!”
The book creates a dynamic where the children roll their eyes at the adult and find a way to subvert the lesson about sharing – yes, in kindergarten we share everything. But if the point of sharing everything is to make social interactions more enjoyable – well, so what if the children’s interpretation of enjoyable social interactions does not match the preachy adult’s?
Labels for Laibel does not actually teach the lesson “if you don’t share, social life will be less enjoyable.” It teaches “if you don’t share, someone else can retaliate and not share with you – and that someone can be your parent, and the things they choose not to share may be life-sustaining things like food.”
And it does so not by giving the children agency but by allowing the adults to manipulate the children into that realization. The adult-centered lesson is very much indicative of haredi ideology (the Artscroll Middos Series also often features adults imparting lessons to the children, but more on that in my next blog post – stick around!) The manipulation is unique to Labels for Laibel, as far as I can tell now – other books about social interactions from Artscroll, Feldheim, and Hachai heavily feature adults, but not with the manipulation of this “classic” book.
But, as a couple friends said in different ways – this is just a cute book! It’s not suggesting that parents actually do or should behave this way! It’s a spoof, a quick teaching tool, the result of a not very creative plot – but calling it abusive is going too far, isn’t it?
And okay, yes, calling it abusive was (deliberately?) provocative – or just lazy on my part that I didn’t fully explain what I meant. But let’s go back to Where the Wild Things Are.
One of the key features of Where the Wild Things Are, according to critics, is the ending:
After Max has tired of the wild rumpus with the Wild Things, he sails back home “over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him… and it was still hot.”
Critics have pointed out that what this book does is allow the child reader the freedom to imagine going wild, all with the security of knowing that his mother will not actually let him go to bed “without eating anything.” When he’s done with his wildness, when he wants his Mommy, he can have her – and she will provide him with food.
Labels for Laibel doesn’t do that. To answer the question of how long the mother in Labels for Laibel withholds food – well, we don’t know. The book never shows us that the boys get to eat and play in the driveway. We assume that they do – but the child reader doesn’t get to see that.
Again, I want to reiterate that I am not claiming that this book is abusive. Scores of children have read and enjoyed this book without thinking “oh no, Mommy might not feed me if she’s feeling selfish.” But I am less interested in the actual child reader for now, and more interested in what the corpus of haredi children’s texts implies about haredi ideologies of childhood, parenthood, education, socialization, etc.
What this “spoof” or “quick teaching tool” or “not very creative plot” says about haredi ideology – I don’t know yet. I need to put this book in conversation with the other picture books from Artscroll, Feldheim, and Hachai. No conclusions yet. But as I said in my previous post, it is well worth analyzing the dynamics of the book and thinking about the rhetorical moves it makes – and the main thing I noticed upon close examination was the problematic way that the boys learn their lesson about sharing.