Adapting ‘Boy Books’ and ‘Girl Books’ for a Progressive, Yiddish-Speaking Family
In my latest blog post, I complained about the gendered struggles I face, as a liberal Yiddish-speaking father, while reading and singing Yiddish children’s books and songs to my son. On one hand, I’m faced with a mother-oriented literature that erases my own lived experience as a father who changes diapers, cooks meals, brings his kid to daycare, pushes the baby stroller, and reads bedtime stories. In the world of Yiddish children’s literature, such fathers do not exist – I do not exist – such domestic work is almost always and only done by the mothers. On the other hand, I’m simultaneously faced with a male-centered literature that challenges my family’s egalitarian worldview, practices, and experiences. The vast majority of characters are boys and men, and even on those rare occasions when girls are the main characters, their plots and personalities are much more superficial and boring. Boys go on adventures; girls stay home and learn how to keep things organized. Boys’ plots tend to be more carefully developed; girls’ plots tend to feel much more artificial and sloppy. Boys are brave and experimental; girls are scared and cautious. Rabbis are always men; only boys wear yarmulkes, engage in serious text study, or handle religious items like mezuzot and Torah scrolls. This does not match my family’s lived experience, in which my wife – my son’s mommy – is a rabbi, loves to study Talmud, and davens with tallis and tefillin. It does not match my family’s lived experience, in which my wife – my son’s mommy – is braver than I am and loves to go on adventures, while I prefer to stay home and keep things orderly. And it certainly doesn’t match our values.
My struggle is just as much practical as it is ideological. I am willing to accept that this literature was, and is, not typically created for people like me or for families like mine. I am willing to accept that most of these books and songs were, and continue to be, written for communities in which strong, traditional gender roles form the social, institutional, and moral bedrock of society. I acknowledge that the people these books and songs have been written for – including many women – do not all share my liberal, egalitarian values. And all of this makes me very uncomfortable, but I am willing to accept our communal differences and swallow my discomfort (even if my ability and willingness to do so are enabled by my own male privilege).
However, I am not reading and singing for Chassidic communities, nor am I reading and singing to change Chassidic gender norms; I am reading and singing for myself and my son. Every day, I read and sing to my son in Yiddish, yet in the worlds created by these songs and stories, I (the father who changes diapers) do not exist, and my wife (the woman rabbi who davens with tefillin) does not exist, and my son (the child who is raised in such a family) does not exist. As I wrote in my recent blog post, one of the great values of reading to children is that they can see themselves and their friends reflected in the characters. The characters thus become role models for our children, as these characters face and solve problems that our kids themselves struggle with. Stories have the power to mirror the world in which our children live. In doing so, they help kids explore aspects of the world around them in a detailed, organized way, while teaching them how to ask questions and describe complex emotions that they might not have known how to put into words. So my problem, really, is practical: I want my son to see himself and the world around him reflected in Yiddish songs and stories, and I want the characters to serve as positive role models for him. But how can this happen, when these songs and stories do not reflect either the world that we live in or the world that I want us to live in?
Let me be clear: I am not dumping on Yiddish children’s literature! There are a lot of wonderful values in these stories. The characters struggle with universal conflicts and emotions that anyone, from any culture, undoubtedly can relate to. My wife and I are deeply religious Jews, for whom traditional Jewish law and ritual play deep and meaningful roles in our daily lives, and I am thrilled to see many of our own Jewish values and practices reflected in my son’s home library. And aside from all of this, books are not only a way of reflecting ourselves and our worlds; they are also opportunities to discover other people and communities who are different than we are. But it couldn’t hurt to have some stories that accurately reflect our progressive values, as well – and such books in Yiddish just simply don’t exist.
So how do I deal with this?
I have found two basic ways of dealing with this challenge – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so.
