Who knew writing a children’s picture book celebrating Jewish diversity would expose prejudice, enmesh me in debate, and provoke a discussion about what gay people look like?
I wrote I love Jewish faceswith two goals: validation and consciousness-raising. I wanted Jewish children of color to see themselves in the pages of their Jewish books. I wanted African American and multiracial families, whether converts or Jewish for generations, to be recognized. I wanted to enlighten the larger Jewish community as well. I’d heard too many painful stories denying the Jewishness of someone who didn’t “look Jewish.” It turned out that these issues of diversity weren’t the ones to raise the main challenges of putting together the book.
The photograph for the text “Shabbos (Sabbath) faces” featured an African American family of five gathered around as the mother blessed candles. My editor wanted to replace “Shabbos” with “Shabbat.” “’Shabbos’ looks too ‘Artscroll’ [an Orthodox publisher],” he said. “Shabbat will be more comfortable to our readers.” I balked at the supposition that the entirety of Reform Judaism would be scared off by the word Shabbos. I knew from experience that Reform Jews said “Good Shabbos” to one another all the time. On the other hand, I understood the divergent mental images evoked when reading the words “Shabbos” and “Shabbat.” One called to mind shtetl life, Orthodoxy and long white beards. The other, guitar music, Modern Hebrew and clean-shaven faces (or beards neatly trimmed). I struggled with making the change, since the book’s whole premise was to celebrate Jewish diversity. We compromised on “Sabbath,” a perfectly good word with less baggage but the same poetic rhythm, slightly archaic yet evocative of rest.
The next hurdle came from the Orthodox community. I had found a perfect photo to accompany the text “striving faces:” a third grader wearing blue goggles and a bright red kippah (yarmulka) doing a science experiment. I contacted the school time and again asking permission to use the photo. I explained the book’s message of diversity, which I thought would especially resonate with this Orthodox school that stated it united a diverse Jewish community. On my fourth or fifth call someone in the office mused sotto voce that maybe no one was calling me back because the book was published by the Reform Movement and the school didn’t want to be represented by that denomination. So much for uniting diversity.
Off I went in search of a replacement and found a photo that deepened the book’s message. “Striving faces” is now illustrated by a tender image of a father and his developmentally disabled son standing on the bimah before an open Torah scroll. Their hands are clasped to their chests as the father signs the Torah’s words to his son. One closed door allowed us to acknowledge yet another Jewish face. Once we settled on the above photo, the discussion expanded to including images of gay families. Ultimately we decided that sexual orientation was too hard to determine in a picture. Two women embracing a child could be sisters or friends. The man holding his nephew could be gay or not.
Perhaps your experiences in the classroom or other venues of Jewish education have already brought home the reality that the face of Judaism is growing ever more diverse. I hope this behind-the-scenes look at I love Jewish facesadds depth to those conversations in your personal and professional life about the importance of recognizing, and celebrating, Jewish diversity.
Causes Debra Darvick Supports