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Monday, January 06, 2020

How to read for the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee...a Self Care poem?

A guest post by Sylvie Shaffer

Just before Chanukah, I wrote this poem as response to the Nessah Synagogue desecration. At the time, I was finishing my second year of reading for the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, which I have been so incredibly honored to do. The award has been given annually since 1968 by the Association of Jewish Libraries to the best books featuring Jewish content published for children and young adults.

While I have enjoyed reading and critically considering some wonderful books with joyful expressions of Jewish life, most of my committee reading has centered the Holocaust, and to be completely honest, it's been brutal reading these stories of Jewish victimhood. Especially since over the course of the last 24 or so months of reading every eligible book published, antisemitism and violence against Jews has risen dramatically.

Setting aside the hard numbers - for example, "at least 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets were shared or re-shared on Twitter over a 12-month period" in 2018 - consider that during the same period in which I read a stack of Holocaust books taller than I am (granted, I am only five feet tall, but still) the following things happened:
  • Months of bomb threats to Jewish schools, Jewish Community Centers, and Synagogues
  • Deadly Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway
  • Swastikas spray-painted in big cities and small towns and on college campuses including my dear alma matter Smith College
  • A Kosher supermarket shooting
And just in the last week alone, each day of Chanukah saw horrible acts of violence against Jews. Never again is now. This has to stop. Please, whether you're Jewish or not, a Kidlit pal or not, please raise your voice, raise awareness, acknowledge that this - acts of violence against Jews - is happening...again.

~ Sylvie Shaffer, December 30, 2019

How to read for the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee...a Self Care poem?

As books arrive, sort them into Picturebooks, MG, and YA. Diligently update your spreadsheets noting “books received”...try to stagger your reading so you read non-Holocaust books in between the Holocaust books. At some point, late in the year, accept that you will run out of non-Holocaust books to read as spacers. Es faran nisht genug bikher. There are not enough books. And yet there are too many.

When all you’ve got left is a stack of Nazi-lit, it’s time to beef up the self care. Make deals with yourself about pages read before you can take the dog for her walk. Drink hot chocolate while you read. Bake something, so the house smells warm and sweet.

Take the covers off the books so you don’t have to see the swastikas, barbed wire, yellow stars that adorn the dust jackets. Read in the bathtub with soft music playing.

Take a break, take a walk. Put on your coat. Think about how it doesn’t have coins or jewels sewn into the lining. Wonder if it should. Say hi to your neighbors when you pass them. Would they take you in, if it came to that? Kiss the mezuzah on the way back into the house.

Check Twitter. Look at photos of the Nessah Synogogue vandalism with disbelief. Feel gratitude your Zeydie who was forced into the Bialystok ghetto, a firsthand witness to the desecration of the famous Great Synagogue in 1941, who survived multiple concentration camps, is not alive to see this. The images of broken glass and vandalized Torahs are dizzying, nauseating.

Read on the sofa with one hand scritching your dog’s soft head. She understands you’re reading horrifying stories you already know, were born knowing. Remember your Oma screaming in German in her sleep, every Shabbat sleepover of your youth. Remember, when you read descriptions of concentration camp bunks, how your Bubbie commented at your sister’s school production of Oliver- “that’s how we slept in the camps.” Remember. Never forget. As if you could.

Update your committee spreadsheets.


Charlotte Taylor said...

thank you for this.

Matthew C. Winner said...

What an exceptionally beautiful and vulnerable poem, Sylvie. Thank you for sharing your heart and your love and your world and your light with us all.