Nov 30, 2020
This piece is adapted from Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice, which will be published by New York University Press in January 2021.
In recent decades, an astonishing number of Eastern European Jewish bubbes and zaydes have proliferated in illustrated books. 1 1In geveb typically follows YIVO orthography for transliteration of Yiddish words into English, but, in this case, the more common English spellings are in line with the American Jewish nostalgia described here. Alternately stern and silly, demanding and diverting, these grandparents all embody the nostalgic longing of many American Jews for the era of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.
These nostalgic children’s books began to appear in the 1980s but really flourished in the 1990s as part of publishers’ efforts to create multicultural children’s books, especially for use in schools. In the twenty-first century, the trend has continued. Illustrated books with nostalgic themes feature in the catalog of PJ Library, a program that distributes free children’s books and music with Jewish content to Jewish and interfaith families. 2 2 Comparative literature scholar Jana Pohl identifies 78 English-language children’s books dealing with the subject published by North American authors between 1970 and 2005, and many more have been published since that time. Jana Pohl, Looking Forward, Looking Back: Images of Eastern European Jewish Migration to America in Contemporary American Children’s Literature (New York: Rodopi, 2011). See also Jodi Eichler-Levine, Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2015). For more on PJ Library, see Rachel B. Gross, “People of the Picture Book: PJ Library and American Jewish Religion,” in Religion and Popular Culture in America, third edition, eds. Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017), 177–194. All of the books in this list have been distributed by PJ Library. Children’s books depicting nostalgia for Eastern European Jewish immigration tell optimistic stories about ethnic and religious difference that hold particular meaning for American Jews but are designed to be accessible to all Americans.
Even as real-life Jewish children descended from Eastern European immigrants are now several generations removed from their immigrant ancestors, such books still repeatedly encourage them to identify as the grandchildren of immigrants through surrogate characters, a phenomenon I call the “eternal grandparent.” At the same time, authors who depict the immigrant generation merge remembrances of their own grandparents and great-grandparents, blending the preceding generations into a single eternal grandparent figure. This imagined familial connection teaches nostalgia for early twentieth century Eastern European immigration to the youngest American Jews—even those who are not themselves descended from Eastern European immigrants.
The eternal grandparent simplifies what would be a relationship to multiple ancestral generations and offers, instead, a direct relationship with a single, fictional figure. In the twenty-first century, American Jewish communities are becoming more racially diverse, American Jewish children are increasingly likely to have non-Jewish grandparents, and American Jews are finding new ways to express their Jewishness. Nevertheless, American Jewish children are taught that a primary way to be an American Jew is to have a personal—if fictional—connection to turn-of-the-century Ashkenazi immigration to the United States.
The abundance of fictional Jewish immigrant grandparents begs the question: Which bubbe and zayde are right for you?
1. You’re a rebel in need of a cause
If you have a rebellious streak but you want something to rebel against, then Rebecca Rubin’s Grandpa and Bubbie are the right grandparents for you. Jacqueline Dembar Greene’s Rebecca Rubin series provides the story for the character of American Girl’s eighteen-inch doll of that name. Rebecca Rubin is a “spunky, conflicted, compassionate and determined” nine-year-old girl growing up on the Lower East Side in 1914, an American-born daughter and granddaughter of Russian immigrants. In the first book in the series, Meet Rebecca (later republished as part of The Sound of Applause), Rebecca’s Yiddish-speaking grandparents champion religious and social traditions that she chafes against. They object to her father working in his shoe shop on Saturday and to their grandchildren going to the movies. While Rebecca helps her father in his shoe store on a Saturday, Grandpa takes Rebecca’s brother Victor to synagogue with him to practice for his bar mitzvah. Bubbie has taught Rebecca to crochet doilies for her trousseau, but Rebecca secretly sells her handiwork to help pay for her cousins’ immigration from Russia to the United States. In the end, Bubbie and the rest of Rebecca’s family come to appreciate Rebecca’s clever idea and realize that Rebecca is ready for the grown-up responsibilities that she’s eager to take on. 3 3 Jacqueline Dembar Greene, Meet Rebecca (Middleton, Wisconsin: American Girl Publishing, 2009).
Greene told me that she created the three generations of Rebeca’s family so that she could show “different attitudes toward being American.” Rebecca’s grandparents are the most religiously and socially traditional, and they have the most difficulty speaking English. Rebecca’s parents, who Greene imagined immigrated as teenagers, are “really straddling the Old World and the New World,” while American-born Rebecca and her siblings are “thoroughly American, and yet they want to please their parents. They want to do the things that are expected of them,” but “they’re the ones who are going forward and embracing all the changes.” Greene, whose own grandparents were from Smyrna and spoke Ladino, hoped that the Rebecca books would help parents and children talk about family backgrounds and navigate differences among recent immigrants. As she traveled the country giving book talks, she was gratified to hear from a diverse range of Jewish and non-Jewish parents and children that the books helped them begin to discuss their own family histories and the different kinds of experiences that adult and child immigrants to the United States have encountered. 4 4 Jacqueline Dembar Greene, interview with author, November 19, 2013.
