Our R&R Heritage
May is Jewish American Heritage Month. While I’m an American-Israeli focused on Israel’s current pressing issues, I am not immune to the necessity of this celebration, especially with rising antisemitism and related hate crimes consistently making headlines in the US. As a children’s book author writing for the North American market, I am also very much aware of the role books play in boosting a child’s self-image personally, religiously and culturally.
The underlying message I want young readers to know is that on a subliminal level Jews have their own definition of R&R: Remembrance & Resilience. Historically our R&R has served us well. For us, memory matters. Zachor – זכור – the act of remembering, is deeply embedded in many of our religious practices, and is part and parcel of our cultural heritage. Whenever we remember, resilience always piggybacks the recollection. It too is an undeniable part of our peoplehood, surfacing each memorial, fast and holy day.
The very act of choosing May as the month to celebrate America’s Jewish population was a nod to our significant contribution to the United States. In 2006, President George W. Bush had his staff delve into history to choose the right month. They landed on May because that year marked 350 years since the first arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam. Those men and women set the stage for the present standing of America’s Jews. They weren’t peddlers, they didn’t speak Yiddish, and they didn’t arrive under an umbrella of urgency. Rather, they were part of the Jewish heritage of resilience in light of their Sephardic ancestors fleeing Spain, finding religious freedom in Holland, and becoming a thriving minority that boasted successful merchants and physicians. Yet they were barred from practicing law which required taking a Christian oath; and they were excluded from trade guilds as well. So their descendants carried on the wandering Jew tradition, always practical, always adaptable. The New World was a new horizon. Perhaps New Amsterdam would fill in the gaps where old Amsterdam had failed. No doubt, that time around Remembrance piggybacked on Resilience. While their ancestors prospered in the Netherlands, they never forgot the reason their forebears made their home there, the memory hammered home as soon as they stepped foot in New Amsterdam, where the ruler Peter Stuyvesant was no lover of Jews.
From then to the onset of the American Revolution, when a drizzle of 2,000 Jews had made the American colonies their home, to the mass immigrations of the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews made their mark in the United States alongside incidents of antisemitism. Historians can supply a lengthy list of recorded antisemitic events on American shores. Simultaneously, they can draw up an impressive list of incredible Jewish achievements in nearly every sphere of the nation’s life. There is no doubt that in America, Jewish R&R is thriving, which is why it is so important to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month despite – and to spite – antisemitic currents.
Yes, Jewish R&R is what drives me to write picture book stories for young Jews in the US even though I live in Israel. They are the American heirs to this legacy, and I want to open their eyes to what they have inherited and what they must carry on. Penning engaging tales for them is my personal mission. Over this Jewish calendar year, two books of mine will have been published, illustrating Jewish fortitude with an American slant. This past Hanukkah, I gave readers a glimpse into Sephardi life in the American colonies through my book The Boston Chocolate Party, which I co-authored with Rabbi Deborah Prinz. This coming June, I will be opening a door to the Spanish Inquisition through my book Luis de Torres Sails to Freedom, an unusual story connected to Tisha B’Av.
Luis de Torres, the first Jewish person to set foot on North American soil, is a prime example of a Jew undergoing adversity but determined to move on. During this year’s Jewish American Heritage Month, I urge all my readers, young and old, to always remember, always be resilient.