May 11, 2022 Book review: Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods
I just finished reading Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods, a really wonderful new book of essays. This was a very special read for several reasons.
First of all, because I have an essay (one of 23 essays!) in the book. It was adapted from a blog post I wrote on how Hasidic children’s coloring books depict an incoherent history, by, among other things, showing all Jews throughout history as looking universally Hasidic. This is the first time that one of my blog posts was adapted for publication, and it made me really happy. According to WordPress, I have more than 400 blog posts published here! They span a plethora of mediums, from regular blogs to longer-form to memoirs, videos, podcasts, and cartoons — I obviously like to change it up! This blog has been a great passion for me. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and it helped me find my voice, so it means a lot to me when my work goes somewhere.
But more importantly, this book is one of the first opportunities I’ve had to read other people’s analyses of the rich media and educational culture in the Orthodox Jewish community. As Dainy Bernstein writes in the introduction to the book, “Haredi childhood — and Orthodox childhood in general — is under-studied in the field of Jewish Studies, and it does not appear at all in the field of Childhood studies.” This is tenfold more true for the artifacts of the more conservative Hasidic communities, which get almost no attention as cultural items of interest. It feels to me like it is a giant un-mined world, and rarely does anyone take notice of it.
I find this to be especially astounding considering that the rest of the world is increasingly so homogeneous, and unusual cultural peculiarities are harder and harder to find. For instance, as a tour guide, I meet people from all walks of life, from all over the world, all ages, a whole salad of world accents. Yet they are all connected by common cultural touchstones — everyone still knows the Beatles and Michael Jackson, the classic books and the books that became wild hits. They need to come to New York City to find a community where those universal bits of knowledge are not known, and where a unique set of media shapes the culture.
This makes Hasidic media eye-opening (indeed, seeing Hasidic toys and books is often cited as the #1 most interesting thing to outsiders) and yet, where is the academic or journalistic work on it? As far as I know, I’ve been the only one to try to take notice of the Hasidic artifacts per se, hoping, perhaps ambitiously, perhaps simply stubbornly, to will the genre into existence. To excite others to notice what’s in front of their eyes, and to then enrich each other with different views. To get others to show me new ways of seeing things, to broaden my own world. And with this book, while not on Satmar-style-Hasidim in particular, I really feel like the conversation is, at last, becoming a legitimate one.
Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods has essays from many different Orthodox perspectives, from Hasidic Satmar to Hasidic Lubavitch all the way to the modern orthodox co-ed day school experience. But they all felt familiar and compelling in their own way. I like that the combined effect of the essays was neither sanitized nostalgia nor ex-orthodox typical fare. They are fresh.
The essay ‘From Honey Cakes to Upsherin Cookies: Jewish Mothers at the Beginning of Jewish Boyhood’ by Wendy Love Anderson was one of my favorites. It looks at the customs of upsherins, when a young boy gets his first haircut, and how women are at once explicitly excluded from the moment while also at the center of it. Anderson traces the origins of the custom of inducting a young male into Jewish boyhood with rituals of covering the boy with a cloak and transporting him to his male teacher, to a record by Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah “sometime before 1230.” From there to today, we see how these rituals give the boy over from his mother to his male teacher, with the mother symbolically replaced. In one instance in medieval Jewish custom, the upsherin cake was to be baked by a virgin, preventing the boy’s mother from even baking the cake! Yet the upsherin is a festive moment put together and celebrated by these very mothers — a powerful example of the paradoxical role of Orthodox women: at once central, yet also excluded.
Another essay of note is ‘Cultural Ambivalence Praxis in the Haredi Jewish Industrial Toy Design’ by toy-maker Shlomi Eger. Eger was closely involved in the creation of the figurine toy set Kids Play, which is a less Hasidic version of other orthodox figurine sets like the Shpielmans or the Mitzvah Kinder (and came much later — in 2020 — probably having somewhat modeled itself after the Hasidic innovators).
It was really interesting to me to read about the technical makeup of these figurines, which are manufactured in China, as well as how the toy-makers understand what these toys mean and why they are compelled to create them.
I did not think the essay ‘Parody and Pathos: The Art of Country Yossi’ by Eli Fischer would be particularly interesting to me, because it analyzed the songs of the 1980s orthodox singer Country Yossi, who himself ripped off his songs from 1950s and 1960s country songs. Since I grew up in a world too insular to be permitted access to either of these, I didn’t think I’d appreciate an analysis of the music. But it was in fact, one of the best things I ever read on Orthodox cultural analysis. It was so on the nose. Some of the side-by-side lyrics were funny and fascinating, and Fischer was able to explain concisely what was happening in the process of the translation.
For instance, we look at Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line,’ which Fischer explains is a song about fidelity. In the Country Yossi adaptation, the song is ‘Cause I’m a Jew’, and lists a plethora of bizarre things the singer does because he is a Jew:
Oh, once a year I twirl a chicken over my head,
And it wouldn’t be that bad if it were dead,
And there’s a time when I go outside and burn my bread.
Cause I’m a Jew, I do that too.
Fischer writes, “The image that emerges from these lyrics is that the singer is a Jew who is reflexively observant… The details and origins of particular customs do not interest him.” And so, like the original Cash song, “it is a song about fidelity.” Two very different songs meet at a very powerful juncture: fidelity. I feel compelled to learn both!
Another essay I really loved was ‘Singing in the House of Jacob’ by Sarah Snider. It is a great piece of non-fiction writing that shows what OTD writing can be when it steps out of the trite formulas. The writer is an ambitious woman who was educated in Bais Yaakov but goes on to a presumably very different path from what’s expected of her as she winds up in an MFA program. Yet she writes about the experience of being girls in an all-girls world in a way that transported me to my youth. She reflects on how girls open up when in an all-girls environment, and how small they can suddenly make themselves when in the presence of men. It took me many years to understand this. It took me many years to realize that an all-female environment, while at once marked by exclusion, also creates a space in which girls can sing songs on the top of their lungs about every ridiculous thing under the moon, as they did in Beth Jacob and as we did in Bais Rachel.
There were many more essays I connected to in an unexpected way, including the essay ‘A Zine Called Heresy’ on Modern Orthodox life and the way kids chafed against the rigidity of this kind of ambitious, materialistic, middle-class life. I was moved by the story ‘My Shul, My Place,’ a woman’s sweet quest to find a place in a synagogue, and I absolutely loved the piece ‘A Passover Haggadah with a Refreshing Appreciation of Violence,’ which properly took apart Haggadah art and will forever change the way I look at it. This kind of surprising take is what I hunger for — something I did not see and could not see on my own, but which, through someone else’s perspective, enriches my own.
I’m so glad to see this project and to have been a small part of it, and I hope to see more of this kind of conversation. In the meanwhile, check out my blog archives for a properly nerdy collection of Hasidic artifacts like collectors’ cards, children’s toys, media, and more!