2. You find real joy in yiddishkayt
If you find exuberant joy in yiddishkayt, Zaydeh in Elsa Okon Rael’s When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street (1997) is for you. This book is set in the Lower East Side of the 1930s, where Zeesie visits her inviting, “teeny-tiny” Bubbeh Rachel and her intimidatingly stern Zaydeh. Zaydeh takes Zeesie with him to a spirited Simchat Torah holiday service at the gorgeous Eldridge Street Synagogue. There, Zaydeh and Zeesie dance and sing with the Torah, and Zaydeh teaches her that Torah is a “a kiss from God to the Jewish people to show His love.” 5 5 Elsa Okon Rael, When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street (New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997).
When Rael published When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street in 1997, she and illustrator Marjorie Priceman would have encountered the Eldridge Street Synagogue in a dilapidated condition. (It has since been restored and is now open to the public as the Museum at Eldridge Street.) But to complement Rael’s joyful narrative, Priceman created exuberant gouache and watercolor depictions of the synagogue in its heyday. Rael, for her part, evokes a child’s wonder at the dazzling interior: “Reds, greens, yellows, lavenders, and blues filtered in and cast a magical light across the pews. . . . Zeesie spun around. This looks like a palace, she thought, and here I am, in the middle, like a princess!” Zaydeh introduces his granddaughter to an enchanted space of Jewish joy.
3. You’re into new ritual practices
If you prefer innovative rituals that speak to the changing times, then Sheldon Oberman’s Adam and his grandfather are the ancestors for you. In The Always Prayer Shawl (1994), Oberman tells the story of Adam, “a Jewish boy in Russia many years ago.” Adam is named after his grandfather’s grandfather, who himself was named for his grandfather’s grandfather, so that “there will always be an Adam.” When Adam and his family leave home for “a better place” that is “so far away we can never come back,” leaving his grandfather behind in Russia, Adam’s grandfather gives Adam his prayer shawl to take with him. 6 6 Oberman was Canadian, but The Always Prayer Shawl is set in a generic North American location to make it more accessible to readers in the United States. By the end of the book, Adam is a grandfather himself, promising his own grandson that he will pass on the prayer shawl to him someday. The grandson, in turn, promises to name his own grandson Adam. The inherited name and the “always prayer shawl” provide a thread of continuity in a world in which, Adam learns, “some things change and things don’t.” 7 7 Sheldon Oberman, The Always Prayer Shawl (Pennsylvania: Boyd Mills Press, 1994).
As Oberman later recounted, The Always Prayer Shawl had its roots in the author’s memories of his own grandfather and in his relationship with his son. The book creates an imaginary and otherwise impossible connection between Oberman’s grandfather, his zaida, who passed away in the 1960s, when Oberman was twelve, and Oberman’s son, named Adam. Oberman had inherited his grandfather’s tallis upon his grandfather’s death but, at the time, he was uninterested in religion. Decades later, when Adam became a bar mitzvah, Oberman saw the appeal of ritual inheritance. He hoped that his father would give Adam his own tallis and, as Adam put it on, Oberman would don his zaida’s tallis. But Adam’s mother, Oberman’s ex-wife, Lee Anne, who had never had a bat mitzvah herself, had purchased a brand-new tallis for Adam that she wanted to give to her son. She wanted Adam to wear her gift, ““so she could feel she was up there embracing and sheltering him just like that garment.” With help from a rabbi, Oberman and Lee Anne reached a ritual compromise. Lee Anne removed the worn tzitzis from Oberman’s father’s tallis and tied on the new ones from her gift. Adam received a pastiche tallis composed of the fabric of his grandfather’s tallis and the tzitzis of his mother’s gift, a ritual garment representing both sides of his family. 8 8 Sheldon Oberman, “The Gift of the Prayer Shawl,” Women’s League Outlook 66, no. 4 (June 30, 1996): 8. Long, 1F.
“As for myself,” Oberman later reflected, “I was proud to finally wear my grandfather’s tallit and soon afterwards, I wrote The Always Prayer Shawl.” In the book, Ted Lewin’s black and white gouache and watercolor illustrations symbolize memories of Russia, giving way to a colorful present day in North America. The book “was a final bar mitzvah gift for Adam which I gave on behalf of my grandfather, his great-grandfather, who had died so long before he was born.” 9 9 Oberman, “The Gift.” Emphasizing direct transference on the male line, the book elides the ritual compromise in Oberman’s real-life family experience. Instead, it imagines new ritual innovations of the intact heirloom tallis and the inherited name from a grandfather’s grandfather.
