Torah Sociology: Nat'l Religious Children's Literature

Where is the children's literature of the national religious community? The national religious community must accelerate the development of a body of children's literature that can help parents inculcate our Torah way of life.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Is there a body of children's literature that depicts the lives and values of national religious families? There is a large body of ultra-orthodox (charedi), and secular Israeli, children's literature. So where do we stand? This article explores this question by showing that our community is producing quality children's literature. However this body of literature is not as extensive as that of the charedi community. Also our children's literature is developing more slowly that other areas of national religious cultural endeavors. The article will conclude by explaining the sociological factors that have slowed down the development our community's children's literature. Finally, it poses the question, "Can we build a mature, Torah based social culture, one that is an attractive alternative to liberal, secular culture, without having our own body of children's literature with which to educate our children?"  I think the answer is no.

The children's literature that most of my grandchildren read

Two events this Chanukah brought me to write on this topic. While attending my kollel, Rav Arele Harel, himself an author of two works of fiction, gave a class on how the midrash depicts the translation of our Bible to Greek in the Hellenistic period. In this context he mentioned that much of charedi juvenile adventure literature is based on the historical drama of the non Jewish, European world persecuting Jews. This caused me to think of the adventure literature that I found my charedi grandchildren reading  this  Chanukah. Much of this literature is located in Europe, totally detached from the present Israeli reality in which my grandchildren grow up, and is based on showing Jewish bravery and smartness defeating goyish hatred and persecution. I have very ambivalent feelings about charedi children's literature. On one hand, I am very happy that my grandchildren are reading books that inculcate a love of Torah and mitzvot, and Jewish pride. On the other hand, many of the literature's accompanying messages disturb the pluralistic openness that still an integral part of my religious outlook. This Chanukah-grand parenting soul searching prompted me to ask, "Does there exist an alternative body of national religious children's literature for parents who want to pro-actively educate their children to a Torah way of life?"

The status of our national religious children's literature

Yes, there is a national religious literature alternative, but it is developing slowly. My acquaintance with children's literature is limited, so I spoke with four experts (educators and book marketers) in order to prepare this article. The article is not an academic review of the topic. It is based on educated assumptions. Its purpose is to draw attention to the topic, and to raise consciousness and public discussion in our community. I welcome all corrections and comments. On the basis of my discussions it seems correct to make the following three points.

One, we do have a growing, diversified body of high quality children's literature that is based on depicting and dramatizing the actual lives of our children in modern Israel. Topics range from historical events, personal and family issues, and the celebrations of holidays and mitzvoth. We also have several children's magazines.

Second, this body of literature is significantly less extensive than that of the charedi community, and of course of the secular, Israeli majority. Interestingly, our body of children's literature is less developed than other areas of our national religious artistic endeavors, such as music, movies, theater, poetry, TV series, and internet programs. Adult literature written from a national religious perspective plays a more significant role in Israeli cultural life than does our children's literature. Similarly, the last thirty years has seen a tremendous outburst of national religious Torah literature, again dwarfing our body of children's literature. Children's literature is the 'orphan, forgotten child' of our artistic endeavors.

Third, if we compare charedi children's literature (the charedi community is also a minority sub-culture comparable in size to ours), we can say that charedi children's literature is heavily ideological, while ours is much more humanistic. Charedi children's literature is more extensive because it is understood by the charedi community to be a   critical, imperative means of socializing children into the particular life style, gender roles, and distinctly bounded community into which they want their children to grow and accept. Their children's literature also does not have to compete with recreational/educational pastimes such as TV and the internet. Our children's literature, in contrast, is much less blatantly ideological. It tries to present in a realistic, dramatic way the actual life dilemmas and feelings of children struggling to cope with everyday family and current historical situations, including the subject of Torah observance.

Why has our children's literature developed slowly?

The experts with whom I consulted suggest two basic reasons for this slow development. The first reason is economic. It is very expensive to produce quality children's literature. Quality pictorial graphics are expensive. And the potential national market is relatively small, limited to our sector.  (In comparison, the large secular Israeli book market is open to reading adult 'national religious' literature, but secular parents are not interested in bringing into their homes books picturing little children running around with kippot and tzizit) Writing our children's literature is primarily an artistic hobby, or religious mission. Money wise, it simply doesn't pay. The significance of these economic factors can be most fully understood if we compare them to the economic factors in the charedi community (again, similar size, and with less spending money). There the economic market is more stable and attractive. Writers are not competing with secular counterparts. They are not in recreational time competition with other media. Ideologically motivated, the charedi community is willing to buy less quality, and thus less expensive, products, increasing the chance of financial remuneration. Also writing children's literature is one of the few, 'safe' artistic avenues of expressions open to creative men and, particularly, women.

The second reason (really an elaboration on the first) is the social cultural outlook of the average national religious parent. They feel comfortable bringing into their home the vast majority of secular Israeli children's literature, and do not feel that they need a national religious children's literature with which to educate their children. They do not perceive the 'lack or omission' of such literature as a problem, and thus do not provide a stable, potential economic market for prospective national religious writers.

What is to be done?

We must educate national religious parents to the importance of having national religious children's literature in the house. Forty to fifty percent of the national religious community describe themselves as 'Torani ' in their religiosity, which means that they constitute a potential buying market of eighty thousand families (three hundred fifty thousand individuals). These families do feel the need to create a family way of life that is different from that of the Israeli secular majority. We must help this public understand that quality children's literature is a critical educational tool in helping their children learn the Torah role models, norms, values, and behavior that we want them to internalize. (The charedi world learned this important lesson a long time ago.) We must encourage these families to become an active, buying market, rather than the passive, potential one that it currently is. Second, given the economic realities described above, pro-national religious foundations must make a priority project out of encouraging and subsidizing the writing and publication of explicitly national religious children's literature. The bravery of the national religious soldier, the 'challenges' of young women doing Sherut Leumi, the rehabilitation after the expulsion from Gush Katif, the social activities of our garinim toraniyim and  the settling of Judea and Samaria are all exciting potential topics, as well as the adventures of exploring mitzvah observance. Please excuse what may seem to be a 'narrow, very sectarian' approach to children's education. However, I am speaking of creating family libraries that have equal numbers of secular and religious children's books. Yes, we want to educate our children to live their Torah way of life as active, creative contributing members of general Israeli society. But right now there is much more Israeli secular literature on the shelves then religious children's literature. This situation should be remedied.

In summary, in order that our mitzvah observance becomes a lively, creative, relevant existential experience, we will want to observe mitzvoth in the context of a vibrant Torah-based social culture. Developing a body of national religious children's literature is a critical, imperative part of developing a rich, encompassing Torah social culture.