Check out Weilerstein’s first Rosh Hashanah story here.
As promised, here’s a story from Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s 1942 book What the Moon Brought. I was planning on posting text, but I decided to record a read-aloud instead. I woke up this morning with a scratchy throat, which actually makes me sound better and more soothing, I think…
If you and/or your child listens to and enjoys this, please let me know in the comments! I would be delighted to hear about it.
I recently (like, earlier this week) acquired a 1944 edition What the Moon Brought by Sadie Rose Weilerstein (first edition 1942) and a more recent reprinting of holiday K’tonton stories by the same author (stories published 1930-1935). The stories, as some Amazon reviews note, are dated. The style is of a bygone era. In some ways it’s simpler than today’s stories. The Amazon review I read first scorned the story about Debbie and Ruth watering the flowers, and the bees providing honey in gratitude. Ironically, the reviewer suggests that readers “Try K’tonton instead” – K’tonton, which was published earlier than What the Moon Brought, has apparently aged better, according to this reviewer.
But the Rosh Hashana story in What the Moon Brought reminded me of a record I grew up with:
In this story, Fuzzy and Buzzy the Bees are trying to make honey for Rosh Hashana per the queen bee’s command. Fuzzy buzzes around Eli’s head, and Eli hits Fuzzy with a garden hose. Fuzzy loses his honey and worries that the queen will be upset him, but Buzzy gives Fuzzy half of her honey. The queen tastes the honey and says that Buzzy’s is extra-special, thick and delicious. Buzzy is crowned, and the narrator says “to do mitzvos makes your life sweet, indeed!”
Is this saccharine? Sure. Would I give it to my kids? Well, no, because I don’t have kids, don’t plan on having kids, and wouldn’t raise them with Jewish texts. But my approach as a scholar makes all these texts equally important. And, yes, there’s a huge element of nostalgia – I listen to I Hear a Mitzvah every so often, and enjoy it!
I hadn’t known about Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s books until a few weeks ago, when Yaffa Ganz mentioned them in her answers to my questions about her own books. Written over the decade from 1990-2000, the ten books in Ganz’s holiday series feature a dove, Chaggai HaYonah, who lives with the siblings Bina and Benny, and teaches them about each holiday. Illustrated by Liat Benyaminy Ariel in amazing detail, these books were also a huge part of my childhood.
All of this sent me down a path of memory and nostalgia – mine and others’ – just in time for the Yomim Noraim (the High Holy Days). In honor of that, I’m going to share excerpts from these texts over the next few days.
Shana tova to everyone, and may the coming year bring more joy, less sorrow; more beauty, less pain; more sense, less stupidity; more compassion, less hatred; more life, less death.
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.
I skipped yesterday – or I took a day off yesterday, whichever way I want to see it. Because when I sat down to gather my notes and thoughts on Labels for Laibel, I remembered that my notes included reminders to read up on some theory and scholarship on various aspects of picture books in order to write this chapter. I spent a good few hours chasing down the sources I had bookmarked, skimming the abstracts, and planning to read more fully later, after dinner, or maybe before class today.
And then I remembered that the point of writing these posts is to force myself to just write up my thoughts, and leave the secondary sources for later. I can add them in later.
So this post is based on a close reading of the text, and I’m very likely missing some key points about picture books here – but I’ll get to that later, I’ll add that in later. Meanwhile, here are some preliminary observations.
Note: Follow-up post here.
Labels for Laibel is, as many comment on Twitter whenever I tweet about the book, a classic. It was published in 1990, in the second year of Hachai Publishing’s existence. Hachai publishes only children’s books, as opposed to the other publishers who mainly publish books for adults, with children’s books making up only a small segment of their catalogs. Unlike the other major haredi publishers, which are unaffiliated with any particular sect, Hachai is affiliated with Lubavitch. It was founded and is still run by Lubavitcher hasidim (but Lubavitch / Chabad hasidism is very different from most other hasidic sects, and actually aligns far more with haredi ideology than with Satmar or Bobov or Belz etc). The children’s books published by Hachai are used widely in haredi schools and homes, and many of the earliest titles have never gone out of print from 1989 until today.
The author of Labels for Laibel, Dina Rosenfeld, is now also an editor at Hachai. In her Goodreads bio, she writes that “As a preschool Hebrew teacher, she simply could not find age-appropriate, full color picture books for her 4-year-old students and decided to create children’s stories of her own.” Of course, age-appropriate, full-color picture books did exist for 4-year-olds – but Rosenfeld is thinking specifically of an audience of haredi preschoolers. The books that Rosenfeld wrote – beginning with The Very Best Place for a Penny and A Tree Full of Mitzvos – were not just full-color and age-appropriate, they were also imbued with Jewish values of tzedakah and mitzvos.
