Jun 21, 2023
Dainy Bernstein, ed. Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods: Personal and Critical Essays. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2022. $24.95.
What do Yiddish coloring books, CDs from “the Marvelous Midos Machine,” and a yarmulke declaring the late Lubavitch Rebbe to be the messiah all have in common?
All three evoke the experiences of Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews growing up in North America during the 1980s and 1990s. All three can all be found in Artifacts of Orthodox Childhoods: Personal and Critical Essays, edited by Dainy Bernstein. This engaging new volume makes vital contributions to childhood studies, Jewish studies, and the study of material and popular culture.
The nascent field of childhood studies has rapidly expanded over the last twenty years. But, as Bernstein, who goes by nonbinary Spivak pronouns, notes in eir introduction, “the experience of childhood for 90s kids in Orthodox communities is necessarily different from the one represented in ‘only 90s kids will remember’ listicles” (viii). Many of the earlier studies on Jewish children’s materials have neglected the books, songs, toys, and other items produced specifically for Orthodox markets.
Simultaneously, in Yiddish studies and adjacent disciplines, scholars have produced rich works on children’s culture, including Naomi Prawer Kadar’s Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950 (Brandeis University Press, 2017) and Miriam Udel’s translated anthology Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature (New York University Press, 2020). But more recent media that blends English and Yiddish has not received as much attention.
This book helps to fill both lacunae.
Artifacts of Orthodox Childhood began on social media, as Bernstein searched #FrumTwitter and #JewishTwitter hashtags while conducting and sharing eir research on Orthodox children’s materials. It turned out Bernstein wasn’t the only millennial who remembered growing up with Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men instead of the Backstreet Boys. Thus, this volume was born, a mix of nostalgia and scholarly curiosity. Its twenty-three essays are written by academics, Jewish communal leaders, and creative writers who all grew up under various parts of an expansive Orthodox umbrella, including Modern Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, Satmar, and Bais Yaakov institutions.
A collection that emerges from a social network—as all collections do, whether that network is linked by Twitter, email, or telephone—will invariably reflect the nature of that network, and its limits. There is attention to Orthodox internal diversity here, which Bernstein discusses in the introduction—not every essay is set in the New York area, for example. I also want to particularly commend the diversity of gender identities included (no “manels” here!). But overall, the book does still tilt in both content and author identity towards a preponderance of Ashkenazim somehow connected to the Northeast of the United States (with a few Israeli contributions).
Three sections make up this accessibly written volume. Part I: “Studying the Artifacts of Orthodox Childhoods,” includes essays like Wendy Love Anderson’s “From Honey Cake to Upsherin Cookies: Jewish Mothers at the Beginning of Jewish Boyhood,” which helpfully blends material culture, gender roles, and patterns in Jewish learning, and Hillel Broder’s poignant reflections on his childhood siddur (prayer book), which he unearthed to daven (pray) with his own children during the pandemic lockdowns.
Part II, “The Songs and Music of Orthodox Childhoods,” is like its own mini-edited-volume: a fine contribution to how Jewish music for frum (observant) young people became part of their lived experience. I was particularly moved by Hannah Lebovits’s “Passing on the Journey,” which brought us along on her lengthy childhood car rides from Pittsburgh to New York City, all set to the tunes of the folk-oriented, Toronto-based Abie Rotenberg. Lonna Gordon’s essay on “The Music of the Marvelous Midos Machine” analyzes songs with titles that range from “Zisrus (Alacrity)” to “I’m a Hippopotamus,” reminding us that children’s culture often aims for lofty values but can rarely escape cutesy animal renditions.
In Part III, “Orthodox Childhoods: Personal Essays,” the volume moves away from object lessons and into more narrative life stories, ranging from Leslie Ginsparg Klein’s “This is the Greatest Show,” a vivid account of performing in Bais Yaakov high school theater productions, to Sara Feldman, Abby Glogower, and Sarah Gray’s deep autoethnographic dive into the zine they edited at their day school in the mid-1990s. Perhaps because I’m a devotee of the genre, I really enjoyed these sometimes poignant, sometimes funny stories (many chapters in other sections also deployed the personal essay form).
Although Yiddish in a formal sense is not the main subject here, both Yiddish and Yiddish-isms are an ambient presence throughout Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods, as it is in some Orthodox communities. Yiddish here is more of a garnish than the main dish (and its study is not a stated goal of the book)— even the chapters written about Yiddish-speaking Hasidic or Haredi communities deploy mostly English in their analysis. Elli Fischer’s “Parody and Pathos: The Art of Country Yossi” attends to Yiddish wordplay in the songs of comic entertainer Yossi Toiv, and Frieda Vizel’s “The Anachronisms of Hasidic Yiddish Biblical Coloring Books” is a lively piece on what happens when Adam has side curls in the Garden of Eden (both Adam and Eve are, of course, dressed modestly).
One of my favorite things about this book is its nuanced attention to materiality. Music isn’t just music—it’s also an object, and if it’s the 1990s, it comes in a book of CDs. Evocative narrations of summer camps, day schools, and childhood drawings (often accompanied by photographs) bring us into the embodied nature of this nostalgia—particularly useful for the book’s myriad reflections on gender. Jewish life isn’t just what lies within the texts (though Meira Levinson’s piece on ultra-Orthodox girl detective stories is great!). It’s something that engages all five senses. In this vein I greatly appreciated an essay by Shlomi Eiger, who discusses Haredi toys from his perspective as both a toy designer and a scholar of childhood.
Overall, this was an engaging read that brought a mix of scholarly erudition and personal pathos to the material. The authors come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds and “personal and critical essays” is right there in the title. This makes for a tremendous variation in format, length, and style among the essays—much more than one would typically find in an edited volume. A few pieces read like very traditional scholarship while others were brief vignettes that needed just a bit more verve in the writing, and more links from personal experience to broader social, philosophical, or historical questions. When I use this book in the classroom, I’ll have to provide a glossary, because the use of parenthetical translations for Yiddish and Hebrew also varies from piece to piece. Sometimes, the authors define the terms in English; sometimes, they don’t. Editorially, this could have been smoothed out a bit more, but I know that giving each author some free reign stylistically also has benefits. In the end, this heterogeneity is more of a feature than a bug. It’s impossible to mention each essay in a review of this length, but each one taught me something new.
A decade ago, when I had just published my own book on children’s literature and PJ Library was suddenly ascendant, an Orthodox cousin talked to me about it. A bubbe (grandma) in the generation before mine, she bemoaned the direction of PJ Library, which she felt underrepresented her community. She also rightly called me out for not including enough Orthodox material in my study.
To some extent, these materials didn’t fit the themes of my work—but I also had not found much on them in the secondary literature. Happily, Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods demonstrates that there is now enough research in Orthodox childhood studies to fill 243 pages—even before you explore further publications from this crew of thoughtful writers.