Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Eretz Yisrael in Children’s Books Before 1948

 Eretz Yisrael  in Children’s Books Before 1948

[Note:  I am publishing this in my blog as a work in progress.  The more time that I spend researching the more information I find that I need to learn.  As a work in progress I invite comments and ideas on how to conclude the project.  I am not an expert in children’s literature and I don’t even know much about current materials for Jewish children.  Many children’s books cross my desk, but I don’t have time to read them.]

After V-E day (8 May 1945) most American soldiers were not needed in Europe, but the U.S. Army had no way to quickly return them home.  My father was stuck in Italy waiting for transport.  He had a desk job working regular hours.  In one of his letters to his family he wrote that he and some of his buddies were seeking transport to take a vacation in Palestine.  He wanted “Next year in Jerusalem” to happen in 1945. They were not able to find a boat for passage to Palestine.  When I read his letter a few years ago I caught a bug of an idea and a question, what was American Jewish children’s literature writing about Palestine?  Were American Jewish children taught about love of Eretz Yisrael?

This article will explore some examples of Jewish children’s literature, but there is no way I can be comprehensive in a short article.

I was most interested in the period of 1900-1948.  In 2014 Andrea Rapp wrote about the historical children’s literature collection in the Isaac Meyer Wide Temple Library [1] mentions two studies of literature, Jonathan Sarna’s book, JPS the Americanization of Jewish Culture 1888-1988 about the Jewish Publication Society (Sarna 1989) and Linda Silver’s presentation, “Milestones in American Jewish Children’s Literature”, given at the 2005 Association of Jewish Libraries regional conference. (Rapp page 154-155).  Neither work highlighted anything about Israel, Palestine or Zionism in children’s literature.  Sarna does mention that The Jewish Publication Society (here after JPS) was concerned with the lack of children’s books.  
Roger Strauss of publisher Farrar, Struss and Cudahy and JPS made a deal to write biographies for Jewish children about great American Jews, but this was in 1956 after many years of interest.  It is significant because until Straus pushed this idea JPS thought the children’s market was too small to warrant any major publication effort.  This deal created Covenant Books and was a joint publication.  JPS would sell to its members and Strauss would sell to the general book trade.  This lack of interest in children’s books because of economic concerns was a major reason very few books for children were written before the late 1960’s or 1970’s.

The Shavzin-Carsch Collection that Rapp wrote about has 44 books written for primary grade children published from 1900-1950.  If I subtract the 22 that are primarily Bible stories that leaves 22.  For middle school and high school aged students the collection has 103 books and 16 are Bible stories.

The creation of books specifically aimed children did not have a long history.  One major part of the philosophy of education was to create obedient servants of the society.  In Jewish education this meant the learning of Torah and the laws and traditions of daily, Shabbat and holiday ritual observance. From the earliest times Jewish education was character education.  The Torah[2] was not recreational reading; it was the source of Jewish law, ethics and religious life. Children were seen as miniature adults who didn’t need imaginative literature.  Even in Christian society, reading of the Bible and telling Bible stories was an important part a child’s education.   
Liberal education, that is an understanding of the diversity of the world, is a recent part of education.  Liberal education took a long time to develop.  Many universities and colleges before the early 20th century thought a liberal education meant learning classical literature.  Students didn’t learn how to think on their own but were trained to repeat the mistakes or glory of the past.  Because of this attitude toward education, it is no far-fetched rationale to say that children did not need books that were written for children.

Most of the books in the list below tell stories or give explanations of Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and Jewish traditions.  While the language is defiantly at a child’s level, all are trying to teach.  For example, K’tonton’s adventures are centered around holiday or Shabbat preparations or observances.  While the stories are amusing and entertaining, the stories are a children’s version of a treatise on Jewish practices.

If you want to read about the history of American Jewish education, Judah Pilch’s  book deals with the events, people, and happenings in American Jewish education, but never deals with the philosophy and the “why” of education. In chapter 4, “From the early forties to the mid-sixties,” by Judah Pilch does mention the role of the Jewish community of Palestine and the impact of the State of Israel on Jewish education. After 1948 the study of Hebrew language and Jewish current events achieved a more important part of the Jewish school’s curricula.

The Zionist messages do appear in some Hebrew language textbooks.  Many of the readers are from Israeli (Palestinian) writers such as Hayyim  Nachman Bialik and Ahad Ha’am.