I found it interesting that, unlike other haredi picture books like the ones from the Artscroll Middos Series (which I may post about later), Labels for Laibel does not include any Biblical or Talmudic phrases at the end. The Artscroll Middos Books all end with a verse from Torah or Gemara to encapsulate the lesson meant to be learned by the end of the book – midvar sheker tirchak (distance yourself from untruths), or v’ahavta le-rai’acha kamocha (love your friend as yourself). One of Hachai’s most popular books, Messes of Dresses, ends with the verse from Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), aizehu ashir, ha-same’ach be-chelko (who is rich, one who is happy with his lot). But Labels for Laibel ends simply with the line “sharing is something all people must do,” with no reference to Jewish texts.
The book follows two brothers, Yossi and Laibel. It is the first in a series where the pattern remains the same: Yossi is the brother with good and pure instincts, and Laibel is the brother who falls easily into temptation. In Yossi and Laibel Hot on the Trail, Laibel is lazy while Yossi wants to help others, and in Yossi and Laibel On the Ball, Laibel is judgmental while Yossi accepts everyone for who they are. But in the first book, Yossi falls prey to Laibel’s bad influence: Laibel refuses to share and decides to label all his belongings so everyone would know not to touch his stuff, and Yossi follows his example. When the mother and father follow suit and label all the stuff in the kitchen and driveway, denying the boys dinner and play space, the two brothers learn their lesson that “sharing is something all people must do.”
The lesson about sharing is one that can be found in many many mainstream picture books. After all, picture books are often used to teach children about social interactions. But the way the lesson appears in mainstream books differs slightly from the way it’s presented in Labels for Laibel.
This may be due in part to the fact that in most haredi picture books teaching character, the lesson is not actually about social interactions: the lessons, as I mentioned, are often presented via verses from Torah and Talmud. The format imparts the idea that these lessons are not about learning to get along well with others, but about being good Jews and following the lessons of the Torah.
So while most mainstream picture books about sharing take place in a setting where adults are peripheral figures – places like school, the playground, or on play dates – Labels for Laibel takes place in a family home. While mainstream picture books have the children learning to share because they miss their friends or discover that playing alone is no fun, Yossi and Laibel learn to share because their parents mimic their selfish behavior and deny them food and care.
In some ways, the role of the parents in this book is similar to the role of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in the books of that name: Extending normal childlike behavior to absurdity in an effort to make the child regret that behavior. After all, it is normal for children to stake claims of ownership and to refuse to share. But it is not normal for adults – who have grown past the inability to understand social interactions – to refuse to share basic necessities like food.
At the end of the book, the illustrations (by the legendary illustrator of haredi children’s texts as well as comics, Norman Nodel) show the parents peeking around the doorway of the boys’ bedroom as the brothers look at each other with wide smiles and their arms around each other’s shoulders, a wastebasket overflowing with discarded labels in the corner.
The parents have not preached about the benefits of sharing or the drawbacks of greediness (though, sidenote: I found it amusing that this Jewish Book Council review from 2011 calls the book “preachy” when in fact, it’s no more preachy than any other book trying to teach children about social interactions). The children have learned the lesson on their own.
And yet, there’s something disturbing about that lesson being taught when the children are denied basic food and care. After all, it is very different when children claim “their albums with pictures, their albums with stamps, the microscope, mirror, and two football lamps” (16), and when parents claim basic necessities like food and dishes. A child screaming “it’s mine, no one can touch it!” is learning boundaries and personal possession. A mother saying “Every night I share all of the food, but somehow, tonight I’m just not in the mood!” (22) is… child abuse, let’s face it.
The father’s denial of the car and driveway, and of “my clothes, my reclining chair, slippers, and new garden hose, my briefcase, shoe polish, my tools and umbrella” (27) has less of an impact on the children’s well-being. That points to the gendered roles of the parents which the books solidifies – the mother’s realm, her labeled belongings, are in the kitchen, while the father’s realm and labeled belongings are outside the home, in the toolbox, and in personal comfort.
Regardless of the gendered difference of impact on the children’s immediate well-being, the book (unintentionally) equates a child’s unwillingness to share chips, soda, books, etc., with a parent’s unwillingness to care for their children.
If you ask any haredi reader – myself included before I started doing a deep analysis of the book – that’s not the lesson at all. The lesson is about sharing! Seeing child abuse in a cute fun story is sick! So people might say.
And yet, there is value in noticing the forlorn looks on the brothers’ faces as they follow their mother, who carries her used dishes to the kitchen with a satisfied smile on her face.
If Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s remedies are reminiscent of “bad trips” (Horn), the parents’ manipulation in Labels for Laibel is certainly emotionally abusive. Rather than allowing the children to learn their lessons on their own – as with books like Llama Llama Time to Share or The Squirrels Who Squabbled – this book requires a manufactured situation, one which takes all normal social interactions to their extreme.
And the parents never explain to the boys that their selfishness was a ploy, that the boys’ welfare was never at risk – though the reader gets to see that from the parents’ beaming smiles on the last page of the book.
I’m not prepared yet to come to any hard-and-fast conclusions that will make it into my dissertation beyond these initial musings. I need to brush up, do some more reading of my notes and of additional sources on picture books, character education, psychology, etc. So this is it for now…
Hans Robert Jauss says that “the more stereotypically a text repeats the generic, the more inferior is its artistic character and its degree of historicity” (89). Many haredi texts follow the format of a genre beyond just conforming to generic expectations. They become stereotypes of themselves, repeating the generic formula with no variation. According to Jauss, this makes their artistic character inferior.
