Lego Rabbis, Hasidic Coloring Books: How Toy Makers and Publishers Created an Alternative Jewish Universe
(JTA) — I grew up with “Encyclopedia Brown”, a series of books about an elementary school Sherlock Holmes who solves one-minute mysteries. You know the guy, “If you didn’t steal the bike, how did you know it was blue?”
Encyclopedia’s world was like mine: white, suburban, middle class. If he had a religion, it wasn’t obvious – which, except when we took off for the long holidays or for Sunday school, was also true for me and my friends. Later, I joked that there should be an all-Jewish version of the books, in which the hero solves very specific Jewish mysteries. I even came up with a name: “Encyclopedia Judaica Brown”.
It turns out there is such a thing: “Gemarakup” (roughly, “Talmudic brain”) is a series of children’s books created for the Haredi, or devoutly Orthodox, market. Its hero, according to volume 2, likes “solving puzzles, almost as much as he likes[s] study Torah” (note that “almost”).
I discovered “Gemarakup” in “Artifacts of Orthodox Childhoods” (Ben Yehuda Press), a new collection of essays edited by Dainy Bernstein, who teaches literature for children and young adults, among others, at Lehman College at CUNY. Written by scholars and writers who grew up immersed in books, toys and songs created for the religious Jewish market, it’s an introduction to a world that a non-Orthodox Jew like me may not have glimpsed. than through the window of a Borough Park Judaica store. .
Its titular artifacts are an alternate universe of pop culture: Lego-like sets featuring tiny rabbis in their studies and modestly-dressed mothers making challah; children’s songs that rework secular genres to teach sexual restraint and the power of prayer; a coloring book in which even Adam and Eve are fully dressed in the clothes of Hasidic Jews.
It is also, for many contributors, a settling of scores with a strictly orthodox upbringing that many of them have left behind. The books, toys, and songs are meant to reinforce values that many authors find stifling, including strict gender segregation, tightly prescribed roles for boys and girls, and distrust of strangers. Haredi book and toy stores, writes Shlomi Eiger, a Tel Aviv-based toy designer, “serve as gatekeepers, preventing the secular consumer culture from infiltrating the community.”
Except when the doors don’t fit. Bernstein told me about the ways orthodox publishers and creators can’t escape the culture they fight.
“It’s a community that’s not separate from non-Jewish America or American politics,” Bernstein said. “They actively participate in American culture and American politics, despite all their protestations to the contrary. If you actually look at the books, they are influenced by American publishing trends.
Examples include “The BY Times,” a haredi version of “The Babysitters Club” books (“Without Boyfriends,” as contributor Meira Levinson points out) and the mystery series “Devora Doresh,” a cross between “Nancy Drew.” and, yes, “Brown Encyclopedia.”
For Orthodox parents and educators (and Bernstein acknowledges the wide range of philosophies and values within even the strictest Orthodox communities), the test of a children’s product is whether the creator has the right intentions. “If they don’t believe in the right kind of Judaism, it will trickle down to their work, and you’ll be influenced by that and so you’ll leave the right kind of Judaism,” Bernstein said, characterizing the community ethos. “So it’s this idea of being very careful not to let outside influences pass, even if they seem trivial.”
And yet, as Levinson explains in her essay on the “Devora Doresh” books, (gently) subversive messages can slip through the gates: Created by Carol Korb Hubner, the books “feature an Orthodox Jewish girl having adventures in the genre that were otherwise normally restricted to either Orthodox Jewish boys or non-Jewish girls.”
Bernstein is the product of such a crossing of borders. Growing up in Borough Park, Bernstein attended Bais Yaakov schools, where Orthodox girls must follow strict dress and behavior codes. “I had to sign a list of things that said, ‘I’m not going to the public library. We don’t have a television in the house. There is no internet in the house unless you have permission from a rabbi for your job. You’re not going ice skating. You are not going to visit Florida during the winter holidays.‘”
At the same time, Bernstein’s parents both had college degrees—unusual for the community—and allowed a limited diet of books from the public library. “I was as far as anyone could tell from being a model student of Bais Yaakov,” said Bernstein, who nonetheless dove into books and even movies that no haredi parent could ever afford.
Bernstein went to Yavneh Seminary in Cleveland and returned to teach language arts to Bais Yaakov of Boro Park. “And then I went to college, which was a break from what was expected. And eventually I went to graduate school, and now I’m teaching college and doing music. research and hope to publish Bernstein, who holds a doctorate in English and a certificate in medieval studies from the CUNY Graduate Center, left the haredi community while in graduate school.
I shared with Bernstein my own qualms as an “outsider” who often writes and edits articles about the Haredi Orthodox community for a largely non-Haredi audience. Is “Artefacts of Orthodox Childhoods” supposed to expose the community and lead it to reform its island habits? Are readers invited to admire the peculiarly dressed men and women and their peculiar way of raising children?
“As a person, there are a lot of things I would like to change” about the community, Bernstein said. “As a scholar, I know it’s youuseful to have things written about this world from a non-critical but still analytical perspective. I want the non-haredi world to understand that these are complex people and to stop seeing it as a completely foreign and exotic thing. And what I think that can do for the community is give them the tools that leaders don’t always give them to look critically at these texts and artifacts and not just view them as inevitable.
In fact, the tone of most essays is wistful. Even in scholarly essays, writers tend to look back wistfully at the moral certainty and idealized worldview they absorbed in childhood. A few writers share their childhood books and music with their own children. “As a mother,” writes Miriam Moster, in an essay on popular haredi boy choirs, “I want to raise my children in the tradition in which my personal narrative is rooted, but I also feel responsible for protecting them from which led me to leave the haredi community in the first place.
Her solution might well describe Dainy Bernstein’s project: “And so I pass on to my children a potpourri of Haredi traditions, stories, rituals and melodies that we interrogate and challenge together.”