January 22, 2021 An overview of Hasidic entertainment #2: children’s books
- Part 1: Books for grownups
- Part 2: Children’s books
- Part 3: News, leaflets and mags
- Part 4: Hasidic internet
- Part 5: Audio/Visual
- Part 6: Games
I would say that children’s books are the most important industry, the fastest-growing, and the fastest evolving, in my view anyway. I think this has a lot to do with TV being banned and the need to entertain the kids. News, for instance, an adult entertainment, is partially satisfied by noshing from the web and from texts and phones. Since kids don’t have these mediums, children’s books and toys are a huge industry. Every time I go to Williamsburg I see new things.
A Classic: THE TALES OF THE SAGES
I think this collection, which many of us spent hundreds of bored hours pouring over, would make a great thesis topic, or some kind of analytic essay. Someone should dive into it. This is filled with tropes and storylines and values which are so ever-present that it’s hard to see that they’re even a trope. I did write a bit about this series for the Jewish Daily Forward on the Hasidic persecution complex:
many stories of my childhood focused on the persecution of Jews: Egyptian slavery, the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from nations, pogroms and anti-Jewish decrees, the blood libels and the kidnapping of Jewish children by Christian neighbors to forcefully convert them, Czarist Russia’s many edicts, and of course, the Holocaust. The most popular children’s books were the series “Der Tzeylung fin Tzadikim,” Stories of the Sages, which recounted life in the shtetl and its travails. There were a hundred or so of these thin books with short, illustrated stories on the theme, always with the sage or the poor Jewish innkeeper achieving a happy ending through religious triumph.
On Passover nights, my Holocaust-survivor grandfather used to gather the little ones among the white pillows of his big Passover chair and describe how the Egyptians buried babies in bricks in lieu of cement, among other Egyptian atrocities. And the following day, during the long, sticky hours when we ate lemons dunked in heaps of sugar, he sat on the porch shmoozed with the adults about what we called “the milchoma,” — the war. Stories of hunger, fear, lost loved ones, miracles, times that he and a friend had come within a hair’s width from death.
I was a child and didn’t pay much attention to adult affairs, but I have snippets of memories that are imprinted in my mind as if I had seen these scenes: Here Zeidy is running, here he has frost-bite, here he is carrying a friend, here a Nazi is shooting, here the neighbor fell and is gone, here Zeidy is alive, thank God.
Hasidim love to tell stories, and the drama inherent in the Holocaust made for many great ones. The stories weren’t even necessarily depressing because, like all good Hasidic tales, they had a happy ending where Jewish religious life prevailed, despite — despite! — risk to life and limb. The Jews in the ghetto clung to their Torah scrolls, their menorahs, their kosher, their Yom Kippur. And like all good stories, they were tales of overcoming the most extreme adversity — in this case, the persecution of Jews because they were Jews.
The sense of persecution is what drives the Hasidic stubbornness to hold on to its identity. Hasidim define the survival of the Jewish people as one and the same as the survival of its religious identity. This is what drives the community’s extraordinary efforts to resist assimilation in the 21st-century New York City.
Another classic: A GUIDE FOR THE CHILD
These are Bible stories. We loved these illustrations. They evoke such fond memories in me. There were other illustrators, but no one quite came close to the work of Mrs. Acker.
I wrote an analysis of the incoherent history of this genre of books in my post “Hasidic kids learn an incoherent education.”
I remember when this new genre emerged: the scientific, worldly stuff. This material was neither stories about sages from Eastern Europe nor stories from the Bible. They were not even stories at all. They were encyclopedic! The very first one I remember was called The World and All in It. Each book focused on something else; animals, planets, climates. A kind of National Geographic with an underlying moral: the world is a miracle creation of god. This underlying moral makes it kosher, and gives permission to feed the curiosity for new genres.
The hunger with which people devour this little morsel of fascinating information is part of what leaves people so hungry for more, and so in awe of secular “academics.”
The series pictured here is an updated, fancier version, and I’ve seen other approaches to the subject. Naturally, everything is carefully curated to avoid the heretical.
One book pictured is on the wonder of nature and the other is on large animals.
This is the new. Makes me feel like a complete foreigner. I didn’t grow up with this genre, but this new method of storytelling is booming. Lots of humorous stories and dramatic fiction are now depicted in this format.
The most important category is the Midos genre, or what I call “social-emotional learning.”
I love to show these books to my tourists. I think they are very interesting because these books are focused on social-emotional learning. If you juxtapose them with modern kids’ books, most kids’ books are very focused on advancing children in academics. Alphabets and numbers, counting and words. There is some focus on learning tolerance and such, and a lot of fantastic fantastical children’s books, but nothing like what Hasidim have: outright lessons on interpersonal skills.
A sampling of titles:
- Shmilly is Everyone’s Friend
- Velvel is Jealous
- Not Later, but Now
- The New Chaim’l
- Zanvill tells the truth
- Sarah’la finds her joy
There are now a lot of electronic books. There is a hunger for technology’s dazzling entertainment abilities, and whatever can be produced within these limitations is produced. My mother has given me some of these over the years. They usually have Hasidic music next to the pages.
Adaptations from English
As always, there are adaptations from English. Sometimes they are legitimate translations, often they are plain ripoffs.
This one is interesting because both of these were produced by the same team of activists for children’s safety. But the Yiddish version is very different from the English version. Play spot the differences and see what you can find!
Translations from translations from translations
People Speak and the kids’ version of it, Children Speak, were hugely popular contraband books when I was a kid. They were not yet available in English. They’re essentially Chicken Soup for the Soul adapted for People Speak which is adapted as “Children Tell their Experiences.” I think this is the first trickling of first-person introspective writing styles, the first of the modern memoir genre, becoming part of the culture.
You can see that the translator’s job is to clean up the story for the Yiddish reader. In the English story the father is a garbage collector (we say sanitation worker now?) and in the Yiddish the father is a bus driver. I don’t really think it’s censorship. I just think Yiddish readers would find garbage collector so hard to fathom because it’s so out there.
Some of the values that run through it all:
- Respect for elders [Kibud Av Aa’aym]
- Interpersonal relationships [Va’uhavta]
- Overcoming negative emotions
- Sibling harmony
Some of the beliefs imparted:
- Miracles of sages and holy individuals
- Stories in Eastern Europe of persecution by gentiles
- Value of prayer
- Surviving being tested in faith and returning to faith