Chanukah Feature: the Gift of Jewish Literature Opens Children to New Worlds

Giving an adolescent any gift but cash is a perilous act. And giving a book! How can a book compare to a computer game or DVD?

Yet some of us feel compelled to try. In our chaotic teens, books gave our psyches shape and kept us from despairing that we were the only human beings who had faced the pain we faced, the same confusion, ambition, lust. Our daughters and sons might be drowning, as we were. But they no longer have the instinct to reach for a book to save them.

And who are we to know which volumes they might need? The easiest solution is to grab one of those nifty credit cards at the bookstore’s register and hope it won’t be squandered on an idiots’ guide to the Web.

I am reluctant to make suggestions. When I was in my teens, our town librarian introduced me to a woman who was looking for a novel for her 13-year-old daughter. I didn’t need time to think. “Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence, I advised. The grown-ups gasped and shook their heads while I stood and tried to guess what they might object to. “Oh, don’t worry,” I assured them. “The women aren’t in love with each other.”

Today, the title alone would cause “Women in Love” to be banned from many libraries. Jews often scorn the Christian right’s intolerance for any book that doesn’t present the world as a wholesome place and Christians as wholesome people. But when it comes to books by Jews, we can be equally as squeamish.

Bad enough that Philip Roth revealed to the world that Jewish people masturbate, cheat on their wives and say nasty things about other Jews. How dare he expose those secrets to Jewish kids!

No grown-up in the 1960s would have given a book by Roth to any child he loved. Much safer to wrap and send “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Jewish Book of Why” or a collection of biographies of Jewish athletes, as if being Jewish in America had only to do with planning where to hide in another Holocaust or refusing to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.

Any parent who drives a Hebrew school carpool knows that sixth-graders today hear and say worse things about sex and Jews than can be read in any book by Philip Roth. Yet Roth’s first collection, “Goodbye, Columbus,” and his first novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” were railed against for decades from every bimah in America.

Not until 1993 did I hear a rabbi admit that if he and his colleagues had paid more attention to Roth’s complaints, Jewish adolescents wouldn’t have turned to other sources for their spiritual needs.

Of course there are safer books to give a Jewish child than Roth’s work. You can’t go wrong with solid, middle-brow novels like “The Source” by James Michener or “Exodus” by Leon Uris.

Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” allowed me to see inside the Chasidic world, their gates barred in real life. And, as a Catskills native, I can’t help but recommend “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.” Any child who can’t recite the best routines of Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Sholem Aleichem and Lenny Bruce has missed an essential part of Jewish culture.

But if you are giving a young person you love a book, why not give the best? Many of the early works by our finest Jewish writers are based on their childhood years and appeal to teen-age readers.

“Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth is the greatest Jewish American novel — and the greatest immigrant novel — of modern times. In 10th grade, I sat riveted by the troubles of David Schearl, a high-strung Jewish boy growing up in a brutal New York slum in those far-away years when my father was young.

How strange to see Yiddish in a book, to learn that Jewish families fought, that Jews were once so poor, that a Jewish father could hate his son. “Call It Sleep” is not an easy book. But how can we condemn the schools for dumbing down our children’s reading lists if we only give them books that can be swallowed as easily as that fake vanilla pudding that comes in plastic cups?

For a slightly older reader — say, late teens and up — you can’t go wrong giving a book by Bernard Malamud. The clear choices are his novels, “The Fixer” and “The Assistant.” But don’t forget “The Magic Barrel,” whose stories feature young Jews trying to reconcile the old and new worlds, the rational and supernatural, the strictures of middle-class Jewish life and the terrifying freedom of the artist, the tensions and affinities among Christians, Jews and blacks.

If you feel compelled to give a young friend a book about the Holocaust, the best choices are “The Ghost Writer,” in which Philip Roth imagines a young writer encountering a woman he takes to be Anne Frank, grown now, not murdered, living in New York, and the two-volume set of “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman. The “Maus” books are not the comic-book version of the Holocaust most adults assume they must be, but a revealing, deeply troubling and amazingly original work of art.

After you have introduced your favorite young reader to the works of the masters, you can follow up with their successors: Pearl Abraham, Michael Chabon, Robert Cohen, Nathan Englander, Allegra Goodman, Marcie Hershman, Maxine Rodburg, Thane Rosenbaum.

Give one of the recent anthologies of Jewish American fiction — “American Jewish Fiction,” for one, or “America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers” — and the recipient will go out and find books by his or her favorite authors.

Eventually, you may be able to give your younger relatives books by writers more suited to middle age — Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Heller, Stanley Elkin, Francine Prose, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and the later Philip Roth.

And, if all goes well, who knows but, God willing, those no-longer-young relatives will begin buying books for you.

Eileen Pollack, the author of “Paradise, New York” (Temple University Press), wrote this feature for JBooks.com, a book review site published by Jewish Family & Life! — www.JewishFamily.com.

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