It’s safe to say that “The Baby-Sitters Club” found me — instead of the other way around. I have no memory of checking out my first copy at my childhood library, but I do recall going to the bookstore and starting an obsession that would consume my life from age 6 until about 12, lasting through numerous Scholastic book fairs and myriad trips to Borders (of blessed memory) and Barnes & Noble. The classic question for any fan of the beloved novel series, which was published between 1986-2000, was who your favorite baby-sitter was. But for me, the answer was always a supporting spinoff character, a late-stage addition that rang the most true to me, a young Jew.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Jewish characters in middle grade books and series were usually relegated to historical fiction, Holocaust stories or a Jewish character mentioning Hanukkah in one line of a Christmas story, their Judaism never to be brought up again. If you did have contemporary Jewish characters, they were typically more observant. As someone raised in the Conservative movement, celebrating holidays but not necessarily following every Jewish law, I couldn’t relate to those stories at all, as they were far removed from my own experience. That’s why stumbling across “The Baby-Sitters Club” and the “Little Sister” spinoff series changed my life. Specifically, it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of “Karen’s Wish (Little Sister Super Special #1)” that I realized there was a girl like me out there in book land, and her name was Nancy Dawes.
Nancy was one of Little Sister Karen’s two best friends, and ultimately Karen’s gateway into learning about basic elements of Judaism. In “Karen’s Wish,” a holiday story, Karen feels bad for Nancy at first because she doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But as Nancy explains the basics of Hanukkah, including the presents, Karen starts to realize that other holidays can be fun to experience as well. Nancy immerses Karen in her family’s Hanukkah celebration, including inviting her over to an eighth night party, trying latkes (and liking them!), playing many rounds of dreidel games, lighting candles, and of course, getting presents. By the end of the party, Karen hopes she can celebrate Hanukkah at Nancy’s house again next year.
If Nancy’s Judaism had ended there, it would have been enough (dayenu!). But, in all stories, a great miracle happened there, and Nancy’s family’s Jewishness expanded well past plot-related Hanukkah.
I began to really see myself in Nancy when she decided to participate in the local Adopt-a-Grandparent program (LS #10) and invited her adopted grandmother (who takes the High Holidays rather seriously) over to her house for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, all without asking her parents for permission. While I never participated in that kind of program myself, I observed all of the same holidays, not just solstice-adjacent ones. Like me, Nancy went to a secular school. She mentions going to Hebrew school when she gets a call from a friend she met there (LS Super Special #4). When she declines bacon at a slumber party, she explains to a friend that since her family is Jewish, her parents say “no pork,” and that’s the end of that. When Nancy’s baby brother is born, she shows Karen and Kristy the new Noah’s Ark mezuzah (classic) for his bedroom doorpost, though there’s no mention of a bris — probably for the best, for the second-grade set. While I couldn’t relate to a new baby brother, being the older of two sisters, I certainly saw myself when Nancy showed Karen her new dress for her cousin’s bar mitzvah (LS #8). Oh, have I been there.
It was so important to me to have Nancy’s Judaism be both plot-relevant and existing in her everyday life. Even now, it’s so rare that I see a character in any book written like Nancy. Too often, Jewish characters fall into extreme ends — either much more observant, or not observant at all. Yet, Nancy was different. She did all of the same things I did, and then some. Even when our traditions differed, I saw myself in her.
And then it just kept getting better. In 1995, “The Baby-Sitters Club” needed a change. California girl Dawn finally went back to California for good, leaving an opening in the club. There was a contest for readers to name the new baby-sitter. Enter Abby Stevenson, a wisecracking Stoneybrook transplant with a most unlikely backstory, the result of readers asking for a baby-sitter who was Jewish and a twin over the years. I was more like Abby’s twin sister Anna, not just in name, but in temperament and violin enthusiasm, though Anna was much more dedicated to the violin than I ever was. But Abby was just as important to me.
Abby’s story did dabble in some Jewish clichés: She and her family move to Stoneybrook from Long Island, she and Anna have thick curly dark hair, and she spends much of her time using terrible puns and telling jokes that would fit nicely in early ‘60s Catskill resorts. But beyond the stereotypes, Abby’s humorous side is used to hide the fact that she’s actually a sad clown at the end of the day.
In Abby’s first appearance (BSC #89), her tragic backstory is revealed: Her father died in a car accident when she was 9 and her family never really recovered, with her mother becoming a workaholic after drowning in her grief. In the spinoff book, “Abby’s Book,” where Abby writes her autobiography for a class project, she dedicates several chapters to her dad’s death, with her grandfather telling her that the funeral will happen quickly, as is Jewish custom. She and Anna sit shiva for a full week, supported by an interior illustration of young Abby sitting by a window with a forlorn look. To have a mainstream character engaging in Jewish rites of passage was nothing short of revolutionary for me. Abby grieved the way I did. When my grandmother died a year or so after I read about their shiva experience, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t the only kid getting a crash course in Jewish mourning rituals.
Like many Jews in middle school, Abby and Anna become bat mitzvahs together (BSC #96). The usual “today I am an adult” story elements are there, but there’s also the large Shabbat dinner cooked by their mother the night before, the twins’ grandfather signaling to the DJ at the reception to start playing “Hava Nagila,” and Abby and Anna being lifted up in their chairs while the room spins around them. Abby and Anna light their candles and share a memorial candle for their father, and the entire baby-sitters club gets a candle dedicated to them, naturally. While Abby gives the usual d’var Torah speech, Anna uses the time to play a violin solo, implying that their synagogue was one where instruments were permitted on a Saturday morning. The rabbi even calls the girls by their Hebrew names, Avigail and Channah, during the day. Seeing my own Hebrew name in print (Channah) meant the world to me, even in transliteration.
Unfortunately, Nancy and Abby have yet to make it out of the page and into a screen adaptation of “The Baby-Sitters Club.” But the 2020 Netflix series does dabble in the joy of Judaism, with Kristy’s little brother David Michael wanting to smash a glass at his mother’s upcoming wedding, not because they are Jewish, but because it would be cool to smash something. Yes, David Michael, it is.
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail email@example.com with “Late Take” in the subject line.