Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Like three of her predecessors–Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Sidney, and Laura Ingalls Wilder–Sydney Taylor created a fictional family of such endearing character and loving spirit that her young readers clamored for more titles. In all, five books about the All-of-a-Kind Family were written between 1951 and 1978. The values of family love, charity, wisdom, compassion, and social justice that define Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family owe their particular flavor to Jewish culture.
Sydney Taylor and the Arts
After graduating in drama from New York University, she first became an actor with the Lenox Hill Players in New York City from 1925 to 1929, and then a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1930 to 1935.
Despite her successful career, she became a full-time wife and mother ten years after her marriage to businessman Ralph Taylor in 1925 and the birth of their only child, Joanne (Jo), in 1935. When Jo was seven, Taylor resumed her interest in the arts, serving as a dance and dramatics counselor at the nonprofit Cejwin Camps.
Although she was to write several other children’s stories as well as plays, which she also directed and choreographed, nothing equaled the invention stimulated by her recollection of her own childhood as the middle child in a household rich in love, learning, and tradition.
Eager to comfort Jo, who felt lonely at nighttime in bed, Taylor told her daughter stories about her own growing up in a family where loneliness was unheard of, since five sisters shared the same bedroom. Perhaps it is no irony that Taylor’s daughter was given the same nickname as the beloved hero Jo March in Little Women, another American classic about sisters in a warm, loving family.
As Taylor related her stories to Jo, she was flooded with nostalgia for her childhood, growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, where she was born in 1904. She found herself wanting to record her early history as the child of immigrant parents struggling to make a life for themselves among the many eager, hopeful newcomers to America in the early 1900s.
The documentation was entirely personal; as she stated, “Satisfied, I promptly put the manuscript away and the years rolled over it.” Forgotten, too, was her childhood response to the inevitable question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She had then answered, “A writer.”
It remained for Taylor’s husband, Ralph, president of Caswell-Massey Company, a firm of chemists and perfumers, to unearth the manuscript when he heard about the Charles W. Follett Award for writing. Unknown to his wife, he submitted All-of-a-Kind Family, which was published in 1951, received the award, and launched Sydney Taylor’s career as writer of children’s fiction. The book also won the 1952 Jewish Book Council Award.
About All-of-a-Kind Family
In All-of-a-Kind Family, Mama and Papa love their girls dearly and teach them to be good to one another, to their parents, to their neighbors and friends, and to their faith. Taylor gently integrates the rich traditions and heritage of Judaism into this family’s life: The reader learns about the celebration of Purim, Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah not as an aside but as a central part of religious Jewish life. Such activities as attending shul, making a sukkah, and celebrating the weekly Sabbath are interspersed with all of the kitchen activities typical of an Orthodox Jewish household–rolling dough for teyglekh (sweet pastries), making gefilte fish, and baking challah.
When the family moves uptown to the Bronx into a predominantly gentile community, Papa and Mama remind their daughters that America promises an opportunity to advance, as well as the freedom to retain one’s Jewish roots. If this
attention to heritage and learning sounds plodding, Taylor enlivens it always with generosity of spirit and humor. Mama reassures the family by telling them, “You don’t have to worry. We’ll still be able to buy bagels and lox for Sunday morning breakfast.”
A contemporary reader may approach these books about this kind and gentle family with skepticism. The characters act with predictable innocence and goodness, there is little character development, and stereotypical family roles predominate. World events, including World War I, intrude only slightly into this sunny home. Mama’s place is still in the kitchen, while Papa goes out to work. The birth of a long-awaited son somewhat eclipses the importance of the family’s five energetic, engaging daughters.
Even modern trends, such as the entry of women into the work force, cannot change the importance of family. The eldest sister, Ella, who is the focus of the final book in the series, ultimately chooses family over a career, believing that “there’s a kind of contentment in such homely tasks [as washing dishes].” What stands the test of time is Taylor’s magical evocation of a past age when spirituality was a central part of life. We may even grieve that this era is no more.
Sydney Taylor died of cancer on February 12, 1978. The final All-of-a-Kind Family book was published posthumously later that year. It received the first annual Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award, established by the Association of Jewish Libraries in 1979.