And in fact, this is true. They are not feats of artistic success.
But that’s not their purpose. Haredi fiction, including children’s fiction, does not concern itself with artistic qualities. It’s difficult to say that haredi literature is artistically inferior, because creation of art is not one of its purposes. Its goal is almost always pedagogical, meant to teach lessons about life, about Judaism, about faith and community and family, etc.
For example, the individual books of the Holocaust Diaries series, published by CIS, all follow the same format. The books in this series are intended for all ages, but most of them have been abridged and repackaged for adolescents. The books are easily abridged because they follow the same format: At the beginning of each book, for 3-5 chapters, the narrator tells us about their life in pre-war Europe. There’s a clear demarcation that sets off this idyllic pre-war life and the beginning of the Holocaust. The years of the Holocaust are narrated in detail, and this section ends with liberation, searching for any surviving family members, surveying the damage done, and resolving to build a new life. The final section details post-war life, usually in America or Palestine.
The abridged versions simply lift the clearly demarcated middle section for a self-contained story about the Holocaust.
The repetition of the genre allows the lesson of the series to be laid out clearly in each book. The beginning emphasizes the innocence and beauty of pre-war life. Very rarely is there mention of conflict in these early sections. The middle emphasizes suffering, sacrifice, and saintliness; and the final section emphasizes survival and rebirth. Each book tells the story of suffering and survival, and as a whole, the series and the genre hammers home the lesson that the Jewish people lead a cyclical existence of suffering and survival, and that faith sustains them.
Sisters in the Storm: Chanka’s Holocaust Story
Anna (or Chanka) is a young teenager at the beginning of the war. She alternately describes herself as a “teenager” and a “child,” in fact. When explaining why it was safer for her than for her father or brother to go out in the Nazi-filled streets, she says, “They were looking for men they could put to work, not teenage girls” (24). Just two pages later, describing the family’s reaction to their Polish neighbor’s sudden rage and attempted attack on their father, she says, “We children were shocked beyond comprehension” (26). She also paints herself as a child when she narrates her first encounter with marching German soldiers and her Polish neighbor: “I was too innocent to be frightened by the Germans, so I ran after the marchers so I could watch, too” (22).
Throughout the book, including the opening chapters of the abridged version, Chanka is one of the strongest in her family. She gets things done. She is the one who goes to the agency to get a horse cart for Mammeshe when they’re forced to move into the ghetto. She is the one who wakes up in middle of the night to witness Mammeshe’s suffering, she is the one who tells her older brother that they must find a new place to live, and she goes with him. She is constantly unafraid – but rarely with “innocence” as she claims here. No, she understands exactly what is happening, and she is full of rage. So why does she call herself “innocent” here? Why does she call herself a child? Why not just call herself an aware and angry teenager consistently?
The answer to that may lie in the conceit of the book. It is an autobiography, presumably. But there is a possibility that this was ghostwritten (I have been trying to contact CIS with no luck – if anyone has a lead and can put me in touch with them, I would be very grateful). Either way, though, this book was written decades after the events, and the voice is not of a teenager. Although the series is called “Holocaust Diaries,” the format of the books does not attempt to mimic diaries. It is, instead, a rather straightforward historical account. The narrative focuses on a main character, but very little character development happens.
According to the publisher, Rabbi Yisroel Yosef Reinman (the same man who wrote the Ruach Ami series under the name Avner Gold), the purpose of the Holocaust Diaries series was “to assemble an organized body of holocaust literature written from the Orthodox perspective, a unified body of literature that would stand as an everlasting testament to the invincibility of the Jewish spirit nurtured on Torah, mitzvos and unstinting devotion to the Ribono Shel Olam” (17).
On the decision to present these stories as autobiographies, little rationale is given, other than that the collection would be limited to “distinguished autobiographical accounts by survivors, with as wide a variation of experience and locale as possible” (17).
Earlier on this same page, in discussing Sisters in the Storm specifically, the “wide variation” is somewhat negated: “Sisters in the Storm is a story that is remarkable in its typicality, a highly readable story that provides deep insight into the thoughts and feelings of all those who passed through the inhuman crucible of German fiendishness, of those who perished and those who survived” (17).
The difference, I think, is where the variation occurs. Yes, the series provides wide variation of “experience and locale.” But precisely because the experience and locale vary so much, the uniformity of the “thoughts and feelings” is emphasized. There is, after all, a formula to these books.
And that formula exists for a specific purpose – to provide a Torah-focused narrative, to combat the secular genre of Holocaust literature. As Rabbi Reinman writes in the introduction to Late Reflections, the first book in the Holocaust Diaries series: “It is accepted without question that we must record the awful events of the holocaust as an everlasting testimony for posterity…but somehow, when all is said and done, this secular holocaust literature falls short of the mark” (12).
