This is the first installment of a multi-part series, adapted from a talk given by Lisa Silverman, Blumenthal Library Director of the Sinai Temple, Los Angeles on May 23, 2010 at the Highlights Foundation Workshop, “Writing Jewish-themed Books for Children.” Lisa credits author and librarian Linda Silver (author of The Jewish Values Finder: A Guide to Values in Jewish Children’s Literature) for original research.
The Origins of Jewish Children’s Literature in English
The Jewish Publication Society forms to give immigrant children what they need
Jewish children’s literature written in English is a relatively recent event. It appeared first in the late 19th century, in 1888 with the Jewish Publication Society, established as an educational non-profit publisher created to provide children of Jewish immigrants to America with books about their heritage in the language of the New World. Before 1888, if there was a book about something Jewish, it was not in English. As Jewish immigrants adapted to American life, and English became their first language, the Jewish Publication Society began seeking authors who could write in English about subjects that would appeal to children whose experience as American Jews was different from previous generations.
Up until the end of WWI and then between the two World Wars they started encouraging a more modern form of literature for children. Because beforehand, in the early part of the century, the main thing that you were concerned about was staying alive, being healthy, your living arrangements, and not being impoverished. Starting in the ‘20s and ‘30s, your material needs were being met and now you could start to actually concern yourself with other things like teaching kids family rituals and home-based values. These things were overlooked in the beginning, because it was just assumed that you needed to learn Hebrew for your Bar Mitzvah. Nobody cared about the fact that there was a subtle shift in kids starting to lose their Jewish identity and become Americanized and secular, and this was sort of surprising thing that occurred, and now you’re starting to think, “Well, maybe I need to teach a child about the holidays, because maybe they’re not being really observed anymore.” If that’s the case, we better write some cute stories to interest kids. The housewife/mother is now the complete bearer of all customs and Jewish values and buy and read your kids some Jewish books.
The Adventures of K’ton Ton—the first modern Jewish children’s book
The adventures of K’ton Ton by Sadie Rose Weilerstein was first published in Outlook Magazine, the conservative Jewish magazine in 1930. The Women’s League took all of the adventures of K’ton Ton and in 1935 made a book out of them.
K’ton Ton is a Jewish Tom Thumb. He was born after his mother prayed to have a child “even if he were not bigger than a thumb.” When he was born a year later, he was exactly the size of a thumb. There are several editions of this book.
Published in 1939, you’ll find Hillel’s Happy Holidays probably in your shelves of your old Hebrew school, so this is an example of trying to fill a need in the ‘40s and ‘50s for what they needed to explain holidays to kids who were losing their Jewish identity. Mamie Gamoran graduated from the JTS Teachers Institute in 1922, she devoted her life to Jewish education, her husband was on the faculty there. She believed that one could synthesize American culture with one’s commitment to Judaism. She was the first person to write a confirmation service for girls. She wrote all sorts of Jewish textbooks, and one of the issues is that she wrote this, which is about Hillel, a kid and his family having holidays and stuff together. And she was influenced by her textbooky kind of style of writing, which was didactic in many ways. This is not popular anymore, as K’ton Ton is still popular and is still readable. But this is an example of someone who blazed the way.