Of Banned Books, Bestsellers, and Blindness

The placement of a crèche on public property almost destroyed my town. Over two years we lost a mayor, two town councilmen and our interfaith clergy association. We lived with boycotts of local businesses and “pirate crèches” all over the township.

Seeking communication and reconciliation, the local Episcopalian priest and I attempted a pulpit exchange to share views about the issue and each other. His turn came on a Friday night, and he pulled no punches: “I understand why the Jewish community will never forget the Holocaust, but until you forgive the Nazis, you will never get past it.” He almost didn’t make it to the Kiddush after services.

That illustrates to me one of the unfortunate differences between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities: sense of history.

To us, our history is also our present. To them, history is past. They study the Holocaust as a historical event. We live with it each day.

Time and again we see that a film or book is given new life when it is banned. So was I the only person who wasn’t that upset when “Maus” — a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust — was banned by a school board in Tennessee? Look at the reaction it provoked.

I have worked for years with school boards and local government. In many, I found an unparalleled level of dedication to their communities. And in a chosen few, I witnessed unmatched stupidity.

From a distance, I am more inclined to believe that the action of the school board in Tennessee was not so much overt antisemitism as idiocy.

What were they thinking?! Nothing galvanizes the Jewish community more than attempting to minimize the Holocaust. The school board’s attempt to sanitize our past instead accentuated it and united strange bedfellows in condemnation.

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” said Lee Parkison, the director of schools for McMinn County, in eastern Tennessee … (in its) unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” Clearly these parents and educators are unaware of the video games their students and children are playing.

The action of the school board defies our core values as Americans and we must fight other similar bodies from doing the same. But they have succeeded in shaking our complacency and forced vendors to take a stand against censorship.

And in an ironic twist, more students, I believe, will now read the book with interest than had it been required in class. And now that “Maus” is “forbidden fruit,” it will be seen as something of greater value and provoke greater interest. Indeed, the title is now rising on bestseller lists decades after it was first published.

When it came my turn in the pulpit exchange, I told the priest’s congregation how each one of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust was my brother, sister, mother, father, son and daughter. But they saw those same victims as unrelated to them.

And perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of this whole situation. The McMinn school board is more interested in “shielding” their children from profanity than educating about genocide.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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