March 18, 2020 Hasidic kids learn an incoherent world history
I have a compulsion to collect coloring books. Specifically, Hasidic children’s coloring books that tell the creationist story of history. I have tens of these thin large books with the black lines and white empty insides. I buy the Yiddish books for me, the adult, who, but for this post, doesn’t color. I buy because I feel compelled to see, with adult eyes, the stories that were so innocent in my youth. When I was a kid, ah, I spent hours coloring a single stream in turquoise blue and cerulean and blue-green. I saw in the images just the lovey reflection of my own artistic creation. But with mature eyes, I see something else. I see that these books tell a terrible story of history.
The Biblical Coloring Books
Coloring books that illustrate the story of the Bible are the most important piece of religious education in the very young Hasidic years. From when a Hasidic child begins school, which is sometimes before age three, the child’s school curriculum consists of spending each week on the parsha. For the uninitiated, let me explain what the parsha is:
The Torah is divided into parshes, or portions, one for each week of the year. Each week, Jews everywhere and of all ages will be focused on the same segment, studying it in schools, reading it in synagogues.In a kindergarten class, the parsha is a big deal. It’s the basis of the curriculum. Children will have various programs to learn, read, create, around the weekly narrative. In the weeks of early October, it might be about how God created the world ex-nihiloh. A particularly good kindergarten teacher will turn off the lights and tell the story of how God said, “Let there be light!” slowly, unwinding the drama so that thirty little faces sit on the floor with their eyes bulging. The class will then create an arts and crafts project to depict this; perhaps to show the creation of the planets, children will eagerly tape star stickers on to a round paper plate and paste a yellow moon on the side. And as part of this weekly curriculum, for some hours of the week, the children will color the pictures of this story on copies from the famous biblical coloring books—those that I colored dozens of times myself, and that I now have here, white and uncolored.
Since Hasidic children do not watch television, there is very little visual storytelling for young children. Sure, there are picture books with cartoons, and there are some collectors books about nature. But the only coherent image of the story of the world comes from the parsha coloring books. The parsha drawings aren’t very sophisticated; some are decidedly bad. I remember us crowding around one and laughing at the awful angle that made the humans in the picture seem deformed. Other versions, especially the illustrations by a Mrs. Acker in Canada, were beloved by all.
Of course, it never occurred to any of us to look beyond the drawing skills and analyze the historical correctness or to look for anachronisms. It was the Torah! It was god’s word! It was apostasy to question the stories with the texts of the Bible sitting right up there above the images! All of the problems, so glaring, are visible to me now.
How the books imagine Jews and Jewishness
In Hasidic coloring books, the Jewish guys look—yes, prepare to be a bit confused—a lot like modern Hasidim Jews. No, not just Moses at Mount Sinai. All the way down the line to the First Man, the look is twentieth century Ashkenazi shtetl Jew. From the very beginning, God said, “Let there be man,” and man came about with sidecurls styled just so with dippity-do gel, with a respectable beard, with a kaftan and belt. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, the Jewish kings, the story of Persia—all of them look just like this!
The first image below is the Hasidic creation story, the second and third are two illustrations culled from Google:
Imagining how a Jew looks
Here is what happens when you grow up seeing all Jewish historical figures looking like a disciple of the Baal Shem and a customer of G&G Designer Men’s Hasidic Suits: you imagine that Jews all look a particular way. That to be a Jew is for a man to have sidecurls and a nice long beard and kaftan; to be a Jewess is to wear long robes and modestly covered hair upon marriage, to have many children as part of the look, and of course, to have a demure demeanor so distinct, it whispers shyly from a still black and white coloring page. You also learn that gentiles look a particular way, them Johnny-goys with the jeans and cap and hooligan-looking dungarees and t-shirts and goatees and balding heads and sideburns, feh.
