Monday, October 07, 2019

Diversity Needs Jewish Books


During the 2019 High Holiday season, the image above was posted on Facebook by We Need Diverse Books, the nonprofit that seeks to build "a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book." This is a big deal.

It's a big deal because for a long time, the kidlit diversity discussion has mostly left Jews out in the cold. A perfect example happened recently at a major diversity workshop aimed at librarians. A Jewish friend who attended reported that religious diversity was barely touched upon (a single slide referenced Muslim literature) and that Judaic books were completely absent from a discussion that covered a wide range of marginalized groups from African Americans to Latinx, Native Americans, LGBT, and even the Neurodiverse community. 

While a sense of fairness demands that Jewish titles be included in diversity discussions, there's a more urgent need than that. Quoting the We Need Diverse Books website, children "suffer from not seeing the true nature of the world around them. It can distort the world around them and their connections to other humans." If we want Gentile readers to understand and relate to Jews, we need them to read about authentic Jewish characters. This is especially true for readers who don't have the opportunity to meet real, live Jewish people. Prejudice grows from ignorance, and ignorance is conquered by reading. Introducing Jewish literature to a wide audience is a crucial part of the fight against anti-Semitism in a dangerous world where hate is on the rise.

Why does the sort of erasure described above happen over and over to Jews, when the diversity umbrella offers enthusiastic shelter to so many other groups? Jewish children are lucky to see themselves fairly well-mirrored in literature, but there seems to be some hesitancy among others to use these books as windows. Perhaps it is believed that Jews don't need support because many of us enjoy white privilege, or economic privilege. Ironically, other minorities often have the same intersectional privileges but are embraced nonetheless. Perhaps people have unconsciously absorbed ancient falsehoods about Jewish power that make it hard for them to see our vulnerability. Perhaps we ourselves sometimes feel reluctant to ask for a place at the table because we fear reinforcing the stereotype of the pushy, kvetchy Jew. I don't believe that the warm-hearted people planning diversity workshops are anti-Semitic, but I do think they tend to have a blind spot about Jewish marginalization. And that is precisely why I am so pleased to see this acknowledgement from We Need Diverse Books.

How is this change in attitude finally coming about? While I don't know the details, I believe that it is because people are speaking up. Members of the Jewish Kidlit Mavens group on Facebook have mentioned calling board members of We Need Diverse Books and other organizations to request Jewish inclusion, and have spoken of warm responses. In my own experience, offering Jewish title recommendations to diversity bloggers has brought an enthusiastic reaction, even relief, from those who want to be inclusive but don't have the requisite expertise on Jewish kidlit. A high profile success story occurred this January, when a desire by the American Library Association to feature more diverse books combined with many years of advocacy by the Association of Jewish Libraries, resulting in the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish children's literature being included in ALA's Youth Media Awards prestigious press conference.

Rabbi Hillel, in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 1:14) said "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" These wise words perfectly encapsulate the situation at hand. Jews must advocate for our own inclusion in the diversity conversation (help from Gentile friends is also appreciated). We must continue to be good allies, promoting the literature of other minorities along with our own. And we must do it today and every day. As the Jewish New Year rolls around, reminding us to take stock, I want to thank those diversity warriors who are already promoting Jewish literature, such as Missing Voice, Kidlit These Days, and now We Need Diverse Books; and I look forward to even more Jewish inclusion in future diversity discussions. Happy 5780, and may you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.


NOTE: Thank you to Tzivia MacLeod and Esme Codell for their respective blog posts Dear Diversity (No Jews Allowed?) and You Don't Have to Be Jewish, and to the robust discussions on Jewish Kidlit Mavens, all of which inspired this essay. Another relevant post is On Being Othered: A Jewish Young Adult Author's Look at Jewish Erasure in Kidlit by Stacie Ramey. Joyce Schriebman's essay in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger KOLOT – This diversity conference made me feel more marginalized describes her experience at the workshop referenced above.




8 comments:

Joanne Levy said...

Thank you for weighing in, Heidi. The more we speak, the more we're included.

Liza Wiemer said...

Beautifully said, Heidi. Thank you!

Olga Swan said...

Yes. My 7 published books by Crooked Cat Books each comprise Jewish characters from the Birmingham Jewish community.

aruiz said...

Thank you for this. I think we also need to look at diversity within the Jewish kidlit world. Most Jewish children's books don't reflect the racial diversity of the community and also center around mostly Ashkenazi traditions.

Annette said...

Yes, thank you, Heidi. I think this conversation has finally reached critical mass. I just attended a webinar today (introducing a wonderful new tool, the Diverse Book Finder https://diversebookfinder.org/) where someone brought it up in the comments.

Heidi said...

It's a separate question, but yes, we do need more diversity within Jewish lit too. Here is a roundup of diverse Jewish kidlit, showing that we've made a decent start from which to grow. https://jewishbooks.blogspot.com/2017/06/bibliography-diverse-jewish-kidlit.html

Shelley S said...

This was a great column to read. Thank you. Nice reading today along with celebrating High Holy-
days. I appreciated the links to other websites as well. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Wonderful post and thanks for including my blog post in the list!