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Books on Antisemitism for Teens and Young Adults

By Rich Tenorio 

As Chicago prepares to celebrate the 1893 World’s Fair, a young Jewish boy named Alter Rosen suffers the loss of his best friend, Yakov. It turns out that Yakov is the latest victim of a killer targeting Jewish boys. Alter becomes possessed by his friend’s dybbuk, which threatens to take over his body completely. He reconnects with a dangerous boy from his past and together they work to find the killer. This is the plot of “The City Beautiful,” a 2021 young adult novel by Aden Polydoros that earned multiple recommendations for placement on JewishBoston’s summer reading list of books that tackle antisemitism and/or racism. (Find the full list at the end of this post!) 

Robin Brenner, the young adult librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, calls “The City Beautiful” “one I really love,” a work of historical fiction that is “particularly well done,” including in its exploration of how “the World’s Fair was presented to the public and who it was presented for.” 

Among library patrons, she said: “‘The City Beautiful’ has been certainly noticed. [It’s] one of those that has gone out consistently. It tells a story that people are very interested in learning more [about].” 

Last year, Polydoros’s “The City Beautiful” was named a “Best Book for Teens” by the New York Public Library and got a favorable review in School Library Journal. “Featuring a queer protagonist, it is deeply layered with Jewish myth, immigration, racism and anti-Semitism,” Alicia Kalan wrote for School Library Journal, noting that “some readers may find the descriptions” of certain parts of the plot “too intense.” 

Sara Waltuck, the children’s bookseller at Brookline Booksmith, also gave the book a recommendation and praised a more recent novel—“From Dust, a Flame” by Rebecca Podos. The book, published in March, tells the story of a family of three: teenage Hannah, her brother and their mother. The siblings live a nomadic life marked by rental homes and their mother’s broken relationships before Hannah begins to experience a series of unusual mutations when she turns 17. Her mother vows to find someone who can help, then disappears. Ultimately, it’s up to Hannah to connect with her Jewish family history and learn about her grandmother growing up in the Nazi-occupied Czech capital of Prague. 

Multiple other recent books made local experts’ list of recommendations, from fiction to nonfiction. 

Brenner mentioned “The Assignment,” a 2020 novel by Liza Wiemer based on actual events. A popular high school teacher gives a controversial assignment, asking a group of students to make a case for the Holocaust. Classmates Logan and Cade view this assignment as wrong and speak out against it, yet not everyone agrees with them. 

David Sandberg, a co-owner of Porter Square Books, listed the 2019 historical graphic novel “White Bird: A Wonder Story” by R.J. Palacio among his recommendations. “White Bird” continues the narrative of Grand-mère, a character introduced in Palacio’s previous work, “Auggie & Me.” In “White Bird,” the reader meets Grand-mère—French for “grandmother”—as a Jewish youngster in occupied France during World War II. It’s a story of the French family who shelters her, and a boy she and her classmates ostracized who ends up playing a critical role in her rescue. “White Bird” will be released as a film this fall, featuring Helen Mirren as Grand-mère. 

Sandberg also recommended Jane Yolen’s 2019 Holocaust novel “Mapping the Bones,” about young Jewish twins Chaim and Gittel fleeing from the Nazis in Poland. Another one of his picks was “Color Me In” by Natasha Diaz. This 2020 novel tells the story of a girl whose father is white and Jewish and whose mother is Black. After her parents’ marriage ends, she navigates her diverse family background while living with her mother in Harlem and going to an exclusive private school. 

Brenner noted that there’s even a groundbreaking Jewish comic book character, ”Whistle,” the heroine of a new DC Comics series of the same name. “One thing that’s really nice,” Brenner said, “is that more and more books are featuring Jewish main characters, [including] Jewish main characters who express this part of their life…it’s not a passing reference. It’s really nice. There are a lot more titles that are beginning to be offered to teens. Teens need a real reflection of the world, books that inspire them, teach them. It’s nice to have a range.” 

Reading List for Teens and Young Adults
FICTION
NONFICTION

Rich Tenorio covers antisemitism news for JewishBoston.com. His work has appeared in international, national, regional and local media outlets. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a cartoonist. Email him at rich@jewishboston.com. 

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How Do We Want To Educate Our Children?

By Ziva Hassenfeld

When my best friend from college came to visit me for a weekend, she began to cry as we walked up to my synagogue with our kids. I asked her why and she said, “Don’t you see how sad it is that there have to be all the police around just so you can go to synagogue and not be shot?” Of course, I had noticed the uptick in police presence since the 2016 election, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. My colleague, professor Jonathan Sarna, has done detailed work on the antisemitism that pulsed quite explicitly through the Jan. 6 riot at the capital. But through it all, it didn’t ever strike me as tragic.  

Seeing my friend’s tears made me question the lack of my own, especially given the relative differences in our lives. My friend loves her Jewish identity but doesn’t live an active Jewish life, whereas I’m immersed in Judaism both personally and professionally. Seeing her tear up at the entrance of my synagogue raised a fundamental question for me: Why was I uncomfortable with her tears?  

