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A Promise Kept

Cover art - Maus II, by Art Spiegelman
Cover art - Maus II, by Art Spiegelman

When I turned 13, I became a Jewish adult. 

I was told that this meant I was now responsible for my actions, my sins and my mitzvot. That I needed to step up and remember that I was now a full-fledged member of the tribe, and as such, needed to fully commit myself to the tribe, hold my head high with pride, wear my kippah with pride, learn Torah and daven with pride, et al. 

I also remember, when I turned 13, being very focused on what kind of haul I would get as presents from my big celebration. 

I remember the envelopes that quickly were taken out of my hands by my parents and deposited in savings accounts that I couldn’t touch until I was older. I remember the Rollerblades and the two (two!) boom-boxes that included new CD players. (Wow, that sentence makes me feel old.) 

And I remember the books. 

Most of these books were sefarim, books of Jewish texts and scholarship, however one of the books I received was a coffee-table book about the Shoah, the Holocaust. I opened that book and was immediately engrossed. I vividly remember feeling a sense of sadness, obviously, but also ownership and empowerment. 

These were my people. This was my history. This was my pain and my pride. 

I am not sure how soon after that first moment of opening the book, but some time shortly afterward — I made myself a promise. I would learn something new each Shabbat on Friday nights about the Shoah as an embodiment of the adage, “Remember, and do not forget!” I kept that promise to myself for many weekends — well over two years. Each Friday night, I would read something, another few pages, sometimes even the captions of a few haunting pictures. 

Of all the books and pictures I read and studied in my quest, one two-book series stands out as the most haunting, beautiful, impactful and important of them all — Art Spiegelman’s award-winning Maus I & II. This graphic memoir (meaning styled as a comic book, but frankly, it is graphic as well) tells the real-life story of the author’s father through the years before, during, and after the Shoah.

It is mesmerizing. It is haunting. Admittedly, these books were reread many Friday nights, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something new during each of those rereadings.

The secular world commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, as it does each year, which marks the date of the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz 77 years ago. Mr. Spiegelman’s father went through that particular hell on earth. 

This week, these books I treasure also made headlines. 

We should have been able to make the assumption that these books made the news as the national media’s method of covering this day in the calendar. Instead, I read in the news, with abject disgust and a slack-jaw mouth agape, about a school district that chose this very week to ban these books from being taught in their Tennessee 8th grade classrooms. 

The school board’s objections began with a discussion over the handful of curse words, and one image, a panel drawn by Mr. Spiegelman depicting his father discovering the body of his mother in the bathtub after she had killed herself. The image is shocking and filled with emotion, and the eight curse words are the words students unfortunately say and hear every single day through their TikTok feeds and their music choices. 

That adults and parents had concerns about their children reading these words or seeing that one image — I think are worthy of discussion and I can understand a parent’s concern. 

However, based on articles covering this debacle, the meeting also fielded conversations about some of the themes and violence depicted in cartoon fashion throughout the books as unsavory and too much for the students. That is where this devolves into a farce. 

This is where I stand firmly with Mr. Spiegelman who described this move as “Orwellian.” 

This feels like an episode of the “Twilight Zone.” 

This book takes themes and real life events that are ugly and evil and makes them understandable to a younger audience. An audience that needs to see them, not be sheltered from them. That is the very point of Holocaust education! 

Do these same parents and board members take objection to, and forbid the teaching of the Civil War because it was violent, and because slavery is an unsavory theme? 

Or just maybe, it’s through teaching these topics that we ensure students understand the darkest pages of our histories and therefore learn from them.       

I am offended by the choice, so I question how deliberate a choice it was, to announce this censorship 24 hours before the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Remembrance Day. 

I find it insulting, insensitive, and telling — and I think we should all be concerned about what this move signals within a landscape of dramatically increasing anti-Semitism throughout the United States.

If the school had chosen to black out those eight words, and even that one picture, I think this would be a non-story. I am proud that we teach the book of Maus to our 9th grade students at Akiba Yavneh Academy in Dallas, TX. We give parents and students a disclaimer and a heads up about just these very elements. And then we let the parents decide what their child is ready for, but the book remains as an honored part of our curriculum. 

I remember another moment of Holocaust art and the potential of censorship that took place during those years I spent dedicated to Holocaust study. The news broke that Spielberg’s epic movie, Schindler’s List would be shown on network television in prime time, without edits or censorship. The movie included brief nudity and occasional curses. 

The conversations of pundits before and after the airing were effusive in the value of this groundbreaking moment and how important it was for American society that we would all be given the opportunity to see this art and learn from its images. The broadcast was introduced with disclaimers and viewers had the choice to tune in or turn their TV off. 

The people had the choice. And they chose. And they were moved and they learned. That is what Holocaust education is about at its essence. I think we can all see we need books like Maus to be studied more in these times not less.

Thankfully, the news is now reporting that owing to this moment in national history — Maus I & II have returned to the current bestsellers lists. 

I hope they stay there, and in our schools for a long, long time.

About the Author
Rabbi Yaakov Green is the Head of School for Akiba Yavneh Academy, a Modern Orthodox coed day school serving students from infants through 12th grade in Dallas, TX, where he lives with his wife Elisheva and their five children. Before coming to Akiba Yavneh, Yaakov has served as a school administrator for many years in St. Louis, MO, and Boca Raton, FL. Yaakov holds a master's degree in education, concentrating in Ed. Tech. Bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Political Science, and has participated as a cohort fellow in many educational programs in Harvard University, JTS Davidson School, and University of Missouri, St Louis. He spent several years developing innovative programs that have been implemented across North America, Israel, and Australia, in classrooms, camps, and conventions, synagogues and Sunday schools.
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