The stories we tell children — and about children — matter. In my new book, Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice, I write about the stories that American Jews recount about Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century — and what they reveal about the deepest values of our community.
Although Jewish history in the Americas dates back to the earliest years of European colonialism, the majority of American Jews are descendants of Central and Eastern Europeans who immigrated to the United States between the 1880s and 1924. Many Jewish immigrants settled in New York City’s Lower East Side and other urban areas before moving to less crowded neighborhoods within or beyond New York.
American Jews tell nostalgic stories about this foundational moment of communal history in a variety of ways, including through illustrated children’s books. These books, and especially their fictional girl characters, provide American Jews with a way of forming an emotional connection to the past while helping us use history to provide meaning in the present day.
By the 20th century, Americans in general associated childhood, and especially girlhood, with ideas of sentimentality and nostalgia. Children are not considered old enough to be nostalgic for their own experiences, but fictional children, seen as representations of innocence, are useful instruments on which creators and audiences can project nostalgia for their own childhoods and communal nostalgia for bygone eras. Girls are flexible characters, able to be bold and brave but also vulnerable enough to express longing for the past and love for families.
In depicting early 20th century Jewish girls of Russian origin as being particularly plucky and self-reliant, children’s books like Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1912) echo, and retell for new audiences, mythologized depictions of Jewish girls’ triumphant emergence out of the “ghetto” that were so popular in the early 20th century. They also treat the immigrant Jewish pasts and Jewish religious and cultural traditions as something precious and wholesome, rather than something that should be left behind in pursuit of a new American identity.
Perhaps the most well-known and beloved of nostalgic children’s books telling the story of American Jewish girls is Sydney Taylor’s 1951 All-of-a-Kind Family and its sequels. The book is recognized as the first mainstream American children’s book featuring Jewish characters, and the series set the tone for Jewish nostalgic stories about girls. The series features five “all-of-a-kind” Jewish sisters, later joined by their mischievous little brother, living with their parents in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1912, where their Papa runs a junk shop. The sisters each have their own personalities — bossy, bookish, headstrong, shy — but, on the whole, they are daring and energetic while allowed to be vulnerable, too. Taylor enthusiastically describes Lower East Side as dirty, crowded, and smelly, but the sisters have the warmth of family and their tradition.
By the 1980s and 1990s, publishers were increasingly interested in producing diverse stories for children, including nostalgic stories about Jewish history, especially for use in public schools seeking a multicultural curriculum. Following Taylor’s lead, authors have continued to use girlhood to communicate Jewish communal longing for the past.
Eric Kimmel’s When Mindy Saved Hanukkah (1998) takes place at the turn of the century in the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now displayed to the public as the Museum at Eldridge Street. The tiny Klein family — Klein is German and Yiddish for “small” — lives behind the synagogue walls, “borrowing” objects from the synagogue’s human-sized congregants, consciously emulating British author Mary Norton’s classic children’s novel The Borrowers (1952). Mindy faces down “a fierce Antiochus of a cat” — an adversary worthy of the villain of the Hanukkah story — in order to acquire a Hanukkah candle for her family. Mindy complements and inverts the traditional Hanukkah story of masculine bravery through guerrilla warfare with the story of a courageous girl defending her family’s holiday tradition. It is a charming story that would be appropriate in a public school classroom, allowing Ashkenazi American Jews to present themselves as different but not “too different” from other Americans. But it also asserts a particular vision of an assertive but appealing American Jewish girlhood through which readers can access American Jewish history.
In the 21st century, the trend has only continued. Nostalgic stories of American Jewish girlhood arguably reached their height with the 2009 debut of Rebecca Rubin, the American Girl doll accompanied by Jacqueline Dembar Greene’s historical books. Rebecca was the first Jewish character in the historical line produced by the enormously successful Mattel-owned company, and she was released to considerable public acclaim. Rebecca is a “spunky, conflicted, compassionate and determined” 9-year-old girl living on, you guessed it, the Lower East Side in 1914. Rebecca chafes against some of her family’s expectations — she wants to light her own set of Shabbat candles and she wants to be an actress — but she does not stray too far. In the American Girl books, doll, and associated miniatures, young consumers are directed to see themselves and the Lower East Side as the center of American Jewish history. They are directed to be gutsy, but perhaps conservatively, or at least compassionately so, deftly navigating the systems in which they live as a model minority.
Most recently, Lesléa Newman’s Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story (2019), illustrated in soft colors with a block-print border by Amy June Bates, tells the story of a young girl’s immigration from an unnamed European country through Ellis Island. When an inspector thinks her mother has an eye infection, Gittel has to make the journey by herself. Newman’s poignant descriptions — the inspector “brushed Mama’s hand off his sleeve like a crumb of challah” — and Bates’s illustrations, evocative of sepia photographs, draw readers into the emotional world of one little girl on a life-changing journey. As 21st century Americans debate national immigration policies and Jews reflect on diversity in their communities, books like Gittel’s Journey help readers young and old reflect on the central place of this standardized immigration story for American Jews today.
American Jewish girls of historical fiction — malleable, innocent, brave, and loving — are the perfect vehicles to convey what it means to be an American Jew at a particular moment while firmly rooting them in nostalgic connections to earlier Jewish communities. Because fictional girls of past eras are delightfully adaptable, they reveal the concerns and values of Jewish communities in their own day.