After giving it a lot of thought, I realized that I came at the question both personally and professionally—as a parent and as a professor of education. On the one hand, there’s no question that antisemitism is terrifying and its uptick in America alarming. We should do all we can to quell its upsurge; we all support the fight against it—politically, financially and socially. But the question I always return to is how do we want to educate our children? In no uncertain terms, I am sure that the right approach to Judaism presents it as a wealth of resources, a textual tradition that delights and a toolbox for a life of intentionality. There’s no room for centering a reaction to antisemitism in such an approach. I am convinced we must avoid inducting our children into a stance of defensiveness and instead show them a Judaism that we offer as a gift. The gift, as I see it, is particularly compelling ways of reading, organizing the rhythm of our lives and finding meaning. 

A colleague of mine is currently working on a study of Jewish children reading and interpreting the story of the Hebrew midwives from Exodus 1. It is remarkable the difference in meaning the students take from this story. Some understood it as a tale of moral conviction—about being an upstander and not a bystander and the moral compass in each of us as individuals. Others understood it as the first historical account in the endless history of persecution of the Jewish people. In these students’ reading, the story of the Hebrew midwives and the infanticide they were tasked with stresses the need for Jewish sovereignty. Of course, as researchers we withhold judgment, but I must admit how striking I found the data in the context of thinking about antisemitism and education. I not only want a generation of kids who are taught a story of being moral upstanders instead of a story of the lachrymose narrative of Jewish history, but also I believe it will be kids raised in this first educational milieu who will emerge most resilient in the face of antisemitism. 

My children will grow up at least aware that they are living through a particularly vivid era of antisemitism in this country. Nothing I can do can change that; the only question that is left to answer is how we should educate and orientate our children in such a world. For me, the answer is clear: The strength of Jewish life is found first and foremost in a constructive outlook. 

When approached in this way, being Jewish becomes reading the text of the world a certain way. Through these ways of reading, our children develop the capacity to find meaning and to stay resilient in the face of the inevitable challenges. 

Ziva R. Hassenfeld is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Assistant Professor in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jonah Hassenfeld, director of learning and teaching at Schechter Boston, and their three children. 

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What to Tell Kids About Antisemitism

By Kara Baskin

Antisemitism has always existed. But the threats are drawing ever closer, and the urgency to confront this hatred is more urgent than ever. In February 2023, white supremacist groups attempted to organize antisemitic activities as part of a “National Day of Hate,” sparking terror and fear as synagogues, Jewish schools and businesses braced themselves for assault. It’s a familiar feeling. According to a new survey by the American Jewish Committee, one out of six Jewish Americans in the Northeast say they were targets of antisemitism in recent years, and 80% believe antisemitic acts have risen lately. 

So, what do we tell our kids? How do we explain these acts as something that can be interpreted and resisted, maybe even through faith? Rabbi Rachel Silverman, director of the Camp Ramah Day Camp of Greater Boston, shares ideas. 

On reading

For young kids, Silverman recommends Dr. Seuss‘s “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” an illustrated, lighter-hearted look at prejudice and how silly it is. For a less allegorical take, she likes “The Whispering Town,” a story of a Danish family who shelter a Jewish family during the Holocaust despite their neighbors’ suspicions. 

On checking in after school

“I’m a fan of using language about being an ‘upstander’ rather than a ‘bystander,’” Silverman says. “When we talk to our kids about their days, instead of just asking how school was, we can ask questions like, ‘How were you an upstander today? How were you kind today?’” 

While this might not directly relate to antisemitism or prejudice, it sets the stage for courageous behavior should the situation arise, even if it applies to something as ordinary as a spat on the playground. (And hopefully it only does.) 

On Judaism’s teachings

“The Torah reminds us many, many more times to protect the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, the most vulnerable members of our society. It tells us about this more than keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher,” Silverman says. “It’s a hard commandment to follow, but the many reminders demonstrate how important it is.” 

Leviticus 19, verse 18, teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

This might seem obvious, she says, but “the Torah includes loving one another as a mitzvah precisely because our actions don’t indicate that it is obvious for us. At times, it’s easier to keep Shabbat, make sure our weights are fair and to build a parapet around our roofs than it is to see the humanity in others. Many of the mitzvot are checklist-like; we take care of them by doing them once, or once in a while, and can check them off our list. Not so with loving one another,” she says. 

On exposing kids to differences

It’s helpful to talk about being an upstander and to explain why antisemitism is wrong. But also try to live it. Expose your kids to people who aren’t like themselves, too, whether it’s through volunteering or travel or reading. Do whatever feels comfortable for your family, but exposing them to diversity will make them appreciate their own. 

Silverman likes this quote from  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Then I realized that it’s easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture, or creed is different from yours. That’s why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers resonates so often throughout the Bible.”

Kara Baskin is the parenting writer for JewishBoston.com. She is also a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and a contributing editor at Boston Magazine. She has worked for New York Magazine and The New Republic, and helped to launch the now-defunct Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Email her at kara@jewishboston.com.