Examples from the books

Zevi Shafstein (1884-1972) was an educator and writer.  He arrived in the United States in 1914 and two years later started teaching at the Teachers Institute of Jewish Theological Seminary.  He was a professor of education until his retirement in 1960.  He wrote many textbooks for children learning Hebrew and edited a dictionary.  In ארצנו is a story of a family that travels by boat to Eretz Yisrael. Sharfstein never uses the word “Palestine.”  When on the boat they meet some people going to Israel to be halutzim.  While in Israel they visit the sea shore, small agricultural settlements, and talk about the food and scenery. [3] They never visit Jerusalem. This is one of the few openly Zionist books. It does have a chapter mentioning Shabbat, but none of the religious observances are mentioned.  The only bracha is for the Hanukkah candles. This is a textbook, not recreational or enrichment reading.  It does not fit most of selection criteria.  Since it was written in 1938, my father would not have read this in school. This book contrasts Marenof’s textbook that has stories of religious observance and no mention of Eretz Yisrael.

Sadie Rose Weilerstein (1894-1993) was an author who is best known for the K’tonton  books and the books in the bibliography. She graduated from the University of Rochester with a B.A. in English in 1917. She got her start in the writing of plays and telling stories in Community Synagogue of Atlantic City where her husband was the rabbi.  Her first book was The Adventures of K’tonton was published by the National Women’s League of the United Synagogue in 1935. [4]

[to be continued…]

Selected Children’s Books Consulted

Marenof, Shlomo. עם ומועדיו : חומר לנסיון בהוראת הלשון העברית לגדולים. ניו יורק : היברו פאבלישינג קאמפני, 1936
Shafstein, Zevi.  ארצנו. נויורק : שילה, 1938.
Silverman, Althea Osber. Habibi and Yow : a little boy and his dog. New York : Bloch Publishing Company, 1946.
A boy grows up learning Jewish traditions and religious principles and customs.
Weilerstein, Sadie Rose. The adventures of K'tonton : a little Jewish Tom Thumb. New York : National Women's League of the United Synagogue, [c1935]
Weilerstein, Sadie Rose.  What the moon brought.  Philadelphia : The Jewish Publication
Weilerstein, Sadie Rose. Little new angel.  Philadelphia : The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947.
Happy children learn about the makeup of an ideal Jewish home through fascinating stories.
Weilerstein, Sadie Rose. What the moon brought. Philadelphia : The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1942.
Stories of the Jewish holidays and the Shabbat, woven around the experiences of two children in an American Jewish home.

Selected books on Palestine published before 1948

Falkenberg, Paul V. Palestine.  [New York] : Holiday House, [1946]
Smither, Ethel Lisle. A picture book of Palestine.   New York ; Nashville : Abingdon-Cokesbury press, c1947. 
Story of everyday life in Palestine in Biblical times.  The text is very stilted and written in passive tense. 
Trager, Hannah. Festival stories of child life in a Jewish colony in Palestine, / Hannah Trager ... with a preface by the Very Revd. Dr. Hertz. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co.,  [c1920]  eBook from the Internet Archive.
Trager, Hannah. Stories of child life in a Jewish colony in Palestine. New York : E.P. Dutton, [1919]   eBook from the Internet Archive.
Trager, Hannah.  Pioneers in Palestine : stories of one of the first settlers in Petach Tikvah. New York : E.P. Dutton, 1924.
Zeligs, Dorothy F. The story of modern Palestine for young people. New York : Bloch, 1944.   eBook from the Internet Archive.

Other Works Consulted

Drazin, Nathan.  History of Jewish education. Baltimore : The Johns Hopkins Press, 1940.
Pilch, Judah, editor.  A history of Jewish education in the United States. New York : The National Curriculum Institute of the American Association for Jewish Education, 1969.
Sarna, Jonathan D. JPS : the Americanization of Jewish culture, 1888-1988. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 1989.  

[1]  Rapp, Andrea. 2014. "The Shavzin-Carsch Collection of Historic Jewish Children’s Literature," Judaica Librarianship 104 vol. 18, 154-166. DOI:
[2] By “Torah” I mean both the actual text of the Torah, rest of the Tanach and the associated oral literature. Perhaps Bible stories and stories from the Midrash were told to entertain children? Or perhaps the stories are didactic and “entertainment value” was not part of the teacher’s intent?
[3] This map of Eretz Yisrael from Artzeinu  has no national or international borders.

[4] Weilerstein first submitted K’tonton to JPS in 1933.  The book was turned down by all three reviewers. They didn’t think JPS members would be interested in buying this for their children. For the story turn to Sarna pages 171-172.