The question Reinman asks of these secular texts is “after we have turned the last page and shed the last tear, what remains with us, what do we take back with us into our everyday existence?” He anticipates the answer of “never again,” and goes on to ask rhetorically “Are we to remember in order to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy? How? By appealing to the conscience of the gentile world? Bitter experience has taught us the futility of such hopes” (12).
Ultimately, after positing and rejecting a few more possible outcomes, Reinman concludes that “Judaica holocaust literature does give substance and meaning to the memories we must record for posterity” (13), and that
Judaica holocaust literature teaches us that the holocaust was a war between the Jewish people and the German Amalek-incarnate. It was a war of the carnal brute against the sublime spirit, the profane against the holy. And in the end, the Jewish people emerged victorious, because the Germans could only destroy their bodies but not their souls and spirits.Late Reflections, 14
The point of The Holocaust Diaries series is clear: to show the sacred triumph of religious Judaism and to solidify the idea that all non-Jews are untrustworthy – that no matter how friendly they are, non-Jews by definition hate Jews, and especially religious Jews.
In Sisters in the Storm, Chanka’s Polish neighbor, once neighborly enough, chases her father with a wooden beam and informs on him to the Gestapo. When Chanka and her sister Sarah return to their home in Lodz after the end of the war, their non-Jewish landlord Karol is surprised to see them. After finding strangers living in their family home, the two sisters walk through the courtyard. Upon seeing them, Karol exclaims, “Why, I thought you had died long ago! But why are you here? What do you want here?” (176-177), proving (according to the text) that the war had brought to the fore all the anti-Semitism and hatred that always lies just below the surface.
Earlier, when Chanka and Sarah have been liberated and are being taken care of by a kind German benefactor, Chanka muses, “if only a few more gentiles would have been as kind as this one-eyed peasant woman, many more Jews would have managed to survive the war” (164).
The full book of Sisters in the Storm, as with all Holocaust Diaries books, follows Chanka and Sarah for years after the war. The sisters move to Israel and set up a new life, with a new family. But the abridged version, the text packaged specifically for adolescents, ends on the line, “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I became determined to find some way to leave Poland and to make my way to Eretz Yisrael” (189). The last few pages talk about attempts to rebuild life in Poland, with girls living in crowded apartments and trading horror stories from the past years, and with brief accounts of the dangers they faced in post-war Poland, at the mercy of their Polish landlords who (allegedly) killed at least one of their roommates.
Ending the book for teenagers on this note helps further the ideology of isolation, rejection of an outside world presumed to be hostile, and a focus on Israel as the only safe place for Jews.
Every Child a Reader hosts Children’s Book Week every year. I’ve decided to use this week (as much as I can) to push myself to write pieces of my dissertation by focusing on specific texts. I begin with a book for which I have notes but had not – until now! – written about formally. Hopefully, this week-long exercise will help me write – something I have not done in a long while now… Most of these posts (if I even make it through the week) will be under-developed and messy, random thoughts as I work through each text quickly.
The first text I’m looking at is The Promised Child by Avner Gold, the first book of the Ruach Ami Series.
The Ruach Ami Series follows the Pulichever family, beginning with Mendel Pulichever, in seventeenth-century Poland. The family – and the town of Pulichev – is fictional. But the series traces real historical events, like the pogroms of 1648 and the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.
In the first book of the series, Reb Mendel and his wife are desperate to have a child. They despair of having someone to carry on the distinguished Pulichever dynasty, and they struggle with their motivations for even wanting a child. They admit wanting to “fill a void” (maternal) and to keep the rabbinic dynasty going (paternal). Both of these are confessed to as improper motivations. The correct motivation is the desire to bring more glory to god via a child, another life, another Jew who will serve god and obey his commandments. Eventually, they receive a blessing from the great rabbi in Krakow, who foresees that the child comes with a heavy price.
When their child, Shloimele, is born, everyone loves him. He is smart and bright and happy. Shloimele is a darling of the town and everyone feels entitled to “the extraordinary child” as one of their own – a sense of communal ownership. The conflict comes when the local priest, Zbiegnew Mzlateslavski, also feels entitled to the boy. He plots to kidnap the child when Reb Mendel and his wife are taking Shloimele back to Krakow for his third birthday.
Shloimele is then raised in a monastery, while Reb Mendel and his wife mourn but never give up hope.
When Shloimele – now Gregor Tal – is grown and has become a bishop, Mzlateslavski sets up an evil scheme where Gregor must debate Reb Mendel and if the Jews lose the theological debate, they will be expelled from Poland. Gregor decides to visit Pulichev to scope out his competition – he is an unwilling participant in the debate – and arrives just in time for Kol Nidrei. His soul is awakened, he and Reb Mendel discover that he is in fact Shloimele, and the family is reunited. Shloimele and Reb Mendel plot to expose Mzlateslavski at the debate, and Shloimele comes home to begin learning Torah and resume his life as a Jew.
