Friday, February 19, 2010

What Makes a Book Jewish?

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, is a wonderful book. Written for young adults, entirely in poetry, it captivated me and drew me into the story of a 13-year-old German-Jewish boy who is sent to America by his family right after Kristallnacht. Instead, his boat is turned away from the US and ends up in Havana, Cuba. While I'm somewhat familiar with the Jewish community of Cuba, I wasn't quite as aware of the drama that unfolded as the refugee ships came to that small island nation. And I wasn't aware that Cuba absorbed quite as many Jewish refugees as they did. (And isn't the cover art gorgeous?)

The poetry is simple and spare, and the story is told through four different voices.
My favorite passage (there were many, actually, the turns of phrase are wonderful):

I will never understand
the whole world

or even
one coutnry.

All I can do
is try to understand
the truths and lies
in the simple choices
I face
every day.

This book won the gold medal for Teen Readers in this year's Sydney Taylor Book Awards, which recognize books with "Jewish content." It is well-deserving of an award, it's a really excellent book.

But I note that the awards are for books with "Jewish content," because I was a little startled by the author's biography at the end of the book. Margarita Engle explains: "My father was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. After World War II, he traveled to Cuba, where he met my Cuban-Catholic mother....I was raised agnostic, but I chose to become a non-denominational Protestant."

I am not beginning an argument about patrlineal or matrilineal descent. Ms. Engle clearly defines herself as a non-Jew. I'm not opposed to her writing about this story, in fact, I think she did a wonderful job of telling it.

But it made me wonder:
What defines a "Jewish book"? Is it the subject matter? The author? The language? All of the above? What about a book with "Jewish content," like this one, with a non-Jewish author? And vice-versa, of course, what about a book of completely non-Jewish content written by a Jewish author? Are books by Jews automatically considered "Jewish books"? Does readership play any part? If Jews read a book, and feel connected in some way because of their Judaism, does that define a book as "Jewish"? If it's found in a synagogue or day school library, for example, does that make it Jewish? If it's a biography of a Jewish person, written by a non-Jew, does that make it Jewish? If there's an "oy vey" thrown in there....(I once read a Star Trek book where a group of Klingons were named things like Maror, Chazeret, Karpas, and Zeroa...does that count?)

(One funny tweeter responded that a Jewish book: "it gets cut after the 8th chapter" - which I found laugh-out-loud funny.)

And...what is the responsibility of an entity like the Sydney Taylor Awards in helping to define a Jewish book? Is it, as they say in their information, "a book with Jewish content" - or is there something else, something different, something more?

So what do you think, dear readers? How do you define a "Jewish book"?


Jill said...

I think you raise a lot of good questions. When I was a Hebrew School teacher I was always trying to decide what kinds of books were the best to educate my students. There's the fun story books that usually have a lesson and portray some Jewish history or tradition or there were the more straightforward ones which could just teach my students about a holiday or a bible story quickly and to the point.

Now I work at JPS and I see that a lot of varieties of books help people, both Jews and non-Jews feel a connection and understanding of Judaism and the Jewish experience. There really needs to be a large variety of "Jewish books" because there isn't just one type of Jew and there's so many ways to educate others. I don't think you can set strict criteria to define the category. Youpose a hard question. I really enjoy reading your blog and would love to hear what your readers think.

RivkA with a capital A said...

We have a good friend whose family
(grandparents) escaped to Cuba.

I will forward your post to him. I am sure he will find it interesting.

Thanks 4 sharing.