“Read this one!”
My 2-year-old daughter absolutely adores books, and the most frequent order she gives me and my wife is, “Read this one! Read that one! Another book! More books!” That’s fine with us, because we love to read too, and we love the coziness of sitting together, looking at books.
But recently she discovered a book on the bookshelf in my office and she’s really taken to it. Mostly I’m happy to read her whatever she wants, but I’m not sure how I feel about this one.
The book is a child’s guide to Jewish holidays and it was in fact my book when I was little. I keep it, along with some of my other childhood books, as a reminder of my younger years. My daughter was drawn to it, I suspect, by its colorful cover and bright, cartoon-like drawings. She often flips to one of the stories, Hanukkah, say, or Passover, and asks us to read it to her.
The problem I have with the book is two-fold. First of all, it’s quite old-fashioned and tends to emphasize how females look and how males behave. For example, in the Purim tale, Esther’s beauty is repeatedly referred to, and we’re told that the only reason the king (who looks old enough to be her grandfather) married her is because of how pretty she is. Sure, she turns out to be a brave woman who saves the Jews, but that seems to be beside the point in this telling.
In the book, all the girls and women in the pictures are wearing dresses and tend to be sitting or standing politely, watching while the boys and men are running around, fighting, conferring, having fun, and being powerful.
That’s not a message I want to send my daughter. She’s active, not passive, and my wife and I hope that she’ll do more than just sit pretty and look on as men rule the world. She, too, can make an impact.
The second issue is, well, God. God is, understandably enough, mentioned in every chapter. God decides this, God chooses that, God tells the people something, God issues instructions, God makes the rules, God runs the show.
As an atheist, and as someone who wants to raise an empowered daughter who doesn’t look to others to solve her problems or make her decisions, I’m not so keen on introducing the idea of God.
I’m aware that my lack of theistic beliefs and my discomfort with biblical stories disqualifies me in some people’s eyes as a Jew. But as I’ve written here before, I feel quite strongly that I am Jewish, and I think my Jewish identity is important. It’s something I want to pass on to my daughter. And anyway, I don’t think other people have the right to decide how I identify. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m not Jewish enough for them.
But of course if we want our daughter to get what being Jewish is about, knowing that many Jews believe in God, and understanding what that means is part of it. Plus many people around the world believe in a god or multiple gods, and even if theism isn’t a guiding belief in our home, our daughter should be respectful of how others choose to live their lives.
While I will never censor our daughter’s reading material, I do want to be aware of what she is reading and to use it to teach her to be a critical reader and thinker. So, for example, we ensure that she has many books that feature strong female protagonists who take charge of their lives and who wear a variety of clothes and have features other than attractiveness. And we have books that depict children who believe in religions other than Judaism and children for whom religion doesn’t seem important at all. And that’s all stuff we talk about, too.
The next time she picks up this book of Jewish stories, I’ll gently point out some of its flaws, even as we can enjoy the colorful palette and the historically and culturally interesting context. Frankly, however, I’ll be glad when she says, “Read this one! Another one!” pointing to a different book.