The July 2010 Librarian’s Notebook features Heidi Rabinowitz Estrin, library media specialist for Feldman Children’s Library at Congregation B’nai Israel, a large Reform synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida. Heidi is also the incoming Vice President/President- Elect of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). Mazel Tov! The Whole Megillah asked Heidi some questions about her role, AJL, and her perspective on Jewish children’s books as a librarian.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What are the biggest challenges for Jewish librarians and libraries?
Heidi Rabinowitz Estrin (HRE): One of our biggest challenges is visibility. Many people are unaware that Judaic libraries exist, or that larger libraries may have special Judaic collections. Librarians are traditionally an unassuming breed, but we need to blow our own shofar a bit more and draw more attention to what we do.
TWM: What are the opportunities?
HRE: Jewish publishing has really flourished in recent years, so one opportunity is that once we do get people’s attention, we’ve got really great stuff to share with them. We have the opportunity to get patrons excited about their Judaic libraries! Another opportunity that applies to all kinds of libraries is the way new technologies and social media allow for such rich communication. Librarians can now reach way beyond the walls of their own libraries! I reach beyond my own library with my podcast, The Book of Life, and of course the podcast is on Facebook too.
TWM: Do you have any specific goals for the AJL this year?
HRE: I’m the incoming Vice President/President-Elect of the Association of Jewish Libraries, serving with President James Rosenbloom, a librarian at Brandeis University. Jim and I have been talking a lot about networking with other Jewish/library/educational organizations. If we work with others who also care about Jewish books and reading, we can disperse our message further and increase our impact. One step we’ve already taken is to set up a monthly Jewish Book Blog Carnival! You can see the first carnival on AJL’s People of the Books blog, where various Jewish book bloggers have shared terrific links.
TWM: Why should an author attend the AJL conference?
HRE: It’s a great way for an author of Jewish literature to interact directly with one of their best target markets. AJL members devote their professional lives to promoting Jewish literature to other readers. When we connect with an author in person, we’ll be even more inspired to promote their book!
TWM: What did you read while growing up? What did you like about these books?
HRE: I was a big fan of the Victorian golden age of children’s literature, and a big Anglophile. I loved Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, the Pooh and Mary Poppins series, anything by E.Nesbit. I had a ridiculous nostalgia for a time and place I’d never been a part of. I guess that just shows what a good job those authors did, if they could make me miss
something I’d never experienced. There wasn’t as much Jewish children’s literature available then as now, but as a child I did love The Rabbi and the 29 Witches by Marilyn Hirsh and All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.
TWM: What attracted you to becoming a librarian?
HRE: It was destiny. I’ve always been a book geek and I never stopped reading kidlit, even as a teen. I don’t have the writing bug, so it was either librarianship or publishing. And librarianship is easier to break into!
TWM: Do you have any advice to writers of Jewish-themed content?Are there any topics you’d like to see someone write about?
HRE: Yes, yes, yes! For kids, we need more fun books and more funny books. Judaic children’s books are sometimes very earnest and have a tendency towards didacticism; they can also be pretty solemn. This is not what kids want to read. If we want children to connect to Judaism through literature, we need to engage them with the same qualities we see in the best secular writing: humor, true emotions, believable characters, and fun storylines. We need authors who write from the heart, not from an agenda. At the same time, when writing from the heart, please pause and make sure you’re aiming for the hearts of the right age group! If you want to reminisce about the beauty of Yiddish, an adult audience might relate better to your feelings.
Also, there’s one mistake I see repeatedly in Judaic kidlit, and it drives me nuts: grandparent characters who are modeled on the author’s grandparents, not on the current crop of grandparents. Enough with the gray-haired, Yiddish-speaking, Holocaust-survivor bubbes and zeydes! While there are a small number of contemporary kids whose grandparents fit that profile, this generation of Jewish grandparents is more likely to play tennis or be in a band or have a website or at the very least color their hair!
Don’t get me wrong, Jewish kidlit is in excellent shape right now with lots of wonderful books coming out that both kids and librarians can get excited about. But we have room for improvement. We don’t yet have a Judaic equivalent of, say, Mo Willems’ brilliant Elephant & Piggie books. I’m still holding out for that.