A Jewish Bookseller’s View

The question “What is a Jewish book?” is often answered by committees running Jewish book fairs with “anything with Jewish content or a Jewish author.” Kathy Bloomfield, who worked for years servicing those book fairs as a mokheret s’farim (Jewish bookseller), has a definition that is both more broad and more narrow. Her list encompasses books that include neither Jewish content nor are written by Jewish authors, but she requires that the book be read with Jewish eyes and a Jewish sensibility.

In my job as the Book Club Editor of Baba Bookz, the BabagaNewz Book Club, I often have to ask myself the question “Is this a Jewish book?” as I read the hundreds of titles that come across my desk each year for possible inclusion in our book club. My answer to this question might not be what you would expect. I do not look for Jewish characters (although those are nice.) I do not look for specifically Jewish contexts (although those are terrific.) Rather, I look for the values conveyed by the story. And more specifically, “Does this story convey a Jewish value or allow a Jewish child to see himself or herself in the story?”

Of course, there are those obvious Jewish books that are published every year, usually around Hanukkah or Passover time, which teach about a specific Jewish holiday, or tell a decidedly Jewish story, or have strong, Jewishly identified characters in the cast. These books pose very little problem in deciding if they are Jewish books or not. Usually, it is a matter of individual comfort level with the content (too traditional or too liberal), the level of the information being imparted (too scholarly or too basic) or the quality of the illustrations that forms the decision to buy or check out the book. But what about the other 99% of the books published every year? Do those books that do not appear to be specifically Jewish in nature belong on a Jewish bookshelf or library? My answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

The trick to deciding whether a book belongs on your bookshelf is to read non-Jewish books with Jewish eyes, to see beyond what is actually written on the page and look deeply for those connections that can link a non-Jewish book to our Jewish world. To do this, we must keep our Jewish tradition and our Jewish values in mind as we sift through the piles of new, wonderfully illustrated and delightfully told stories that are offered to us each year in bookstores and libraries across the country. We must also determine, usually by reading the book in question, which of these wonderful titles will convey our Jewish values appropriately to a specific age group in the most effective way possible. Finally, and probably most importantly, we want to locate those books that will excite the imagination of the reader in a way that will tie them firmly to the lessons being taught and create for them an internal moral encyclopedia that they can call upon when they are looking for a Jewish answer to a life dilemma. All of this definitely requires an “out-of-the-box” way of looking at books.

Whether you are planning a book fair, creating a book club or buying a single book for a gift, answering the question, “What is a Jewish book?” is very important. When deciding whether a book is appropriate or not, I ask myself the following basic questions:

1-     What is my overall impression of the book? Is it a good read, a likely plot, with characters I care about?

2-     What does the story teach? What Jewish values are emphasized?

3-     What age group would this story most appeal to?

Based on the answers to the above questions, a book will fall into one of four categories. Category one consists of those books that are considered classic Jewish literature. Books like The All-of-a-Kind Family Series by Sydney Taylor, The Faraway Summer by Johanna Hurwitz or Journey to America by Sonia Levitin come to mind. Second, books that have won some kind of Jewish award like the Sydney Taylor Award or The Jewish Book Award. Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse or Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli would fall into this category. Next, there will be those books that have no Jewish content per se but speak about values or describe a moral dilemma in such an excellent way that they cannot be overlooked, like Holes by Louis Sachar or Nothing but the Truth by the author known as Avi. Finally, there are those books that truly have no Jewish content whatsoever no matter how far our imagination stretches; these don’t make it to the Baba Bookz bookshelf. I encourage you to visit www.bababookz.com to get an idea of the range of books that are available when one looks at the world through a Jewish lens.

Most importantly, when you are reading to or with your children, no matter what book you are reading, have a specifically Jewish conversation with them about the book. Use Jewish values terms like kavod (dignity) or hesed (caring) when you ask questions about the book’s contents, about the characters and their behavior. In this way, you will start your children down the path of reading books with Jewish eyes.

Of course, this evaluation does not stop with children’s books. As more and more synagogues are forming book groups, holding author/book discussions, or sponsoring Jewish book fairs, it is important not only to offer programs featuring Jewish books by Jewish authors, but also to look at the latest non-Jewish best sellers and discuss those titles in a Jewish context. As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg is a must-read Jewish classic and the latest Harold Kushner book should not be missed, but books like Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich or even, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells should not be passed over, as they offer rich subject matter for discussions of Jewish values, Jewish life in America, and Jewish roles in the world.

So, the question “What is a Jewish book?” can be answered very narrowly if one wants to stay with only those titles that speak directly to a specific Jewish issue or topic. Or the question can be answered in a very broad way if one looks at the contents of a book within a wider context. I personally choose to take the broader view, as I believe it is fun and exciting to read books looking for the Jewish connection. When I had my own book fair company, I would most enjoy the looks on people’s faces when they would see a title they recognized from the bookstore, wonder what it was doing at a Jewish book fair and ultimately found out what the Jewish connection was. I encourage you next time you finish reading a book, either by yourself or with your children, to ask yourself, “Was that a Jewish book?”

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