A Jewish Young Adult Author’s look at Jewish Erasure in Kidlit

(This post was originally written March 2020-reposted here today)

I believe in looking for signs from the universe-that if you keep getting told the same thing over and over, it means something. You should pay attention to it, and you should probably act on whatever the signs are telling you.  

It’s a cool thing when it’s about something awesome. But lately I’ve been given signs about something serious and not awesome at all. These signs have reminded me that I am different than most people. Different than 98% of the population in the United States. I am Jewish and that’s a problem for some people.  

Growing up in a small town in Maryland, I suffered a tremendous amount of antisemitism. In my high school there were only five or six Jewish students in a population that hovered at two thousand. My Jewishness caused problems for my teachers-when I took off for Rosh Hashanah, known only as ‘The Jewish Holidays’ I was told that I inconvenienced their lesson plans as the teachers were not allowed to give tests or big assignments on that day. One of my teachers called me ‘Little Miss Holocaust’ in front of the entire class. I frequently had to decide between school events and my Jewishness which were often scheduled during our holidays. A boy I dated was told that he’d go to hell for dating me. Someone asked to see my horns and tail. Kids in my school were bullied and swastikas were drawn on lockers. All of this was to serve one purpose-to let us Jews know we were not welcome. We were a problem.  

One of the reasons I went to college at a large state school far from where I grew up was that I wanted a completely different setting, with, hopefully, less antisemitism. I did find a more diverse population and for the most part I found it easier to take off classes for my holidays. But then came the references I’d never heard before-the Jewing me down referencs that a good friend and ex roommate let slip without thinking about it. Until it became the thing that laid between us. The awkward moment of knowing that even among friends my Jewishness was something that made me different and not in an exotic sort of way, in a terrible stereotypical sort of way. I was othered. 

Fast forward to grad school at Penn State where I had to explain to my roommate who was a teaching assistant and refused to believe that a Jewish girl should be given the opportunity to make up a quiz given on one of the High Holidays. I mean, the quiz was the night before the holiday as it was marked on the calendar. I chalked that up to her needing to be educated, but when I explained to Lisa that Jewish holidays actually start on the evening before the date on the English calendar, she remained convinced that this girl was “trying to get away with something.” Yeah, I told her, kind of like wanting off for Christmas Eve is getting away with something. 

Eventually I got married and gave birth to three amazing children. All of whom faced the same type of othering in their daily lives. We lived in Gainesville, Florida, where I was dubbed the latke Mom for both of my sons’ classes in school. Meaning, they were the only Jewish kids in their classes. My husband and I decided we would not put the kids through the same uncomfortable upbringing that I endured, so we moved to a more Jewish area of south Florida. The last thing someone said to my kids in Gainesville was that the Jews killed Jesus, literally as we were pulling out of the school parking lot for their last day of school in north central Florida. I rejoiced at having made the correct decision to move my kids to a more friendly area. It would be worth closing up a thriving pediatric therapy practice that I loved and leaving friends I’d raised my kids with thus far. Off to south Florida we went.  

Palm Beach county Florida has a large number of Jewish families where my kind makes up  approximately 20% of the population. I thought we’d be safe. In the school system, this earns us one day off for Rosh Hashanah (even though the holiday is two days-although we’ll take what we can get) and a day off for Yom Kippur to which my colleague at the high school said (because he didn’t know I was behind him) that the district caved to the Jews by giving us those days off. Um. No. They didn’t’. They just couldn’t handle the chaos of fully 20% of faculty, staff, and students being absent at once. And still that didn’t stop the othering.  

Area high schools frequently planned special events on or around these holidays. Homecoming float decorations, football games, class and club pictures, honor society, a special presentation for the vet program at my school, to name just a few of these. The argument was always the same-these were not mandatory events. There was no penalty for not participating, except that Jewish children had to choose between being Jewish and being part of the school culture. 

