“Could you read us another chapter? Could you?” Miri asked.
I had just finished reading the second to last chapter of “My Little Boy” to my kids for their bedtime story, but they wanted more; clearly they were as in love with the boy in the story as I was with the boy’s father.
After hearing a version of the book performed by Orson Welles, I had to read it, and after reading it, I reread it. What was it about this book that made it so compelling, so magical? And why am I reading this adult book to my kids?
Written in 1899 by Denmark writer Carl Ewald, the book is focused on the half-year period before his 5-year-old son begins school. We see a precocious little boy learning about the world from his unconventional father who does not hesitate to teach his son his hard-won truths.
Last week, we read chapter 14 in which the little boy comes home “greatly excited and proud and glad like one who has fearlessly done his duty.” The boy’s father asks him what has been going on in the courtyard. Upon learning that “it was only a Jew boy whom we were licking” the little boy’s father grabs him by the hand and runs around the streets seeking the ill-used boy. They are unsuccessful in locating the Jewish boy and the father devotes the entire day to educating his little boy on Jewish history. At the end of that day the boy is hot and red and turns restlessly in bed. The boy’s mother comments that the boy is a little feverish, the boy’s father says, “That is not surprising. Today I have vaccinated him against the meanest of all mean and vulgar diseases.”
My father, unlike Carl Ewald, didn’t have the luxury of working from home; instead he was out at 4 a.m. and often didn’t come home until 9 p.m., working hard to pay our tuition so we could get the education he valued so highly. For even with the minor disagreements he had with some of the ideas we were picking up in school, he didn’t feel the same way the author of that little book felt about school–he did in fact cherish our education.
But I didn’t. While at school we were being warned against reading unsanctioned books, at home I was reading books such as “The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich,” which, being a history book is innocuous enough, but still wasn’t allowed by our school. I feel that I learned more from my dad than I did from my teachers; not more chumash (Torah) perhaps, but more of everything else that mattered and I often wished that there were more “Tatty days” and fewer school days.
The hatred and fear between Jews and non-Jews certainly wasn’t put to rest in Copenhagen with Carl Ewald, but every person who educates their children against this ancient disease brings it closer to its ultimate elimination. It’s safe to say that the attendance at mine and my siblings’ weddings of many non-Jews, including non-white people–weddings which also had many prominent rabbis, heads of yeshivas and hasidic rabbis–was one such act of vaccination. It was so unusual in my community in Monsey, New York, that people didn’t know what to make of these guests. Some thought they were waiters, even asking them for a bowl of soup. One friend thought this was so strange that he posed for the camera pretending to dance with a non-Jewish guest. And yet to my father this was only natural; these people were his friends no less than the roshei yeshiva (religious school leaders).
The last two chapters of “My Little Boy” end with an eloquent sob from a father who has done everything to speak his own mind and has tried to impart some of his wisdom to his son, but who fears that school will undo all of that.
“They will tell you that two and two are four…but that is wrong….two and two are never four, or only very seldom.”
“I don’t know these people. But I pay them.
I, who have had a hard fight to keep my thoughts free and my limbs unrestrained and who have not retired from the fight without deep wounds…, I have, of my own free will, brought him to the institution for maiming human beings. I, who have at times soared to peaks that were my own, because the other birds dared not follow me, have myself brought him to the place where wings are clipped for flying respectably, with the flock.”
And this is why we’re reading this quaint 100-year-old book; because we each see ourselves in it. I recognize my father’s struggle to live in and embrace a world he didn’t fully embrace, and raise children in it that would embrace it while maintaining some independent thought. And I want my children to know that while we don’t always agree with what the world teaches them, and more often than we’d like our hands are tied, we as parents continue to impart what wisdom we can in our own little ways.
Meanwhile, my curious, insightful, delightful young children simply love the little boy’s adventures.
“You want me to read one more chapter?” I asked Miri.
“Yes, yes, then we’ll go to sleep right away,” they all responded, talking over each other.
With Carl Ewald, my father, and Father’s Day on my mind–and though it was past their bedtimes and better fathers than myself would have said no–we finished the book together.