The first edition of The Promised Child, published in 1983, includes a brief note from the publisher as a preface:
The Promised Child by Avner Gold is the inaugural volume of the Ruach Ami Series published by C.I.S./ Publications Division. This series will feature middle and full length works of fiction and anthologies of short stories whose themes are the unquenchable spirit and heroism of the Jewish people. The Editorial Staff of C.I.S./ Publications Division is carefully selecting material that is not only inspiring but also of high literary quality, both in style and structure. It is our hope that The Promised Child and future volumes will truly portray the ruach ami – “the spirit of my people” – of past and present.Gold, Avner. The Promised Child, 1st edition. CIS: 1983 (p7).
As Malka Schaps points out, CIS was originally a fund-raising mailing service for yeshivas in Lakewood, N.J. (“The One-way Mirror: Israel and the Diaspora in Contemporary Orthodox Literature.” Shofar 16.2 (1998): 36). The Ruach Ami series was their first venture into publishing, and the series met with wild success. In 1985, CIS published a new edition of the book, this time with an introduction by the author.
According to Avner Gold, surreptitiously identified by his non-pseudonymous name in the signature by his initials “Y.Y.R.,” the purpose of historical Jewish fiction is to portray the ordinary man, full of faults. Biographies of great rabbis, the author claims, can’t show faults because that would be leshon hora – spreading gossip. But if all our accounts of the past are full of flawless, godlike men, readers won’t feel that these men have any connection or significance to their own lives. Historical fiction provides the opportunity to portray ordinary people of the past, struggling with their own flaws and temptations, so that readers can learn the lessons of history more easily.
But Shloimele is named an extraordinary child from birth. The reason he is the object of the priest’s “evil” attention is his remarkability. For much of the first few chapters, when Shloimele is a child, he does not seem like an ordinary child at all. He is more accommodating to strangers, he is kind and selfless and understands things like leaving his father alone during Torah study. That’s not normal behavior for a toddler younger than three years old. In fact, the descriptions sound exactly like the hagiographic biographies of gedolim.
One of his few moments of “normal” childlike behavior is when he’s traveling with his parents to Krakow. As any child might be, he is drawn to the brightly-colored packet the priest has given to his parents, and he opens it up. In doing so, he reveals a stack of blank papers. His mother, the Rebetzin, first scolds him and says, “that’s not yours” – a typical statement to children, meant to teach them about ownership and respecting others’ property. Based on the previous descriptions of Shloimele, one would assume that he was already aware of this!
This moment of “normal” childhood is crucial to the plot. If not for Shloimele’s revelation of the packet’s contents, Reb Mendel would not have known with certainty (or perhaps even suspected) the priest’s involvement in the kidnapping. The stack of blank papers puzzles Reb Mendel and his wife, and when Shloimele is snatched during a stop on the road, they conclude (correctly) that the brightly-colored packet was meant to help the kidnappers identify the child they were to snatch.
One of the things I’m interested in is this disconnect between claiming to represent “real” children, “real” people, and the actuality of near-perfect characters in fiction. The children in later books set in contemporary America, like The Baker’s Dozen, The B.Y. Times, and The Cheery Bim Band – contain flawed characters. But historical fiction is not afforded the same leniency. Even when the series author claims flaws as a purpose, it seems the nostalgia of the past is not easy to shrug off – even in fiction.
The other aspect of the series I’m interested in (but won’t write about at length here) is the way Jews are portrayed in relation to their Christian neighbors, and vice versa. The last few pages of The Promised Child are heavy-handed about the boundaries of Jewish identity, not feeling excluded from Christian society, Jewish solidarity, etc. There’s a lot of talk about changing darkness into light, about Gregor leaving the darkness of Christianity to come back to the light of Judaism – with no real explanation for why Christianity is darkness and Judaism is light. It’s assumed that this is accepted by the reader, as it almost certainly was. Christians throughout the book seem sincere in their belief (the text doesn’t imply that they “believe” only to be able to harm the Jews, but that they do deeply and sincerely believe in Christ). But their belief is mocked, even though it pretty much parallels Jewish belief (in divine guidance, etc). At the very end, the Cardinal who oversees the debate is mocked: he is described as a drooling old man, in sharp contrast to the usual portrayals of elderly Jewish rabbonim whose old age is venerated. But to hear what I think about all that, you’ll need to wait for my dissertation (and maybe nudge me to get writing).
Image is not mine. Check out the full strip at http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1758.
A few hours ago, I taught a Zoom class on The Merchant of Venice. We hadn’t been scheduled to read this text now. But two weeks ago, before the originally-scheduled spring break, I looked at the upcoming weeks – Chaucer! Miller’s Tale! – and despaired. I was already feeling depressed about how all my carefully-crafted plans had gone to complete shit. Thinking about teaching students how to read Middle English, walking them through the plot of the Miller’s Tale, having them grasp the bawdiness – look, I know how to do it, I’ve done it before, but the idea of trying to do that via Slack and Zoom was overwhelming and I just. couldn’t. face it.
So I switched the texts for the next weeks.