One way is by changing some of the words to better reflect our values. Some people call this “censoring”; I call it “adapting.” For example, there’s a wonderful lullaby that I often sing, called “Under Sarah’s Cradle“ (Unter Soreles Vigele); about half-way through, it includes the idiomatic verse: “What is the greatest treasure? Her husband will study Torah.” (Vos iz di beste skhoyre? Der khosn vet lernen toyre.) I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that a girl’s worth depends on her husband’s piety, nor do I want him to think that only boys can study Torah. So I changed it a bit: “What is the greatest treasure? The child will study Torah.” (Vos iz di beste skhoyre? Dos kind vet zikh lernen toyre.) By changing the verb slightly as well, from lernen to zikh lernen, I’m able to maintain the exact same number and accentuation of syllables, so making this verse less gendered doesn’t reduce the aesthetic quality of the music. Another example is the Yiddish lullaby “Sleep, Sleep, Sleep” (Shlof, Shlof, Shlof). In each verse, a father goes to town to buy something special for his family. But why should it always be the father who goes to town? So I changed the subject in each of the verses. In one verse, “the daddy” (der tati) goes to town; in the next verse, “the mommy” (di mami) goes; in another verse, it’s “the little sister” (di shvesterl); and in the last verse it’s “the little brother” (der bruderl). And if I need the song to go longer, then I can always add additional verses for “the aunt”, “the uncle”, “the son”, “the daughter”, etc. Not only does this successfully deal with the problem of gender roles, it also makes the song much more fun, varied, and interesting.
Of course, picture books are harder to “adapt” (“censor”) than songs are, for one simple reason: picture books have pictures. Songs don’t. So although I find my “solutions” for those two lullabies to be fairly successful, changing words in this way doesn’t always work for books. For example, in stories that involve only male characters, I’ve tried changing some of the boys’ names to girls’ names; but obviously, in the pictures, everyone is a boy. Similarly, I’ve tried changing the word “mommy” to “daddy”, which works perfectly in songs (as long as it doesn’t mess up the rhymes), but not so much in picture books where the illustrations are clearly of mommies. The one exception to this, where changing words has worked for me in picture books, helps me deal with xenophobic language. In many Yiddish children’s books, non-Jews are depicted very poorly: they tend to be greedy, stupid, manipulative, and immoral (usually as a foil to the generous, intelligent, friendly, and moral Jewish characters). And usually, non-Jewish characters are also very rich (in contrast to the Jewish characters, who are very poor). To make things worse, such characters often do not have names: they are often referred to as “the non-Jew” (der goy) or “the evil goy” (der beyzer goy). Ironically, though, this use of derogatory labels makes it easier to deal with: I just change such xenophobic labels to “the rich man” (der gvir) or “the evil person” (der roshe). No need to specify that they aren’t Jewish!
Another path I’ve tried involves actively seeking out books about girls, to balance out the number of books about boys. That way, I don’t have to change any words, right? For example, there’s a whole series of books about a girl named Sarah (Sorele); another series is all about a girl named Rebecca (Rivkele). I know that such books are written for girls, but why not read them to my son? Why shouldn’t he grow up with both male and female role models in his bedtime stories? The problem is that “girl books” are very different from “boy books” – and not in a good way. For example, consider two very similar – but oh, so different – picture books about the value of sleep, one for boys and one for girls. “Good Night, Mendy” (Gute Nakht Mendi) is one of my favorite Yiddish picture books that I’ve ever read. It’s about a little boy who doesn’t want to sleep; he just wants to play all day, but by the end of the book, he learns the value of sleeping. Of course, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered a similar book about a girl: “Sarah Learns That You Have To Go To Sleep On Time” (Sorele Lernt Zikh Men Darf Geyn Shlofn In Di Tsayt). It’s exactly the same: she doesn’t want to sleep, because she wants to just keep on playing. But by the end, she learns the value of sleeping. Despite their similarities, however, these books could not be more different – and more gendered – as you can probably guess from the titles themselves.