4. You love fantasy—or you hate it
If you love fantasy, then Sol in The Castle on Hester Street is your man. But if you’re a determined realist, then you want his wife, Rose. In Linda Heller’s story (first published 1982; reissued with new illustrations 2007), Sol tells extravagantly tall tales about his voyage from Russia to the United States and his life on the Lower East Side to his granddaughter, Julie. Moishe the goat pulled Sol’s wagon from Russia to America, leaping over oceans “the way others jump over puddles.” He was greeted by President Theodore Roosevelt, and boasts that “everyone who came here was given a castle.” Rose counters with alternate, more realistic versions, recalling a miserable ocean journey on a ship and a “horrible little room” shared with other boarders on the Lower East Side. But both can agree on the power of family and of American freedoms. In the United States, “we had each other and we were free to live as we wanted.” 10 10 Linda Heller, The Castle on Hester Street (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982). Linda Heller, The Castle on Hester Street (New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2007).
Heller’s original 1982 publication, which she illustrated herself with quiet, haunting drawings, won the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries. But Heller might have been ahead of her time. The book found an even more receptive audience in the context of twenty-first-century multicultural classrooms when it was reissued in 2007 with slight changes to the text and new, brightly colored illustrations by Boris Kulikov. Heller’s dual storylines offer an appealing way to both respect historical records and celebrate family stories, which don’t always align with one another. While the narrative presents Sol’s account as fictional and Rose’s counterpoints as realistic, it also presents both as powerful acts of memory-making.
5. You love a happily ever after
If you’re a dreamer who prefers stories that end with “happily ever after,” then Grandmother in Amy Hest’s When Jessie Came Across the Sea (1997) is the bubbe for you. In Hest’s story, illustrated with evocative watercolors by P.J. Lynch, Jessie is an ageless orphan (presumably an adolescent) who lives with her grandmother in “a poor village far from here,” the mythic shtetl of the American Jewish imagination. 11 11 See Jeffrey Shandler, Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2014). When Jessie has the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, she reluctantly leaves her grandmother behind and settles on the Lower East Side. As she sews lace to sell she longs for grandmother, who taught her the skill: “Just to touch the soft lace was like touching Grandmother again.” In a satisfying end to the story, Jessie saves enough money to bring her grandmother to the United States, and the two are successfully reunited just before Jessie’s wedding to Lou, another immigrant. 12 12 Amy Hest, When Jessie Came Across the Sea (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 1997).
Amy Hest told me that she drew upon her own family history in writing Jessie. The story is “really about my grandmother and myself,” Hest said. “I wrote this book as a way of telling about my own family history, and I blended the real family history with stories that I made up.” Hest’s grandmother was born in the United States, and she used to tell Hest about her own parents, Jessie and Lou, who emigrated from Eastern Europe. The satisfying ending in which Jessie successfully brings her grandmother to join her in New York—the most unlikely part of the story—was, Hest told me, “my way of bringing back my grandmother, who died many years ago. It was my way of reconnecting with her and making a happy ending.” 13 13 Amy Hest, interview by author, January 6, 2014. Jessie’s grandmother is a static Old-World character, defined by Jessie’s love and longing for her. She is an eternal grandparent, a loveable, timeless fantasy that facilitates emotional connections across the generations, real and imagined.
These nostalgic children’s books provide charming ways to teach children to be emotionally engaged with a particular part of American Jewish history. They help Jewish audiences—both children and the adults who read to them—understand and interpret their family relationships and histories by placing them in larger social and historical contexts. Images of eternal grandparents allow readers to make sense of unwieldy family stories by fitting them into comfortable, widely recognizable narratives that can provide readers and listeners with a sense of belonging within families and communities.
But they should be a beginning, not an end, to formal and informal conversations with children about American Jewish heritage and what it means to be an American Jew in the twenty-first century. Children in Generation Alpha do not have turn-of-the-twentieth-century Eastern European grandparents; it is far more likely that some but not all of their own grandparents do. Like American Jewish generations before them, today’s children will develop new ways to tell stories about being Jewish in the United States and about their ancestries.
PJ Library’s catalog includes a number of books reflecting the diversity of Jewish families, too. The Jewish Multiracial Network and Bechol Lashon also provide lists of children’s books depicting Jewish diversity. For American Jewish children’s books depicting interfaith families, see Samira Mehta, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
In the meantime, whether you’re a dreamer, a realist, a rebel, or a romantic, there’s a fictional Eastern European bubbe and zayde who are right for you. While the turn-of-the-twentieth-century era of immigration grows ever more distant, and new stories about American Jewish heritage continue to emerge, fictional immigrant bubbes and zaydes will still be there, just two generations away from the reader. Eternally accessible, these bubbes and zaydes provide comfort, admonishment, and a direct connection to a particular narrative of American Jewish heritage.