We had two weeks between sessions instead of the usual one week, and I’ve been reading The Merchant of Venice with my high school Skype student, so I figured – why not just skip to that text now. To hell with the carefully-crafted schedule that goes by genre. Jump to a text I feel super-comfortable with, one I’m already teaching online (though in a different format) and can easily adapt to.
Over the two weeks while my student read the play, I continued teaching my other class, because technically we weren’t on spring break anymore (see: CUNY’s “recalibration” period) and that class was at the very beginning and very end of the originally-scheduled break anyway. I also participated in a Zoom faculty meeting.
And – more importantly – I rested and relaxed. I spent weekends away from email, unavailable to answer questions on Slack, not thinking about or planning for classes in any way shape or form. I read a whole book!! You know how long it’s been since I started a YA book for pleasure and finished it in less than 24 hours? (Incidentally, that book was Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor, a book which include 3 main characters, of whom 2 are lesbian and 1 asexual and aromantic!)
I decided to make one change before my class was scheduled to meet again: I offered students options. Their two options were 1) Zoom: continue as we’ve been doing, with reading the texts before class, participating on Slack, and coming to Zoom class sessions; or 2) Writing: read the text, participate on Slack as much or as little as you want, submit 2-4 short writing assignment per week to BlackBoard – and don’t come to Zoom classes (unless you have time and feel like it). Most students chose the Zoom option. A few opted in to the Writing option. That made me feel a little better, at least, in terms of managing my expectations for students. (In class earlier tonight, I asked them about what spurred their choices and got some feedback that will be useful for fall – because yeah, I’m totally operating under the assumption we’ll be online for the first month or two at least.)
And then tonight’s class.
I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about it. Like I said in my previous post, I had basically decided to give up. And that meant that for this class, I relied heavily on Stephen Greenblatt’s online course from Harvard – I had given my students the link and asked them to sign up with a free account. They wouldn’t be able to post to the course, but they would have access to all the videos and content. For the writing assignments (for students who opted in to the Writing choice) I copied over all the questions from that course, and I sorted them into a) questions I wanted students to focus on and b) some that were optional.
So I decided to use that in the Zoom class as well.
Now, here’s the thing. The questions that I used were definitely not mine (and students of course knew this). But I accidentally ended up structuring the class exactly the way I normally structure my face-to-face classes:
- Start with a free-write. In person, I usually put a prompt on the board, either via a PowerPoint slide or simply writing on the board. I used Zoom’s whiteboard function now: I typed out a prompt and asked students to write for ten minutes. I asked them to write in a Google doc, a Word doc, an email or text message draft, or a note app on their phones. After 10 minutes, I asked them to copy their free-writes into Slack as a reply to my prompt. The prompt was simple, and exactly the kind of prompt I usually give: choose a passage from the text, write about it, explain why that passage interests you. (In-person, this functions to settle conversations that have been happening before class, give latecomers a chance to slip in and get settled, and help set the focus on the text with the intent of encouraging students to always refer back to the text during discussion. Here, purpose #3 stayed the same, but there were no conversations to settle. It did allow latecomers to slip in and get settled, though – especially since, for some reason that I cannot figure out, students never seem to remember where the Zoom link is, despite my sharing it anew before every class…)
- Groupwork. My classes are always, always structured around groupwork. I didn’t know Zoom allowed that for the first couple weeks. When I discovered that (thanks Facebook-hivemind), I started using it more. But I wasn’t thinking about it as regular groupwork – I was trying to be all fancy with allowing students to share their screens or whatever, to make use of the tech we now had at our disposal. This time, I gave them the list of questions I had prepared for the Writing-option students by copying them from the Harvard course. I put the Zoom students into groups of 3-4, and I asked each group to choose any 2 questions from that list, discuss each question for 10 minutes, and have one person write up and post the 2 responses to Slack. Normally I would assign questions to each group, and normally I do that based on how the students sort themselves out (I’d give the more basic-comprehension questions to groups with mainly students who are struggling to keep up, and I’d give the more complex analytical questions to groups with mainly students who were capable of taking the discussion that far AND making sure no one is left behind in the group). I didn’t have that luxury here, but it worked out fine.
- Full-class discussion, go over the groupwork. I always pop in and out groups in person, and I can do the same on Zoom. So I knew which questions they all were discussing. I deleted all the others from the document I had open on my laptop. When they had all posted their responses and rejoined the main meeting, I shared my screen with them and we went over the questions one at a time. I responded to their written responses, and a decent conversation ensued, where students clarified things they had written or responded to my additional questions, or simply added their own thoughts.
- Clips from a performance. This part didn’t go so well, because there’s something wrong with the sound on my laptop, I think. But I had already explained to my students what I wanted to show them (clips from the Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, which isn’t available freely). And they were amazingly patient with me as I tried to fix my sound, and then put up with the very low sound as they watched and read the subtitles. Organically, without my prompting, a little chat popped up in Zoom as they recognized one of the actors as being a Game of Thrones actor (no one pointed out that Lorenzo was the Christmas Prince, but ah well). I loved that they were text-chatting on the side. (I may have said “focus! :)” in response to their discussion, because the moment was super-serious and I wanted them to feel the chills of the scene [the added scene of Shylock’s conversion with Jessica weeping and wailing nearby] but I did actually love that that happened.)
