Jewish books we need

Posted July 4, 2011

It’s Manuscript Monday again, and I had a post all ready to go about Jewish books and holidays. And then on July 1, 2011, the Minnesota state government shut down (this is a big deal to us because we’re in Minnesota) and it seems awfully ironic that we’re celebrating the anniversary of freedom from unjust taxation right after the state shut down because the Republican-led state legislature and the Democratic governor can’t agree on a state budget that doesn’t 1) raise taxes, and 2) cut health care, special education, and public safety.

But then I thought, there’s more than enough out there about the shutdown. There’s not nearly enough out there about Jewish books we need to see. So I’m back to my original post.

Today’s a holiday, but it’s not a holiday we talk about much in Jewish literature. Christian conservative Americans are quick to point out that America was founded on a Christian ideology, and use that to bolster their argument that America should be a Christian nation, despite the fact that it clearly is not (the right to freedom of religion and separation of church and state aside).

Many American Jewish communities make a big deal about Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) but not so much about American Independence Day. Is it because the assumption is that people don’t know much about Yom Ha’atzmaut but, as Americans, they know about Independence Day? What would the American Jewish community say about July 4th? What do we need to tell our kids?

My own kids asked, “Are we Jews who live in America? Or are we Americans who are Jews?” (I told them we are Jews and we are Americans, that both inform how we view the world, and that both inform how we see ourselves and how we should act in the world outside.)

Anyone who lives in America for very long learns what it means to be American on the Fourth of July. But what does it mean to be Jewish on this day? What happens when the 4th is a Friday, and fireworks are on Shabbat? Do we still go see them? Do we ever have to draw a line between being Jewish and being American? That’s a book I want to see.

There are other holidays when being Jewish seems somehow at odds. Let’s talk about Halloween for a moment. A very wise Jewish educator told me once that going trick-or-treating on Halloween would be permissible if those same kids deliver treats to their neighbors and those in need on Purim. In other words, you don’t get to “get” without also giving. Sometimes giving can be more fun. And for those with less, studies have shown that poorer households give more to charity than richer households.

I want to see My Jewish Halloween or Making Halloween Jewish or Kosher Trick-or-Treat.

Anyone ever notice the similarities between Sukkot and Thanksgiving? They’re both fall harvest festivals, and both make use of a substantial number of “first fruits.” They both are about expressing gratitude for our abundance. But do a search on “Jewish Thanksgiving” and you’ll find a plethora of questions ranging from “Is Thanksgiving Kosher?” to “Is Thanksgiving a Jewish Holiday?” and “What is the Jewish View on Thanksgiving?” Clearly, people want to know. These are books I want to see.

We can’t forget the December Dilemma. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of books about Chanukah (or Hanukkah or Hanukah or however you prefer to spell it). Where are the books about where Chanukah gift-giving came from or how kids deal with the “gift comparison” at school in January? Where are the books that help Jewish kids understand that it’s okay to be a minority in December when nearly every home has some sort of Christmas decoration? Are we afraid that our kids will find the realities of a contemporary American mostly-secular, highly-materialistic Christmas so attractive that they’ll convert?

I want to see Santa Doesn’t Come to Our House, or The Rabbi and the Reindeer, or Why the December Dilemma Isn’t. I actually found Reginald the Jewish Reindeer, a short story by Nicholas Gordon, and maybe I just want it longer, more fleshed-out. It wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be, but it’s a start.

Let’s be really clear that I’m not talking about interfaith books, here. I’m talking about books for Jews who are wrestling with these questions, and for non-Jews (including Christians) who want to understand what their Jewish family and friends are going through. Like No Peeps at Passover or Giving Up Anti-Semitism for Lent.

Let’s write these books, shall we? Let’s publish these books. Let’s get booksellers and synagogues and JCCs and libraries and Jewish book bloggers and book fairs and Jewish schools on board because these questions and struggles are real. And we are the People of the Book. And we owe it to ourselves and our children. And because I really want to go to a bookstore and see Why Being Jewish is the Coolest Thing Ever. Period.

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