It’s a terrible choice we force kids to make. Jewishness. Popularity. Fun. And parents are forced to lay down the line. We are who we are. Bullying from teachers regarding missing the second day of Rosh Hashanah is still prevalent. Even from Jewish teachers. It’s very upsetting to still have this happening. But that’s not all.  

At Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, a highly Jewish area, the housing office gave permission for the Palestinian student group on campus to distribute fake eviction notices on the doors of a dorm that was known to house a large number of Jewish students, including my son. Nobody seemed to think this was offensive or wrong. Except, of course, us Jews. Once again we were alone and othered. This past year in the same community the unthinkable happened-a principal of a high school in Boca Raton, Florida, said that the holocaust did not have to be taught in public schools because not everybody believes it happened.  

All of this has happened around me as I’ve become a young adult author. It’s a dream come true-one I worked my butt off for. I have written books that I really believe in. Books about characters with disabilities (since I have been a speech language pathologist for the past thirty years) and most recently, a book with Jewish characters. All of this has happened in the space where people discussed the need for diversity in literature. A group was formed toward that end-the We Need Diverse Books people. They were all about own voices-people telling their own stories- and the need to lift up marginalized and under-represented populations. People who have been othered and ganged up on and bullied. People who have been removed from the conversation. Who have been spoken about in derogatory terms. But here’s the kicker-when it came time for us Jews to ask for a seat at that table, we were told we didn’t belong. 

And here it is again-the universe telling me it’s time to stand up and stand for something important. The universe whispered at first- when a few of my friends attempted to join that diversity movement and were told that Jews are not marginalized because we are largely successful. More nudges came when another friend was told their book was ‘too Jewish’ to be published. Another friend was told to stop complaining-this isn’t the oppression Olympics, after all. Then the signs got stronger and louder and more personal. 

Recently on FB I posted about the Trenton, NJ councilwoman who said the city “Jewed” someone down and had that statement defended by her co-councilmembers saying it wasn’t derogatory. It was a verb. To Jew him down. As in to negotiate. I was livid. Surely no one could take issue with my ire over this. But nope. Wrong again. I was chastised, not by a stranger, but by a close friend (in kidlit)who told me there are worse things in the world than being othered for being Jewish, that we need to educate this woman (who, btw, is an attorney) and could not be held to account for antisemitism because she didn’t know any better. Wow.  

Finally I’ve decided that I am not backing down. I am not taking it anymore. I am done being understanding. I am done accepting this. I am finished being told that we have to equivocate how awful it feels being treated this way. How hurtful these micro aggressions really are.  But here’s the thing about the universe when you take a stand-it tests your resolve. It provides practice until you’ve mastered your intent. My practice came in the form of copy edits on my book where the person wondered if Jews would say OMG. More practice came when this same editor queried whether Jews pray to God the same way others would. But the final exam came in the form of an invite to a book festival. 

I have been honored to be a participant in literary festivals since the release of my first book, The Sister Pact, in November 2015. It’s one of my favorite things about being an author. It offers me a chance to meet readers. To talk with educators and media specialists. It gives me the opportunity to author at the highest level. 

So needless to say I was thrilled to be asked to participate at a Florida literary festival where the kids are the focus and the educators are absolutely committed to connecting authors and readers in an interactive setting.  

Until I found out the event was planned for the first day of Passover. I reached out to the person in charge, assuming they didn’t know the event was planned on Passover. She told me that they knew it was a religious holiday (it was also on Good Friday) and knew that some authors would not be able to attend because of the holiday. And still they scheduled it on that day. So now, as a grown woman, I have to choose again whether to be Jewish or to be included.  

Years of being bullied and pushed back against and told that being Jewish is a problem have made me wary of letting someone push me in a corner again. I am here, standing up, for all of my Jewish people. For the kids who need to see themselves in books. For the teens that had to decide between participating in the Black Women’s March in DC or celebrating Yom Kippur-the holiest of the High Holidays. For the teens who watched, horrified, when they attempted to exclude the Jewish pride flag in the DC Dyke parade.  Jewish erasure is alive and well in this United States of America. I just never expected it to be part of kidlit.  

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