The stereotype that “Jews run Hollywood” didn’t come up much when I was a little kid; I doubt it comes up for most kids. This is not only because, hopefully, we’re spared from some stereotyping when we’re really small—but also because as a little kid, if Jews were running Hollywood, well, you sure wouldn’t know it from children’s entertainment.
As the only Jewish family in our little town, I didn’t see a lot of other Jewish families around. I also never saw my family reflected in the television or movies we watched. I mean, like, other than our annual Passover screening of The Ten Commandments, or our way-too-early introduction to Fiddler on the Roof. But both of those movies had been made a long time ago, and were obviously For Grown Ups. I fully expected that, like all of my friends and neighbors, the characters in the movies and TV shows I watched would celebrate Christmas, not Chanukah.
Until the Jewish mice.
When I saw Don Bluth’s now-classic animated feature, An American Tail, I was thunderstruck. The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes, gathered together to celebrate Chanukah. They even pronounced the “ch” right. The father played a violin, just like in Fiddler on the Roof, but for kids! And then, of course, the Cossacks raided their little Mouskewitz home in The Old World, and then the little mouse family was off to America, going through Ellis Island… just like my family.
Those mice are Jewish, I thought. Fievel and Tanya, they’re Jewish. They’re like me.
But here’s what I really loved about those Jewish mice: Their Jewishness was just part of who they were, and the story was about big ideas that everyone could relate to—starting somewhere new, family, growing up. The same way that in most of the other movies and TV shows I watched, the show wasn’t about them being Christian—they just were Christian, and therefore celebrated Christmas and Easter and everything, but their stories were about big ideas. My friends who weren’t Jewish still loved Feivel and related to his little Jewish-mouse family.
Even later, when I started going to Hebrew School and watched Torah-toons and holiday specials that reflected Judaism in the characters onscreen, there was something special to me about those Jewish mice. When Fievel is searching for his family, he didn’t stop along the way to explain what “kosher” is, or to teach the viewers how to play dreidel. He wasn’t a token Jewish character in a holiday special, designated as “The Jewish One.” He was Fievel, a lost immigrant kid who happened to be Jewish (and happened to be a mouse). I loved that in his little mouse family, they just were Jewish, and that fact was treated as casually as other movies treated the Christianity of their characters.
That felt like my own American tale. Being Jewish is part of my story, and influences my experience. Even when I’m not “doing something Jewish,” it’s still part of who I am. Those are the characters that still resonate with me most: not the ones overtly teaching us something about Something Jewish (or, sadly, playing into one of those old Jewish stereotypes), but the ones who just are Jewish. Like Fievel.
Seeing that reflected onscreen as a little kid had a lasting impact on me. Maybe that’s why I still tear up when I hear Somewhere Out There.
Mickey and Minnie are great. But Fievel and Tanya? Those mice helped me feel a little more included. They helped me believe that somewhere, out there – all of us can be represented.
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Students at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama, listen in rapt attention to The Rabbi and the 29 Witches. We love everything about this image, from the beard and hat on our Ed Fellow (hey, sometimes you have to be the rabbi AND the witches!) to the cute cuddling yarmulke buddies.
Shabbat shalom, y’all!
Full disclosure: Kveller.com is a partner site of our host, MyJewishLearning.
In a recent blog post on the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Joyce Anderson wrote about the process of teaching her oldest son to pray. For Anderson, teaching her child to speak to God, preceded (or facilitated, perhaps) her attempts to talk with him about God. Interestingly, Anderson is not Jewish; she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her article is one of several non-Jewish perspectives in Kveller’s God Month, an ongoing series on the challenges of talking to children about God.
While Anderson shows no ambivalence about encouraging her child to develop a personal relationship with the divine, the other responses in the series present more complicated experiences of parenting and faith. Among all the essays, Jewish or not, hers is the only one that takes for granted that children should believe in God. Taken together, the articles point towards a basic truth: we aren’t that good at talking about God.
At first, I found this troubling. The ambivalence about God in the Jewish responses certainly reflects editorial choices or selection bias, but it still squares with my own experience of non-Orthodox Jewish life in America. Reading through the pieces, I found myself wondering, “Do any of us simply believe?”
Anderson’s prayer-based solution makes a lot of sense, especially given the deeply personal relationship between individuals and God in Christ-centered theologies. Prayer takes a central role in a few of the Jewish responses, as well, but in a different way. For the Jewish parents that write about prayer, showing a child how to pray also helps him or her relate to God personally, but the contributors’ own sense of God remains less defined. For them, the advantage of prayer is that it acknowledges and celebrates a creative force in the universe without limiting how we conceive of that force.Tellingly, of the two Jewish parents who write about sharing their personal religious practices with their children, both include prayers from Eastern traditions, like Buddhism.
Several God Month contributors—including self-identified Jews—reject the idea of God altogether, or at least bracket off questions about God’s nature and existence as unknowable and inessential to an ethical life. These writers express ambivalence about the prospect of raising a religious child, though they note the importance of teaching their kids to respect other people’s religious traditions. Some of the skeptics are attached in one way or another to Jewish culture and identity, and even want their children to have the option of choosing a more spiritual life.
Now, I’m neither traditionally observant nor deeply spiritual. I do not intend to criticize anyone’s personal practice or to bemoan some lost golden age of Jewish observance. I am struck, however, by absence of modern Jewish voices that speak confidently about God, both in the Kveller series and in my own experiences.
Perhaps, though, the issue is not that we are bad at talking about God, but that God is and should be difficult to talk about. Sometimes, especially when children come into play, we may feel need for a simpler or more concrete sense of the divine. But complete certainty (fundamentalism) is a dangerous thing, and what kind of God could be understood through mere human speech, anyway?
The tensions and contradictions expressed in the Kveller series might not reflect deficiencies in our communities, but a healthy struggle between traditional beliefs and universal values. I still hope that the series will include a Jewish writer who approaches the topic of God with more certainty and less ambiguity, but I can also accept and appreciate the articles that are there so far. They represent a real effort to do right by our children when it comes to God talk. I’m not a parent yet, but I hope (God willing) that the questions raised by God Month are ones I will one day have to answer both for myself and my children.