I have always been a voracious reader. As a child I was a flashlight-under-the-covers reader. A buckled-up-road-trip reader. A rainy-day-cozy-nook reader. A just-one-more-chapter! reader. I gobbled up historical fiction, poetry, joke books, mysteries, Sunday comics, and a well-worn issue of Dog Fancy magazine my Papa bought me at the airport. I revisited the girls from The Baby-Sitters Club, Ramona and Beezus, and the Ingalls sisters with each subsequent book in their series.
While I saw much of myself, and who I wanted to be, in my books, there was one notable absence: my Jewish identity. Sure, I read and reread Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” series, Lois Lowry’s “Number The Stars,” and endless shtetl folktales, but I never found my kind of Jewish, until adulthood. All of the Jewish stories I read in my youth were rooted in history, parables and far-off lands.
Where were the books about Jewish girls from interfaith families? The ones who grew up with shiny Chanukah decor in the family room and a Christmas tree in the living room, attended Jewish summer camp, and wrestled with big questions?
The truth is, they were buried. Stifled. Erased. Mainstream publishers have long dismissed Jewish stories and characters as “too niche” to appeal to a wide audience, as if we have not been wholly immersed in white, straight, cis, non-disabled, Christian stories — the default identities — our entire reading lives. Publishers need to turn a profit, and they presume to know what will sell, not risking the rest. As far as the Jewish experience, publishers have overwhelmingly chosen the Holocaust as our primary story. But we are more than our historic horrors. We are a diverse diaspora and present-day people. Though our population is small, our stories are expansive.
Until recently, stories featuring BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color), queer, disabled, Jewish and other underrepresented folks, by creators of those identities, have largely been unicorns. Tokens. The exception to the dominant narrative. That is, until readers have demonstrated their insatiability for them and demanded more. Long-ruling institutions do not budge easily, but every push to their foundations is a chance to dislodge the status quo.
The hesitance to publish representative stories not only eliminates opportunities for Jewish kids to see themselves reflected in books, but for non-Jewish kids to learn about what it means to be Jewish. During a time of exponential rise in antisemitism and hate crimes, it is essential that we invest in all of our youngest readers with inclusive reading opportunities featuring their Jewish neighbors as modern and multitudinous: Brown and white, matrilineal and converted, religious and secular.
In my work as a children’s book reviewer, I am often asked to be a sensitivity reader, a reader of pre-published manuscripts who looks for misrepresentation, bias, stereotypes and tropes, and overtly harmful content. When I read books with Jewish content, I read through my lens as a white, intercultural, Ashkenazi, American, Jewish woman, but advocate for those of different Jewish experiences to critique through their lenses, as well. I will never know what it is to be Jewish in brown skin, Sephardic or Mizrahi, Hasidic, or kosher. I can only offer my lived experience and pass the mic to those whose stories are not my own.
Evaluating Jewish books is endlessly fascinating and challenging. It is my small way of raising Jewish voices, characters and stories to be seen by all. My hope is that our next generation of flashlight-under-the-covers readers can shine their light on more and more Jewish stories.