The message absorbed is simple and so strong: that only people who look like Adam and Eve are Jews. There is a complete collapse of all forms of Judaism into Hasidism; there is no understanding of Jewish history. It’s no surprise then that Hasidic kids would think the folks on my tours are all “goyim.” I’ve been called a goy by a wide-eyed kid who said out loud “Mammi, the goy speaks Yiddish,” after which the parents apologized profusely. I had never taken offense, could never take offense. Of course the child would think me a goy, what with my dungarees and complete absence of a good brood of babies or a better show of demureness. Of course children would think that Jews in western dress are goyim. It’s what they see. Visual lessons are powerful.
Language complicates the problem: in Yiddish, a yid speaks Yiddish and observes Yiddishkeit. In English, we have two words: Yiddish and Jewish. So in English we might have a Yiddish speaking Jew and and an English speaking Jew. But for Hasidic kids, the line between Yiddish and Yid does not linguistically exist, so they believe that to be a Yid (Jew) one must speak Yiddish and express Yiddishkeit (religiosity).
Someone who left the fold told me that an Uber driver asked him where his accent was from. “I told him,” the friend tells me “that I used to be Jewish.” That was a strange answer, surely no one would be the wiser for hearing it! But the friend had meant to say that he left Yiddishkeit, and in literally translating it he also said something culturally completely different—because between Yiddish and Jewish lies a chasm of different contexts.
A History that Denies History
But while this narrow definition of “Jew” is problematic, one can unlearn it simply enough. At some point in adulthood, we all realize that the umbrella for Jews is larger, that there are people who look like Johnny-goys who go to Temple and have bar mitzvahs and also know about the parsha, and after being tickled some, we recalibrate. We figure, okay, so the braided-Miss- Weiss look we once called “Jewish” is actually ”Hasidic,” or ”Orthodox,” and that Jews can look other ways too.
The bigger problem in these depictions is that they tell Hasidic kids that there is no history. History, as it happened in response to world events and inventions, never happened. History, as it developed driven by human inventions of the wheel, the boat, writing, money, printing, domesticated animals, weapons, etcetera, etcetera…none of this exists. This is because in the Hasidic children’s books, everything exists within the same historic time. It’s always a few hundred years ago, with plain houses, animal driven transportation, markets, weapons of arrows and batons, pants and linens (not running water—it’s always the age of wells). Adam, as soon as he is cast out of the Garden of Eden, dives right into agriculture. His first tool is not a jug or an arrow carved from stone; it’s a full shovel from Home Depot. Later, but still in the dawn of time, Noah sits inside his abode with the lovely curtains, while outside his window the Johnny-goyim have two story homes with chimneys and a lovely storefront with a little awning; we’re almost in Brooklyn. My favorite historical anachronism is from Genesis, when the matriarch Rivkah’s naughty and covetous brother takes off to steal some jewelry, and guess what he has in his pocket, of course, a Nokia car phone from 1999.
What happens when you think all of history stood still in the same technological time? You don’t understand the very basis for history. You don’t understand the mechanism. You don’t realize that many of the drastic changes in history were driven by inventions that were put to great and awful use. You have a completely timeless and confused mix of names and dates, but you don’t have the story.
This is hard to unlearn. So hard. For me, it was the most overwhelming education. It’s just too hard to piece the million fragments together. It clicked for me after I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I realized then that there was a timeline and that it was no use to know that there was a King Alexander and Columbus if I could not understand the larger context. I still lived in Monroe then, but I had a laptop, and every time I came across some new information, I put it inside a giant excel spreadsheet titled “timeline.” I had no idea which figure was important and which was the most irrelevant piece of information that only a weirdo would bring up. I had no idea what was part of the story and what was not. But I am a stubborn little johnny-Jew and I kind of figured it out enough that eventually, I could take in new information and place it into the larger story.
But it was a lot of deliberate work that most people will not do. That most people will not know to do. And so, Hasidic kids grow up without even knowing that they don’t know history. They might learn about this war and that treaty, but what a terrible thing it is not to know the story of humanity. Our great human strength is our ability to make stories out of all the disparate pieces, and as far as stories go, this one is a really good one.