Monday, May 02, 2022

Reinforcing Insularity with Toys and Books

Dainy Bernstein (Times of Israel)
It’s hard to tell from the Times of Israel article whether Dainy Bernstein is still observant. (I hope she is.) But she has certainly left the Charedi world in which she was raised - as noted in the article. (I think it makes a difference with respect to the kind of bias she brings to expressing her views. Be that as it may, I will proceed.)

Bernstein was raised in the more extreme end of the Charedi world. One of the things that stood out for me was Bernstein’s description of the requirements for admission to the Beis Yaakov she attended. 

“I had to sign a list of things, saying that ‘I will not go to the public library. We do not have a TV in the house. There is no internet in the house except if you have permission from a rabbi for your work. You will not go ice skating. You will not go to visit Florida on midwinter vacation.’”

Those rules reinforce their insularity. Insularity that in turn also reinforces the negative stereotype of the non Jew they are indoctrinated with.

By contrast I raised my family with the exact opposite approach. All  of the things she was forbidden to have or do on that list, my family had and did. I sent my children to schools that did not have any such rules. I cannot imagine living a life with so many restrictions designed to completely avoid the outside world. The notion that anything on the outside is immoral and anti Torah is a fallacy of their own making.  

But Bernstein was a bit of a rebeI: 

“I was as far as anyone could tell a model Bais Yaakov student,” said Bernstein, who nonetheless dove stealthily into books and even movies no Haredi parent could ever allow. 

Was this the beginning of her way out (if she is indeed out)? No clue. But whether she is still observant or not, I share her criticism.

The article discusses Artifacts of Orthodox Childhoods, a book Bernstein edited consisting of a variety of contributors sharing their ‘personal and critical essays’ of that world. The point of the book is that the Charedi world creates their own toys and books for their youth so as to avoid the original non Charedi versions of them which they see as inappropriate.

Is that a good thing?  

Yes, there are books and toys that are indeed inappropriate for children to read or play with.  But there is also a lot that are perfectly fine - even if they are not particularly Charedi or even Jewish. It is up to the parent to know what  is and is not appropriate for their child and what to allow and not allow into their home. 

On the other hand I find it disturbing that their quest to for insularity ends up with a view of the world where only Charedim exist. And when there is a portrayal of a non Jew, it is often very unflattering.

That perpetuates the false stereotype of the non Jews as immoral or criminal. When the truth is that there are plenty Jews like that too. And the fact is that most non Jews are not immoral and not criminal.

Another problem for me with these kinds of toys and books is that - in some cases - they impart values that harmful to Orthodox Jews. In their attempt to counter the immorality they see in the outside world they have gone the other way in theirs. The worst example of which is the erasure of women from the public eye in every way they can. 

Some children's books have eliminated mothers from the Shabbos table. I will never forget an illustration like that I saw in one very popular Charedi book. There was n illustration of a  father and a son at a Shabbos table. That was it.  There was not a single picture of a Charedi mother or sister in any other part of that book! Books like these impart a false image of what a Shabbos table is supposed to look like! 

The problem with this is that exposure to the outside is inevitable. And once encountered they will see  a contradiction to the way they were educated about it.

The truth is that there is a lot of the outside world that the Charedi world that filters into it. Some of it overtly and some of it subliminally - even as they reject it: 

“This is a community that is not separate from non-Jewish America or from American politics,” Bernstein said. “They actively participate in American culture and American politics, for all their protestations to the contrary. If you actually look at the books, they are influenced by trends in American publishing.” 

When for example it comes to children books - it is difficult to sort out which books are acceptable and which will have a negative impact: 

(As contributor Meira) Levinson explains in her essay on the “Devora Doresh” books, (gently) subversive messages can slip past the gatekeepers. Created by Carol Korb Hubner, the books “feature an Orthodox Jewish girl having adventures of the kind that were otherwise normally limited either to Orthodox Jewish boys or non-Jewish girls.”

The way they end up judging a book, says Bernstein, is by the intent of its author. But I have no clue  how they can really know that.

I am not pleased at all by this trend. In my view it would be far better to go back to a time where (along with parental responsibility) toys and books reflected the real world. You know... the world in which they will someday have to live. A world they will be thoroughly unprepared for if even their toys and books don’t reflect it.