Mendy’s book is exciting. He dreams that he’s ridden away on a camel to a mysterious land: The Land of Eternal Sun. In the Land of Eternal Sun, everyone plays all day: Mendy rides bicycles, plays ball in the park, and meets lots of really cool friends. But all of this playing wears him out; he’s exhausted from all that playing, and he asks an old man where he can find a bench or a bed to sleep on. “In the Land of Eternal Sun,” the man explains to him, “there are no beds, because nobody ever sleeps.” Exhausted and desperate, Mendy yearns for his bed, for the darkness of night, and for sleep. At that moment, the mysterious camel returns with its “big hump and riding-saddle” and rushes the sleepy boy back home. On the final page, Mendy realizes that it was all just a dream – “such a hilarious dream” – and he understands now why it’s so important to sleep, and why you can’t just stay up and play all day.
By contrast, Sarah’s book is totally boring. Like Mendy, she doesn’t want to go to sleep; she just wants to stay up and play. As a result, she has trouble waking up in the morning, so she’s late for school. And since she’s late for school, she sleeps through class. And since she sleeps through class, she doesn’t know what to say when her mother asks her what she learned in school that day. And then, suddenly – with no transition – Sarah just “gets it” that you have to do what your mother tells you. Her mother tells her to go to sleep on time, so she goes to sleep on time, and then she’s able to focus in school the next day. The book ends with a cheerful illustration of a happy little Sarah smiling and waving her hands in the air, as the narrator tells us in rhyme (the rest of the book doesn’t rhyme): “Sarah understands now perfectly well, that you have to sleep through the night. That way, you can be nice in class, and always be happy and glad!” It’s not just boring; it’s as if the author didn’t even try to make the moral message subtle! The book is basically just a sugar-coated sermon for children, with almost no plot.
I mean, Sarah’s book could have had a plot, and that plot could have even reinforced traditional gender roles: imagine if Sarah had gone to school and slept through class, and while she was sleeping the teacher gave everyone (except for her) a present, and during recess everyone talked about their presents and realized that the presents actually all fit together like puzzle pieces to build a giant machine, which the girls could use to clean every kitchen in the entire world in 5 seconds flat, but because Sarah didn’t have her piece of the puzzle, the machine couldn’t be completed, and everyone was angry with her for ruining their adventure, because now they have to scrub their kitchens by hand for hours and hours, and that’s how she realizes the importance of going to sleep at night – so that she, and her friends, will have the energy to play and do cool stuff together that will revolutionize how they clean their kitchens. That could have been the plot; but then it wouldn’t have been a girl book. It would have been a boy book, and the main character’s name would have been Moyshele or Berele or Binyumele instead of Sorele, and the puzzle pieces wouldn’t have built a giant cleaning machine – they would have built a rocket ship. (I mean, let’s be honest; it’d be awesome if such a book existed about boys building an enormous, magical kitchen-cleaning machine to help them out with their house-work, but such a book would never be written in Yiddish about either boys or girls, would it?)
So this is the problem: I intentionally look for books about girls, to balance out the number of books about boys, but most of the girl books just aren’t very good, and they almost always end up reinforcing strong, female gender roles. Certainly, not all of them are like that. There are, in fact, some “girl books” that I do like, that I think are wonderful additions to my son’s home library. One is Keynmol Nisht Aleyn by Leyeles Mame and Rus Bafus, which is beautifully written and illustrated, has a memorable plot that traces a very real and universal problem kids often find themselves in, and helps readers learn how to express in words very powerful emotions like jealousy, betrayal, and forgiveness. In Esty’s Kindergorten Hot Men Yedn Lib is also pretty good, and it can open a meaningful conversation about ableism, although it ends up almost reinforcing ableist biases rather than defeating them, which is kind of a shame.
So those are two general ways that I’ve tried to deal with the sexism in Yiddish children’s songs and stories: (1) by “adapting” some of the words, and (2) by intentionally looking for books about girls. Obviously, none of this is limited to Yiddish, as English literature is also full of problems for liberal and egalitarian families. But, as I pointed out in my previous blog post, it is a problem which is much more acute in Yiddish than in English, for the simple reason that there is no progressive movement in the Yiddish-speaking world that is demanding, writing, and publishing progressive Yiddish children’s literature, the way that there is in the English-speaking world. So in the meantime, we Yiddish-speaking progressives have to deal with what we’ve got.