Look, I know all the experts were telling us not to try to do things majorly differently, from the start they told us to aim low. I tried to keep things simple, but I was still thinking in terms of “online teaching.” But you know what? In aiming low, I was able to keep aiming high (forgive the cheesiness, it’s late, I had a celebratory drink, and I’m high on success). This class session went so. freaking. well. And it was in large part because I stopped trying so hard!! How do you like that.
And now we’re heading back to Chaucer for next week.
I sent a long, detailed email (knowing students will likely not read the whole thing, but that’s okay) with links to resources for reading Middle English and understanding Chaucer – but rather than thinking of this as an online class, I’m continuing to think of it as just the same as before. I usually try to teach a mini-lesson on reading Middle English the class before they need to read, but this is fine – they’ll read the text, probably not understand it (which I said in the email), we’ll work on understanding the plot next week, and the following week we can move to deeper discussion and analysis of the text.
So… yeah. Once I stopped thinking of this as the scary new way of teaching, once I went back to my tried-and-true in-person methods (with some variations, I’ll concede that) class went bee-yoo-tifully.
A week ago, I posted the instructions for moving online that I sent to my students. (Was it really only a week ago…?) It was so clear, so detailed, so hopeful, so… delusional.
Most of my students managed to get onto Slack and Zoom, the two digital tools I chose to use for my classes. Many filled out the Google Forms survey asking about their accessibility needs and preferences. Slowly, students started interacting on Slack. Then one class met on Zoom, and things were going well. We were settling into our new normal.
The next class didn’t meet until this past Tuesday, but we were interacting via email and Slack. There were glitches and hitches, and I began to rethink what I was expecting my students to do. By the time we Zoomed on Tuesday, I had decided to abandon the second and third papers of the semester. It was hard enough to communicate about the texts – some students are of an -ahem- older generation as returning students, and they were really struggling with the tech. Even students who were okay with it were obviously juggling multiple emails from multiple instructors, and as much as it would be great if everyone would have adopted my organization suggestions (charts for each class with times of video meeting and deadlines for written work etc), that… was not happening.
We met on Tuesday. It was a decent class. Our class was “normally” scheduled to meet for 2.5 hours once a week. We spent 1.5 hours on Zoom, despite my original plans to keep the meeting under an hour. Most of that time was spent on learning how to use Slack and going over the plans for the rest of the semester.
Then CUNY announced a “Recalibration” period, giving us another week off to give students more time to request and acquire laptops and iPads as needed. They also said that our spring break – always scheduled over Passover at CUNY – was to be cut short, now only April 8 – April 10. Yep, I got those dates right. Spring break is 2 days. In a way, that makes sense. We had a week “off” to move our classes online, and we have another week “off” now again. So we don’t need another break, right?
Well, look, I have given up on thinking I can plan more than a week ahead – if even that. I did update the reading schedule for both classes (thankfully, the YA class can remain the same since we had planned to spend two weeks reading our current book, each student at their own pace and when they can).
I cut a few texts: to my dismay, I cut an excerpt from Sometimes We Tell the Truth from my medieval and early modern survey. In the past, I’ve paired Reeve’s Tale from the YA retelling with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for a conversation about quyting and scholarship on Chaucer. And I was supposed to present a paper at the New Chaucer Society’s July conference in Durham about how I use YA texts in a medieval survey class, but of course, that’s not happening…
Today I met with my YA class for the second time. We’re still in middle of reading Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and my students are having some amazing conversations on Slack – better than they had in f2f classes, actually.
But our hour-long session today was spent on reviewing assignments, discussing anxieties over how the course will be graded now, learning and practicing how to post entries for their reading list (annotated bibliography) assignment – and then the whole thing broke down into a sharing circle as one student told us that their friend had died from apparent coronavirus yesterday, and another student shared that they had tested positive but that they’re feeling better now, and then students unmuted themselves one at a time and shared their anxieties, and I stopped responding and just sat back with tears in the corners of my eyes and let them talk to each other.
We didn’t discuss the book or their Slack conversations at all. I have given up.
No, I haven’t given up. I’ve shifted my priorities. Last week, I was saying that professors have to boil down their curricula to the absolute necessities and cut the rest. I wasn’t really taking my own advice, though I thought I was. It has become clear to me that the goals of my class can no longer be anything like what they were before.
Before, my goals were to have students survey the primary texts and understand the conversations in the respective scholarly fields.
Now, my goal is to have students talking to me and to each other, maintaining sanity, maintaining community. We do that through reading and talking about our books. We do that by escaping into the worlds of shapeshifter families and dancing plagues, of medieval trans heroes and sheep-thieves.
If they engage with the texts and keep their minds off whatever nonsense is happening in the world and in their lives, that’s good. If they learn something from my course goals, even better. But I will not be making lecture videos for them to watch anymore, I will not be giving them additional assignments to aid comprehension. I will be more active in Slack than I had planned to be.
