By Laurel Snyder
If I’m being really honest, I have to admit I didn’t grow up with an especially strong sense of Jewish children’s literature. In fact, when my first middle grade novel, was published, a librarian asked me what made my books Jewish, and I suddenly realized that NOTHING did. I had to accept the fact that my books were not Jewish at all. Furthermore, I realized that this was probably because the books I’d grown up loving most didn’t have any Jews in them.
Of course, I had The All of a Kind Family books on my shelf. I had The Diary of Anne Frank. And Zlateh the Goat. But though I loved them, these books felt old to me, historical, almost like Jewish sacred texts. In my head, we had the Talmud, and then we had Zlateh the Goat. These books were meant to preserve our heritage. They weren’t about me or my life.
Now I realize that part of the reason I didn’t identify these books with my own family was that my heritage was complicated. Though I grew up Jewish (went to synagogue and Hebrew school, celebrated the holidays, etc.) my mother was Catholic, and intermarried families weren’t something Jewish children’s books addressed in those years. If Judaism was marginalized by the larger world, intermarriage was marginalized by Jews. I didn’t really expect to find myself or my family in any literature, ever. I wasn’t mad about this fact. It absolutely fit with my understanding of the way things worked. Intermarriage was an embarrassment. Why would anyone write about it?
Then in high school, I chanced upon Davita’s Harp, and reading it, I felt an overwhelming shock of recognition. Chaim Potok’s story of a girl from a mixed family, growing up in Depression-era New York, aware of the adults around her—their conflicting faiths and classes—struck a massive chord. Even though it was set in essentially the same world as The All of a Kind Family, this book was different. It didn’t feel historical. Rather, it dug into the emotional turf I was struggling to understand myself at that age. It was about a girl who loved her parents, and their very different traditions. Who felt pulled at times, guilty. Like me.
Beyond religion and family, Davita’s Harp was urban. It was about social justice, war, death, art, and the limitations of the body. It was about all the things I was trying to untangle. When I was fourteen, and I read this book, I don’t think I’d have called it a “Jewish book.” It felt too complex for that sort of simple definition. The same way I didn’t feel like a “regular” Jew (I was still laboring under the illusion that there was such a thing), but rather, something messier.
And this is why tokenism will never be enough, in demanding diversity from our literature. Because no “Jewish” book will ever encapsulate “The Jewish experience.” Any more than a “black” or “Chinese” (much less “Asian”) book will ever define those experiences. When people ask me, “How many Jewish books do we need?” I have to answer, “ALL of them.” However many books we produce to satisfy a quota is too few. Because not every kid came from The All of a Kind Family.
I think it’s important we remain aware of this, as writers. Because there’s an impulse, sometimes, to broaden our stories. We want to be available to the greatest number of readers, so we reach for the lowest common denominator. But this feels wrong to me. Backwards. This is how we lose authenticity, particularity. No book I can write will ever meet the needs of “The Jewish World” or “Girls 8-12.” The best I can do it to write one story, for one reader, in one moment, and hope it feels true, and resonates.
Of course, I went on to read all of Potok’s books in high school, and I loved them. The Chosen. My Name is Asher Lev. They introduced me—however imperfectly— to other Jewish worlds, to aspects of Jewish life I would probably never have encountered otherwise. They were a point of departure for me, encouraging me to take Jewish Studies classes in college, and giving me a vocabulary with which to enter new Jewish spaces. I’m grateful to them all. But nothing else Potok wrote ever touched me like Davita’s Harp. I’m not sure any book has ever touched me in quite that way. It was the first book I really found my messy, confused, conflicted, ashamed Jewish self in, and that was everything.
Laurel Snyder is the author of many picture books, including Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher, The Longest Night: A Passover Story, and Swan: the life and dance of Anna Pavlova. She has also written 5 middle grade novels, including Bigger than a Bread Box, which draws on her childhood memories of life in an intermarried Jewish home. A Baltimore native, Laurel now lives in Atlanta, where she works for InterfaithFamily.