The first time I read “Green Eggs and Ham” to my oldest son, he was 3 years old. I was trying to convince him to eat a cheese stick and getting nowhere. Finally, at my wits end over his impossible eating habits, I remembered the book that he’d recently received as a gift.
For the next 10 minutes he smiled and giggled at Sam I Am and his persistent sales pitch. When the book was over, I handed him the cheese stick one last time and smiled hopefully. He didn’t eat it… Not in his chair, not with his bear, not in the bed, not on his head. But, he did fall in love with Dr. Seuss.
After that first book, he couldn’t be stopped. He insisted on hearing a Dr. Seuss story every night, until a year or so later when he was able to read them on his own. Although certainly I’d been familiar with Dr. Seuss during my own childhood, it wasn’t until my son began devouring these books that I started to analyze the deeper messages behind the stories.
What I found was that many of the messages in his books align closely with Jewish values. In “The Lorax,” for instance, one of Seuss’ deceptively whimsical characters delivers a powerful ode to the virtues of tikkun olam, healing the world. After reading this book, my younger son launched a campaign to clean up our neighborhood. He spent the next few weeks trudging through the park with a garbage bag, cleaning up discarded juice boxes and wrappers.
“The Butter Battle Book” is another story with a strong message. It was written during the Cold War and tells the tale of the Zooks and the Yooks, whose argument about how to butter bread quickly turns into all-out war. The book puts the absurdities of war and escalation into language that even young children can understand.
Peace is a common theme in Judaism—one that I have been particularly happy to pass down to my children. “The Butter Battle Book” has become my go-to story when a sibling scuffle starts to turn ugly.
But, of all of Dr. Seuss’ books, “The Sneetches” was the one that most intrigued me. The yellow stars that separated the “Star Belly Sneetches” from the “Plain Sneetches” struck me as being very similar to the yellow stars worn to identify people as Jewish during the Holocaust. In the story, the Sneetches discriminate against each other according to whether or not they are wearing stars. I wondered if this symbolism was an intentional sympathetic gesture towards the plight of the Jews.
Further research revealed that the book was, in fact, written as a statement against anti-Semitism and racism. And, while Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was not, himself, Jewish, he was a strong ally to the Jewish cause. He regularly spoke out in support of equal opportunity for Jews and was perhaps the first cartoonist to predict and denounce the fate of the Jewish people under Hitler.
The above comic was only one of the hundreds of cartoons that Dr. Seuss used to vilify Nazism. He brandished his writing and art as tools against injustice during a time when many were afraid to speak out.
Dr. Seuss continued to promote social justice throughout his life. In 1969, in recognition of his friendship for the Jewish people, he was awarded the title of “Honorary Jew” by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
Theodor Geisel’s birthday is March 2. Classrooms and bookstores across the country are holding events in honor of his contributions to children’s literature. I intend to take my kids to at least one of them. And, after the kids have colored Thing One and Thing Two and listened to what happened on Mulberry Street, I’ll talk to them about how writing and art are not just entertainment, but powerful weapons that can be used to change the world.
Because, in the words of the late great Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”