And most of all, I will stop proclaiming what I will do in anything more than one week increments, if that.
When CUNY shut down for a week, my class was at the tail end of reading and discussing Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
The disruption meant that we had one planned class left for discussing the book, but everyone was so disoriented and worried about the world that it was difficult to think about returning to the book in a substantial way when we reconvened online (or at least, that was my impression). I also didn’t want to a) leave loose ends hanging for this book or b) start a new book AND a new platform at the same time.
So it worked out pretty well: I was able to ask students to play around with the new platforms using a text we’d already discussed. They were able to gather their thoughts on the book and get comfortable with these new online tools at the same time. And moving forward into the next week, they’re beginning to read the next book, now that they’ve gotten a bit comfortable with a whole new way of learning.
Here’s how I worked it all:
On Sunday, I emailed the full document outlining the plans for the semester. That document (posted here) gave instructions for accessing Slack and Zoom, the two online platforms I settled on. When students entered Slack, they were asked to post in a #confirmation channel, just saying hi so I could keep track of who accessed the Slack, and to get them posting, even if only one word. On Monday, I posted to the #random channel with an image of some blackout poems I had created. The purpose of this was to get them used to seeing the #random channel as a place for easy informal conversation, and to allow them to post their own images. In this class, no one responded until Wednesday, when I posted an image of my tea infuser, a cat chasing a fish.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I sent another email with a few PowerPoint slides. My hope was that this would provide stability and reassure students by giving them a concrete plan. The other purposes were to provide a review of what we had talked about in previous classes, which seemed like a lifetime ago, and to encourage them (but not require them) to begin using Slack. And also to provide a bit of levity – see the “Whistling in the Dark” slide, which links to this video and this one.
On Thursday, we had out first Zoom lesson. I started by asking students to, one by one, tell us about how they’ve been feeling and/or something they’ve begun to incorporate into their routine now that everything is different. It was good for a number of reasons. My primary reasons for doing that were to 1) hear their voices and 2) make sure everyone knows how to mute themselves 😉
It went way over the time I thought it would (it took 30 minutes to get through everyone) but was so worth it. I felt the sense of community that we had before coming back as they talked about their jobs and their families and various worries. Everyone was tense and a bit formal at the start, and by the end we were back to our usual loose, comfortable atmosphere. Moving into talking about Slack and the assignments etc was a lot easier after that.
Students also fiddled with Zoom while we met and found features I hadn’t known about – I had been asking for them to physically show me a thumbs up if they understood/were on board with something I said. They discovered the ability to send a thumbs up emoji, and I will incorporate that in future Zoom sessions! They also discovered the ability to digitally raise their hands, which lets me know who has a question and works better than the in-video chat window.
When we had all gotten comfortable again, I asked if anyone had any questions or concerns. There were a couple questions and some general anxiety about how the class will work. I addressed those briefly, and moved seamlessly into a synchronous demonstration of how Slack works. Via Zoom, I shared my screen with everyone and showed them:
- how to switch between classes on Slack, since many of them are attending multiple classes on Slack now.
- how to find the channels that may not appear in their menu right away (on both desktop and mobile).
- how to post to a channel.
- how to reply to someone else’s comment or question.
- where to post general queries and where to post text- or assignment-specific thoughts.
- how to privately message me.
- how posting shorter comments works better than long responses to my prompts, to facilitate conversation among their peers.
I then asked everyone to post one comment or question about The Inexplicable Logic of My Life in that book’s channel. The comments came flying in – almost all of them were immediately comfortable with the platform, and it was clear that they had been thinking about the book quite a bit! There were a few snags, which was part of why I asked them to do this, of course – to identify any problems and enable us to troubleshoot. Three students had issues, and I was able to help them while the rest of the class posted and read each other’s posts.
After everyone had posted, I asked them to respond to at least one classmate’s comment or question. The purpose here was to make sure they knew how to start a thread (Slack’s interface isn’t entirely intuitive for that) and also to reinforce the message that “I agree with you” is not enough of an engagement. Once they got that, the responses – again – came flying in, and I very much enjoyed watching the conversations unfold. For me, it was like listening in to groupwork as I usually do during in-person classes. It reassured me that this will work!
Finally, I showed them the #reading-list channel, which is a variation on an assignment I had literally given to them the day before CUNY shut down for a week.
I then asked them if they had any other questions or concerns. They did, of course 🙂 I answered them, we reviewed the requirements for the following week (read The Sisters of the Winter Wood at your own pace; engage ten times on Slack, but no I’m not literally counting ten times; try to set aside two half-hour chunks of the week to be on Slack rather than checking in constantly or at the last second; video-lectures and PowerPoints and relevant links will be posted to the #sisters-winter-wood channel and BlackBoard).
(We did not get to talk about the songs in the book, which is a disappointment to me. But c’est la vie!)
And then, with a sense of relief, hope, and determination (at least on my part), we said goodbye, to meet again in a week’s time!