I never thought I’d hear a catchy children’s song about my favorite Ashkenazi Shabbat meal, but “Cholent Time” by Joanie Leeds is not only an ode to the comforting beef stew, but to something that warms the heart and soul even more — books.
The song is on Leeds’ new album, “Freadom: Songs Inspired by Banned Children’s Books,” which is a celebration of books and reading, as well as the importance of letting children be exposed to every kind of story and people inside and outside the classroom.
“Cholent Time” is based on the book “Chik Chak Shabbat” by Mara Rockliff, which is about a diverse groups of neighbors who help a Jewish woman cook the hearty nosh. The book was banned, then unbanned, in a Jacksonville, Florida school district last year. It’s one of many Jewish books that have been banned recently — including “Anne Frank,” “Maus” and even Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer.” These banned Jewish books are part of an ongoing bigger trend: an effort to keep almost 200 books, mostly stories about marginalized communities, from people of color to LGBTQIA+ individuals, out of classrooms.
Like so many of us whose lives were changed by books, Leeds, a Grammy-Award winning singer, finds this trend appalling and disheartening. In “Freadom,” she celebrates the narratives of some of these banned books, uplifting Black, immigrant and queer stories. In one of the catchy songs on the album, “Rainbow Flag,” Leeds, who wrote this banger about RBG, pays tribute to another Jewish icon, Harvey Milk.
Her daughter, Joya, 8, is once again featured in the album (her tracks in Leeds’ “Oy Vey! Another Christmas Album” are delightful), yelling in the enchanting opening track “Banned” to “stop banning our books.”
Kveller chatted with Leeds over e-mail about how reading books with her daughter shaped the album, and why fighting against book bans is a Jewish cause.
Why is the topic of book bans so important to you?
My daughter and I love reading books together. Her favorite stories showcase a rich tapestry of diverse characters and authors hailing from different backgrounds. In light of the recent surge in the news regarding the alarming trend of book bans, particularly with respect to children’s picture books, we started discussing how the books she so enjoys are restricted in other states and have been removed from schools and libraries. This injustice struck a chord with my daughter, and she found it deeply unfair. We decided to musically do something about it and that is how “Freadom” was born.
There are so many Jewish activists and authors at the center of this issue. Why do you think it’s important for Jews to stand up against book bans?
If there is one thing my Judaism has taught me, it’s how to stand up for others and take a stand on social justice issues. This is built into the fiber of who we are, who we want to be and the core of our Jewish values. Judy Blume is a huge inspiration and an outspoken activist on this issue, as her books have been targeted heavily for some time. As our nation’s political landscape continues to shift, antisemitism casts a shadow over our society. Many books featuring Jewish characters or stories of the Holocaust face an ongoing risk of censorship and have been banned in many states. The situation echoes a historical parallel: the banning and burning of books in pre-Nazi Germany. As Jews, we constantly remind ourselves “never again;” however, history seems to be repeating itself. We must stand up against book bans. Knowledge is power and we cannot lose our autonomy.
Had you read “Chik Chak Shabbat” before working on this album? What was your first impression reading it?
Before I started researching and checking out dozens of books from the library for this project, I knew I wanted to pick a Jewish-themed book. I never read “Chik Chak Shabbat” before and it is the sweetest story with a lovely message of community. My daughter loved it, too! Why on earth a Florida school would ban this book will forever be a mystery to me. Who knew coming together over a delicious stew could be so controversial?
Have you been in touch with any of the authors of the books featured on this album?
Not yet! I was considering starting a podcast and interviewing each of them to talk about their book, but I have been on the road so much with performances, time got away from me! Writing songs inspired by their stories for “Freadom” was my way of honoring these incredible authors. My hope is it will bring more attention to their work and the issue of book banning in general.
Did you ever think you’d write a song about cholent? Did you grow up eating it?
Ha! I’ve never had it but if anybody would like to have me over for Shabbat dinner, I would love to try it! Any takers?
It’s actually a funny story, but in April I was in Israel at the Jews Talk Justice lab with the Tel Aviv Institute and we went to cookbook author and chef Adeena Sussman‘s house. She was telling us about her new Shabbat cookbook and afterward, I was quizzing her about cholent. I had just started writing the song a month prior and had so many questions. I was getting the sense she was thinking to herself, “Why is this woman so obsessed with cholent?” I definitely consulted with the community to make sure I got this one right.
One of the books you pay tribute to in this album is about Jewish activist Harvey Milk. Why was it important for you to pay tribute to him and his rainbow flag?
Harvey Milk z”l was a brave politician who fought for LGBTQIA+ rights and brought hope to the community. I loved the movie (starring Sean Penn) and just felt connected to Harvey and his ruach (spirit). As LGBTQIA+ books are the most targeted books in this country, I knew I wanted to write a song inspired by “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.” Also, the rainbow flag gives such a beautiful, vibrant visual. I knew it would translate into a song perfectly. I was originally going to go with a dance vibe but my friend and collaborator Cheryl B. Engelhardt thought an a cappella version would be next level. It was arranged by Rob Dietz and mixed by Ed Boyer (both from Pentatonix). I love how it came out. It’s actually my daughter’s favorite track. She sings it nonstop.
Was there anything that surprised you as you worked on this album and explored banned books across the country?
Yes. Amanda Gorman’s book, “The Hill We Climb,” was banned simply because of one mother filling out a form and asking it to be removed. This parent never read the book and she even wrote that it was written by Oprah Winfrey. It only takes one person filling out a form to ban a book and remove it from millions of children. States like Florida and Georgia have vague laws in place that make books easy to disappear. Moms For Liberty (a right-wing grassroots hate group) are spearheading this book banning movement and sadly, the banning of books has doubled since last year according to the American Library Association and Pen America. But because of how dangerous this movement has become, celebrities are starting to speak out about it and moveon.org and LeVar Burton have written a letter hundreds of celebrities have signed, including Ariana Grande, Mark Ruffalo, Chelsea Handler, Jody Picoult and so many more. You can sign it here! I am glad that my album has come out at a perfect time but deeply sad and terrified that I had to make it at all.
You said a lot of these books are books that you read with your daughter. What does she think of this album? How do you talk to her about the subject of book bans?
We talk about everything under the sun. I believe with young kids you can tackle any subject, it is the way you do it that needs to be age appropriate. By now, she is very well-versed on the subject and you can hear her on the opening song on the album, “Banned!” She loves the album and asks to listen to it all the time. Also, we own all the books and despite her having moved on to chapter books, she is still reading these picture books with deep appreciation.
What do you want listeners to take from this album?
I hope this album brings more attention to the book ban movement and allows families to talk about it with their kids. I would love for them to enjoy the tunes but read the books that inspired them, too. I hope it starts conversations in your own homes about why diverse literature is important and how banning books is essentially silencing people. If we want a successful democracy, we can’t have censorship and must speak out. Books build empathy for others and teach each other about people out of their orbit. We must “take a stand” and “join the band!”